Learning Is Emotional: Why We Need to Maximize SEL in Our Schools

Embarrassed is the emotion my nine-year-old son feels every day at school. He not only struggles with reading and writing; he also struggles emotionally, which of course impacts his behavior. His teachers email me regularly about this. For example:

I wanted to let you know that Mason had a difficult time working on his alphabetical order this morning. He refused to do it and was verbally uncooperative to the adult that was trying to help him. Mason spent seven minutes with me at the start of recess and completed his work without complaining. We discussed the fact that it was not too hard, and it was something he could have finished quickly instead of dragging it out and missing recess time. He knows that when an adult is trying to help him, he needs to work and not complain.

In order for Mason to be successful academically, he needs to be able to engage emotionally in learning. Learning is emotional. It’s full of highs and lows, successes and failures, excitement and disappointment. When the social-emotional side of learning isn’t incorporated into academic learning, too many students can be left to stay stuck in the lows, failures, and disappointment. Refusing to complete a task is just one of many ways students might express their frustrations.

Educators need a suite of strategies to help students work through their varied frustrations. These strategies must be evidence based and easy to access and implemented in real time based on the needs of each student. If not, students miss out on learning. 

Thankfully, new research is expanding and improving what we know about the social-emotional learning (SEL) field. We are finally discovering ways to effectively fold SEL into academic learning. And we are very happily learning that when SEL works, it really works. Research shows that even relatively low-cost SEL tools can yield an impressive return; per one study, for every $1 invested in SEL, $11 is returned in long-term benefits in the form of:

  • Students’ potential to gain in earning power and maintain long-term employment
  • Students’ potential to generate more income tax revenue for governments
  • Reduced need for government services that result from violence, drugs, delinquency, and mental health issues
Maximizing Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Research has found that for SEL to generate its maximal benefit, it should do the following:

  1. Incorporate social-emotional skills in a specific order based on when students are developmentally ready for them. In Mason’s case, he is not ready for some skills his age-aligned peers are able to assimilate and adapt. The strategies implemented to redirect his frustrations may be much different than the strategy the teacher would try with one of his peers.
  2. Be flexible and depend on lightweight, intentional, and easy-to-apply strategies—not on a full curriculum. If teachers only have a prescribed SEL curriculum, they won’t be able to address the always changing and varied emotional needs that show up throughout a class session.
  3. Be responsive to individual student needs in real time. Building on that point, the most effective strategies are those that can be applied in real time so that they are responsive and relevant to a student’s emotions arising in a given moment. In Mason’s case, maybe the teacher could have allowed him to chunk work time into shorter stretches. Or she could have had a behavior plan in place to remind him of the expectations and potential consequences if not met. Either of these could have avoided a frustration and behavioral escalation and the default to punishment.
SEL and the Brain

It was once thought that the primitive brain (which manages the survival instinct) and the affective brain (which senses and informs the survival instinct) operated independently of the thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex). Newer neuroscience research has disproved this concept; instead, it turns out that all three parts of the brain impact and drive each other. The implication is that how people think impacts how their "feeling brain" directs their "surviving brain." At the same time, how they feel and the actions they take to survive impact how deeply they think.

In terms relevant to educators: how students feel about themselves as learners impacts their capacity to think. How well we can guide them to think deeply impacts how they feel about themselves as learners. And both of these things will drive their survival instincts—those things that spur them to make positive and productive survival decisions, like connecting with others, making healthy decisions, and generally supporting their well-being.

When built on the three research-backed features of successful SEL, SEL can optimize the interplay between all three parts of the brain. The result is two-fold:

  • SEL becomes fully integrated into academic learning through the real-time use of strategies tailored to the always changing social-emotional needs of students
  • The classroom becomes a place where students’ positive perceptions of themselves as learners are constantly nurtured, thereby literally growing their capacity to think deeply and act in service of their own wellbeing. 

But how do we achieve this level of SEL in all classrooms in a building?

Culture Trumps Strategy

At ICLE, we believe culture trumps strategy. If we are to support all teachers’ ability to integrate SEL into academic learning, then we need a culture that acknowledges the full emotional spectrum of learning. 

The schools presenting at this year’s Model Schools Conference will share how they have created a culture of SEL. They will outline steps taken to enhance relationships, rigor, and relevance through intentional social-emotional integration. They will guide you to create an environment that positively impacts how all learners feel about themselves.  

For example, Assistant Principal Kelly Boeing from Lucerne Valley Middle/High School in California will share the 20-, 60-, and 90-day plans around their multitiered system of support for their students. This systemwide approach has impacted kids who would have otherwise ended up in detentions or suspensions.

In Ferndale Public Schools, Michigan, the educators are systematically incorporating the five competencies as identified by CASEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. They will explain what they did to support all teachers through this cultural transformation.

Credit: CASEL, 2017

I’ve spoken to leaders across the country about their SEL approach, and I see a common theme. It is love and caring. In schools with strong SEL, the educators love the students; they treat them like their own. As a mother, I hope that there’s a concerted effort to engage Mason in learning so he feels excited, not embarrassed, to go to school. As an educator, I’m heartened to see that more and more schools are successfully integrating SEL into their daily practice. The result is more and more happy kids learning to persevere through cognitive dissonance in an open and safe way. May we all learn from them so all students look forward to the joy of learning.


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