EdCuration Blog: Learning in Action

Talking to Students about Social Emotional Learning

Apr 6, 2021 5:43:41 PM / by EdCuration Staff Writer

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In the last ten years, we’ve seen Social Emotional Learning (SEL) progress from an abstract concept in education to a central talking point within virtually every U.S. school. School-based SEL initiatives facilitate the explicit discovery, understanding, and self-management of emotions- and offer opportunities to practice these skills through goal-setting, choice-making, and constructive interaction.  Research links Social-Emotional literacy to improved student behaviors, enhanced cognitive functioning, and academic gain.  The bottom line: SEL-proficient students are better learners.

The Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is widely viewed as a pioneering authority on SEL advancement.  CASEL identifies five critical competencies for Social-Emotional Learning:

  • Self-Awareness: An ability to reconcile with and ground down into the various aspects of one’s identity. 
  • Self-Management: The combined capacities of goal-setting, self-motivation, self-discipline, and self-regulation.  
  • Responsible Decision Making: The ability to recognize and analyze situational elements and to adjust choices and behaviors accordingly.  
  • Relationship Skills: The capacity to establish, maintain, and repair prosocial relationships with diverse groups of people.
  • Social Awareness: The ability to see the world through multiple lenses, practice empathy, and ask for help when needed. 

How Can We Talk to Kids About SEL?

Before launching directly into SEL strategies, it’s important to lay the groundwork and get students on board with growing their own social emotional literacy.  Here’s a look at how to get started:

  • Start with a safe space.

Purposeful SEL work begins with a safe foundation. Students can’t learn when they don’t feel safe.  We can say that the same applies to social-emotional learning.  

SEL requires elements of self-discovery and intersocial vulnerability, both of which require emotional safety.  When students feel that they are in a protected space with trusted groups of adults and peers, they are more likely to be open to the the process of social-emotional growth.

One of the simplest ways we can foster safety is through established routines and predictability. When these elements are in place, students know what to expect and what is expected of them.  They are better able to anticipate change and ask for help. Entered from within a culture of trust and safety, our conversations (and later work) around SEL are likely to be better received and produce more promising growth outcomes.

  • Engage in direct nuts-and-bolts conversations.

Generally speaking, children are curious about how things work.  The human brain and the body’s emotional “wiring” are no exception.  Learners typically respond well to straightforward explanations of how these internalized systems work.  Empowered with this knowledge, they are also more likely to assume a sense of ownership over their outcomes. “If we want to empower students, we must show them how they can control their own cognitive and emotional health and their own learning,” explains EL Magazine author Judy Willis. “Teaching students how the brain operates is a huge step.” 

We can use simple tools to teach students of all ages about the brain, including the amygdala and hippocampus regions where fight-flight-freeze-submit responses are activated.   For example, visuals (such as Dr. Dan Seigal’s widely used hand model of the brain) can be implemented across virtually all grade and language learning levels.   Developing an understanding of one’s own brain can: encourage metacognition (thinking about thinking), decrease self-judgment (by recognizing our brain’s protection mechanisms), and increase self-regulation.

  • Explore emotions in context-relevant ways

We can be equally as direct when talking about emotions. As educators, we encourage students to “use their words” to express what they are feeling.  But the truth is that not all students have the right tool sets to be able to do this- yet. Social worker Yanique Chambers clarifies: “It can be difficult for children to say what they are feeling because many times they don’t know what to name the feeling they are experiencing.”  

How do we talk frankly about emotions? Read alouds and debriefing activities can effectively open these types of conversations. Similarly, games are a great way to teach and talk about emotions. This can be accomplished through in-person games, like Slow Motion Emotion or Emotion Party, or through gamification, such as that offered through Carousels’s SEL and character development platform. Finally, we can also encourage students to use “I statements” as they move through the learning day (I feel _____________ when ______________.)

These two pieces of understanding- how the brain works and what emotion plays a role in our lives- create a foundation for SEL.  From this space, we can open conversations about how to grow social and emotional literacy. 

  • Create viable on-ramps

Now, students have a better understanding of how their brains work. They also have a working language to be able to name and describe the emotions they are feeling. And they are able to talk about exploring these ideas in a safe and predictable setting. It’s time to begin explicitly teaching SEL skills and providing students with plenty of opportunities to practice them.

Carousel’s Social Emotional Learning platform provides schools- and students- with sustainable on-ramps to SEL programming. Carousel’s mobile platform engages youth in daily, fun, gamified activities that promote social-emotional well-being. Meanwhile, the built-in admin portal oversees all activities, tracks productivity, and tells your schools SEL engagement story in real time.  For a limited time, you can join a pilot of Carousel’s App, but don’t wait!

Social and emotional learning took some time to take root in schools.  But one thing seems apparent: The movement is only gaining momentum- and our students are reaping benefits that promise far-reaching impact. 


Topics: SEL

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