Tag Archives: SEL

Effective SEL Practices for Educators (and Parents), Part 1

You can have a curriculum or a set of ideas in front of you and still not know where to begin when it comes to working with teens on social-emotional health and well-being. Because there isn’t an answer key, it is often intimidating to sit down with an adolescent or a room full of them and talk about hard things – things that most of us haven’t been encouraged to share. I’ve been studying Dr. Craig Elliott‘s work on social justice and racial caucusing and many of his ideas adapt well to this kind of work.

PRE-WORK – Before we start, it’s important to think about some key things that could impact how we interact with kids, especially around difficult topics.

  1. We have to examine our parenting/leadership experiences to find patterns, norms or habits we have, history or traditions we carry forward without thinking about them, and stereotypes and myths we have about teens, kids of color, gender roles, etc.
  2. It is also important to examine our relationship with leading/parenting – did we come to it with enthusiasm or not, have we internalized ideas of what it “should” or “shouldn’t” look like, are we resentful of the role itself?
  3. Next, we need to spend time thinking about our own experiences as teens – were they largely positive or negative, are there things we suffered through that we feel are “rites of passage” and we will perpetuate?
  4. And finally, be very clear on your intentions as you move forward – are you looking to help the adolescent(s) in your life come to their own conclusions or is it more important for you to impose your values and will on them, are you looking to establish your own place as an expert or do you want them to find their own expertise on themselves?

IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER – We learn best in relationship, but only if we feel safe. For teenagers, this not only means that they feel free to share their ideas and thoughts without fear of punishment, but that they feel as though they are part of the group, that they won’t be mocked or shamed for thinking out loud or expressing ideas that may not be fully formed. Belonging = survival in the adolescent brain. This means that it is incredibly important to spend more time and energy investing in community-building, especially in the beginning. Respect, safety, and accountability are all key parts of a strong relationship.

It can be incredibly intimidating to dive in, but there is no Right or Wrong answer. It is most important that we begin. We can always change course, apologize for mis-steps, and learn to do better, but we have to do the work.

Part 2 will look at qualities of effective leaders, strong groups, barriers to productive work, and expectations for leaders. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.

Can We Stop Telling Kids We Want to Teach Them to “Manage” Their Emotions?

Language is important. Most of us realize that, but from time to time we still need to examine the kinds of things we say to determine whether we’re sending a message we don’t really mean. The more we do this, the better we get at aligning our values with our actions, and often, it is the catchphrases or soundbites that get popular in a given discipline that need examining. Two examples within the SEL community are “manage emotions” and “calm.”

Both of these have the potential to send the message to students that their emotions are undesirable or misaligned to a given situation. While it is part of our job as parents and educators to help kids identify their emotions, I believe the goal of that is to help them manage their responses and, over time, work to diminish the most distressing and overwhelming thoughts and physical feelings that come with those emotions. But when we tell kids we’re going to help them “manage their emotions,” that says that we’ve decided which emotions are acceptable and desirable and which ones need corralling. Especially for students who have a history of trauma, this means that we’ve identified a certain set of feelings they experience automatically and uncontrollably and determined they ought not to be having them, or at least not with the intensity they are feeling them. That can lead to a great deal of shame and an increased sense that they don’t quite ‘fit.’ 

Likewise, when we sell SEL as a way to keep one’s classroom “calm” or to “calm” students, we are not acknowledging that many of the most intense feelings kids have lead to passion for learning. My favorite classrooms are the ones where students are having dynamic discussions, physically working through ideas, and expressing joy and wonder. None of those things falls in to the category of “calm.” And for kids who have a strong tendency to learn kinesthetically, “calm” can be devastating. Forcing these students to sit quietly and absorb information almost never works. It takes so much of their bandwidth to simply control their physical bodies that their minds are not available for learning.

