The most effective educators are aware of the benefits of emotional growth and weave SEL practices into the daily fabric of their teachings.

Students’ emotional growth continues beyond classroom walls

The most effective educators are aware of the benefits of social-emotional learning and weave SEL practices throughout the daily fabric of their teachings

As the days of summer dwindle, many parents are looking at the fast-approaching new academic year with a sense of uncertainty and unease. A nationwide teacher shortage has left schools scrambling to fill critical vacancies in a matter of weeks. And tensions over mask-wearing may soon return to a fever pitch as a rise in COVID cases and hospitalizations is already leading some public school districts to announce a planned reinstatement of controversial mandates.

Last year, as educators across the country did their best to transition children back to in-person learning environments amid the ongoing COVID pandemic, school districts nationwide saw a startling uptick in reported student misbehavior, ranging from in-class tantrums to incidents of outright physical violence. An overwhelming majority of public schools also reported marked increases in disrespectful behavior towards teachers, as well as chronic absenteeism, during the 2021-22 year. 

Much of this can be interpreted as the emotional fallout from the schedule disruptions and personal losses many children experienced due to the pandemic. Prolonged social isolation and family instability during important formative years has led to increased anxiety, depression, and even suicide ideation among kids of all ages. Late last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association, declared this decline in youth mental health a national emergency.

But these disciplinary challenges, regardless of the cause, do not simply affect the offending child. Rather, they can trigger a ripple effect that threatens to distract and demoralize otherwise well-behaved students, adding to an unwieldy workload for already-exhausted teachers. 

There needs to be a focus on creating calmer, kinder interactions in the classroom that will help mitigate some of the psychological trauma kids have experienced. Teachers need a more productive alternative to punitive measures like detention and suspension when dealing with disruptive or disrespectful students. Placing a greater emphasis on children’s social-emotional learning may be the solution to creating a safer, happier educational climate for everyone.

A child’s learning environment must be about more than science and math, or reading and writing. Social-emotional learning, or SEL, teaches children to assess and manage their feelings, allowing them to foster relationships and make ethical decisions.   

Social-emotional learning’s inclusion in school programs has been a target of recent criticism among conservative politicians and pundits, which has unfortunately misrepresented what it is and how it can benefit children. At its base, the SEL framework consists of a series of socio-emotional competencies that help make up a person’s emotional quotient (EQ), or their abilities to identify and regulate emotions, control impulses, and empathize and communicate with other people. 

While myriad research has confirmed the positive correlation between SEL and academic performance, the benefits extend well beyond the classroom and a child’s formative years. These types of learned “soft” skills – things like integrity, respect, and adaptability – are sometimes referred to as “people skills” or “durable skills,” and are regularly touted by employers as highly desirable and even essential to success in many jobs and workplace environments.  

The most effective educators possess and practice these skills themselves. They are aware of the benefits of social-emotional learning and weave SEL practices throughout the daily fabric of their teachings, whether or not they do so as part of an explicit SEL curriculum. These practices enable teachers to use familiar situations to engage with children in real time and give authentic feedback that prompts them to reflect on their behavior. Proactively responding to the social and emotional needs of students has been the hallmark of a successful teacher long before there was a fancy and politically loaded term for it. 

While helpful at school and in the workplace, these skills are just as relevant at home. Parents and caregivers can play major roles in fostering children’s social-emotional development at home by creating a caring and supportive environment, modeling these skills themselves and simply having regular discussions about feelings, emotional reactions, personal relationships, goal setting and problem solving. Our parents, after all, are our first and often most influential teachers. 

Families can also seek out extracurricular programs that specifically purport to reinforce these durable skills, and are taught by staff that understands them. The type of activity – be it enrollment in a sports league, a series of classes, or a week of summer camp – is not as important as its intended purpose. These should be environments that build a child’s self-awareness, self-management, and decision-making skills. By making an active investment in their child’s emotional growth both in school and outside of it, parents will improve the likelihoods of their child’s personal and professional success and satisfaction.

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