Over the past three decades educators have become increasingly aware of the importance of enhancing students’ social, and emotional skills. There is growing realization that schools – and their curriculum, should not merely be preparing students for tests and exams; they should be preparing students for life. In 1968, child psychiatrist James Comer developed the Comer School Development Program (SDP), with the aim of improving not just the academic performance amongst the lowest-performing elementary school students in New Haven, Connecticut. The success of the program led to further interest and the eventual formation of a group of educators advocating inclusive, safe, and effective learning environments that not only enhanced academic performance, but also student behaviour and adjustment to learning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was formed in 1994, and both the SDP program and CASEL have helped positively shaped curriculum and learning environments around the world.
Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process of acquiring and effectively applying the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to recognize and manage emotions; developing caring and concern for others; making responsible decisions; establishing positive relationships; and handling challenging situations . Simply put, SEL is an approach to improving students’ academic and personal outcomes through by incorporating evidence-based approaches that enhance the learning ecosystem. Schools are not isolated learning environments; learning is itself a social process. Effective SEL programs acknowledge these important facts, and address learning challenges by also creating safe, conducive, and engaging environments for its students. They incorporate practical elements that allow students to better understand, and recognize emotions in themselves and others, extending them to important skills such as empathy, teamwork, and conflict resolution. SEL also involves both teachers and parents, both influential in providing the necessary scaffolding for student on their educational journey.
Are such initiatives and programs effective? One study summarizes the results of SEL’s effects on more than 200 schools, sampling more than 270,000 students from preschool to high school. SEL was found to increase academic performance by as much as an 11-point percentage, increase student engagement and involvement in school, while also lowering instances of problematic behaviours such as absenteeism and bullying. The study also found that SEL was effective in enhancing students’ mental health, reducing instances of aggression, depression and anxiety. This is just one of the many studies that have been conducted since, showing the benefits and advantages of introducing SEL elements from the onset of a child’s education.
If you are working with young learners, why not incorporate elements of SEL into your teaching and learning approaches? SEL approaches work most effectively if the practice is sustained over a long period of time, but you can start with these simple steps:
Create a safe, holistic environment for learning. Children learn best in environments that are encouraging, supportive, and safe. Allow young learners to be curious, to play and explore without fear of judgment or mistakes. Involving learners by listening to them, and being receptive of their ideas is another way to create this safe, learning-friendly environment.
Infuse SEL elements across subjects. SEL principles (understanding others’ emotions and gestures; regulating emotions) can be incorporated across different subjects. For instance, you might consider asking students to empathize with the emotions experienced by characters in a story, and then asking them if they too, have felt similar emotions before. Ask them then, how they would act, if they were a character in the story.
Involve parents in the process. Parents play an important role in helping encourage and support their children’s interests and growth. Praising children’s efforts and supporting their interests from a young age can sow the seeds for lifelong learning. Indeed, involving the school and family in the SEL program can better help reduce risk factors for psychopathology (aggression, depression, anxiety) in students, than if the program involved the student alone .
We also asked Developmental Psychologist Sybella Ng for her thoughts and insights into SEL.
Can you suggest some ideas or activities that have been useful in helping young children enhance their ability to recognize, and manage their emotions?
There are a number of ways to nurture social and emotional skills that are appropriate for young children, which include:
Using puppets or toys to help verbalize and process feelings. This activity can be conducted once or twice a week by incorporating lessons and/or stories on fictional characters that children can relate to. The use of toys or puppets can give children a sense of reality to help children understand how to navigate sticky social situations.
Use an idea from the “RULER” (Recognize-Understand-Label-Express-Regulate) approach. Developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, this approach introduces children to ways to be more aware of their emotions. For instance, this simple activity can be used to accomplish this goal. Children are given a square which is divided into four quadrants, with each quadrant representing mood and energy levels. The upper right quadrant is yellow, to describe someone who is feeling “sunny”, in a good mood and having high energy levels. The lower right quadrant is green, which represents someone who is tranquil, calm and experiencing a low energy level. The lower left quadrant is coloured blue which can be used to signify sadness, disappointment, and shame. This quadrant also indicates low energy levels. Finally, the upper left quadrant, coloured red, is easily related to anger, frustration, and irritability – all also characteristic of high energy levels. This mood meter can be useful in helping children to identify their emotions more specifically in order to manage or cope with the situation more effectively.
Practice conflict resolution skills by using dialogues and role-plays. Dialogues and role-plays are excellent ways to help children apply social-emotional skills in complex and challenging social situations. By providing children with choices and options on solving problems, they learn to respond appropriately through essential skills such as negotiation and communication, both of which are vital in establishing and maintaining relationships.
Outside of school, what can parents do to encourage and enhance their child’s social and emotional skills?
A trusting relationship via open communication is vital in all aspects of the parent-child relationship. Parents can use some of these tips to nurture SEL skills outside of school:
Model and coach good habits. Children absorb most of what they observe in their environment; hence if children see their parents throwing trash out of their car, they are likely to model such behaviours and follow suit. Parents can be exemplary, and be mindful that when they respond to challenging social situations, they are also modelling appropriate behaviours they wish to see in their own children.
Use positive discipline strategies. By setting rules and expectations that are reasonable, children develop a sense of predictability and security, allowing parents to openly communicate and discuss consequences of behaviors with them. Ultimately, this promotes empathy, perspective-taking and pro-social behaviors.
Being a cheerleader instead of a dictator. There are times when the child’s best interest is overshadowed by their parents’ own desires. It is important to recognize that the child has his or her own unique interests which may not always be aligned with parents’ expectations or desires. Of course, there is no harm in immersing the child in various hobbies, sports and activities, but when the child communicates his or her interest in a particular area, parents can do their best to be supportive, setting goals together with the child in an area or interest that the child is passionate about.
How might SEL change with the increasing use of technology? Will technology be a help, or hindrance to the development of young learners’ social and emotional skills?
With recent technological advances, SEL can be integrated with educational tools online as well as mobile applications. Incorporating SEL elements to online educational activities can increase student engagement and is accessible to a diverse range of learners. The approach also links children, their parents and teachers with the necessary content, support, and resources for holistic development. However, in spite of the benefits, there are also consequences – most notably increased screen time. Students would not fully experience in-person communication which can be at a disadvantage for maintaining positive relationships with others. As such, balance is key – technologies can certainly facilitate SEL, but they are not substitutes or replacements for face-to-face interactions.