To be sure, parents and educators alike are interested in functional classrooms with engaged students whose behaviors adapt to social norms – they aren’t yelling inappropriately or physically acting out against others or otherwise disrupting the educational process. But we need to express to students that what we want is for them to learn to identify their emotions without judging them, examine the knee-jerk responses they often have to those strong emotions that cause distress for themselves or others, and work to find ways to manage the response. Telling them that we want them to learn to manage their emotions indicates that there are a subset of emotions that are generally undesirable that should be tamped down, and that can often feel like gaslighting or lead to a dangerous tendency to hide certain feelings from the adults they are supposed to trust the most.

It may seem overly picky, but for the students who already feel overwhelmed by and shamed for their emotional responses, these two phrases can make things worse. Anything we as adults who care for children can do to fine-tune our language to align with our ultimate goals will be better for all of us. 

Building Adolescent Self-Worth: Recognizing Alternate Forms of Wealth

There is a great deal of emphasis placed on comparison and measuring up during the adolescent years, and if students are not coming from similar backgrounds with the same level of support, it can be hard to feel confident in your ability to add value. When we talk about diversity and equity in schools, we are often looking at the resources students and their families have in terms of economic wealth – is there enough food at home, enough money to afford extras like tutors and testing and uniforms and sporting activities, flexibility with regard to parents and caregivers to support students where and how they need it. These are vital questions, and if you’re a student who doesn’t have a great deal of financial security, it can feel as though you don’t have the same kinds of opportunities as other students who do.

Dr. Tara Yosso developed something she calls the Cultural Wealth Model as she thought about helping students who historically don’t have access to post-secondary education. It is a way for students to re-frame their thoughts about the strengths they can draw on as they apply for jobs or college and it’s a powerful acknowledgment that there are many skills and abilities that have nothing to do with money that are incredibly valuable nonetheless.

I first learned about this model last weekend when I attended a conference on social-emotional learning and equity and I believe that this has the potential to impact all students and encourage them to think about the things they may take for granted that they can instead use as assets. I’m currently designing a lesson wherein students can make their own “alternative wealth maps,” even adding other categories beyond the ones Dr. Yosso talks about. I practiced by making my own and I’ve included it below as an example. The double arrows indicate the areas that work together to amplify wealth. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this model and how you might apply it to remind adolescents that they have a lot to offer to their communities.

Why An Adolescent-Specific SEL Program?

Adolescence is a unique time in human development, not only physically but mentally. The adolescent brain is growing and changing rapidly, both “pruning” old connections and pathways to make things more efficient, and building new neural “superhighways” that will become used almost exclusively for the rest of an individual’s life. Many of us form thinking patterns and habits in our adolescent years that will either serve us well or prove hard to break as we get older. Because of this, it is very important to make sure that the way we see the world and interact with it during adolescence takes advantage of this growth and development.

Using social-emotional education techniques that encourage broad connections and integration of information can help students during adolescence. Think about the most important moments in your middle or high school education. They weren’t likely related to a particular set of data you memorized for a test (in fact, most of that information is long gone, having only been stored in your short-term memory until the quiz or test was over). The things we recall the most, that had the most impact on us, were the “a-ha” moments. They represent the times we truly understood why something worked, when we were able to make connections between two or more ideas or facts and see the patterns. Understanding patterns and formulas is not only academically rewarding because it allows us to extrapolate further and predict things, but it actually causes a release of dopamine (the “feel-good” chemical), which further imprints that concept in our minds.

Adolescence is a time of neural integration, a time when we are driven to seek connections like that and begin to have a deeper and wider knowledge of the world around us. When we can draw parallels between different subjects and use our own creative thought processes to imagine still more connections, we are rewarded by feeling good. It is this phenomenon that spurs still more independent learning and creates a passion for understanding in the adolescent student.

Adolescents are also particularly socially driven – preferring to spend time with peers more than anyone else. They seek connection almost constantly and work to identify groups of individuals with whom they feel they can “belong.” These people become the single most influential force in most teens’ lives.

A good adolescent SEL program takes advantage of both the brain development and the social drive of teens through student-led exploration of diverse ideas within a community of their peers in order to reinforce the building of neural superhighways that will make rapid integration of new material and creative problem-solving easier as they reach adulthood.