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Diving into social-emotional learning

Editor’s note: ‘How Schools Work’ is a column explaining the day-to-day workings of public schools. Our writer is Carol Lautenbach, a veteran educator and School News Network contributor.

All districts — I hated to go underwater when I was a kid. I wasn’t the most proficient swimmer, but I could make my way across a pool without panicking. But venturing under the surface? Just the thought of it made my legs conveniently cramp up, ensuring me a seat on the side of the pool. 

View of the deep and clear waters of the Golens’ pool (courtesy)

When I was young, talk about emotions was like waiting on the side of the pool – you didn’t go much below the surface. Emotion wasn’t something we talked about in any real sense. 

Times have changed. As I was beginning to write this column, a social media post from my friend Lisa Hofman came across my screen. She shared a story about managing emotions from her own experience as a parent, contrasting that with how she’d been raised. 

“(My husband and I) were raised in a society with the ‘rub dirt on it’ if it hurts and ‘man up’ or ‘that’s not worth crying over’ and ‘don’t be a baby’ mentalities.” Swimming on the surface of emotions was typical. 

‘What Do You Need?’

The rest of Hofman’s post was about her son’s response to a difficult moment she, herself, was having. While she doesn’t recall the specifics, she clearly remembers 9-year-old William’s response: 

“Hey Mom, do you want a hug or some space?” 

When she replied, “I think some space right now, sweetie. I really appreciate your asking,” William said “OK” and went back to what he had been doing. 

This interaction displays the skill William is learning about handling emotions in helpful ways. Hofman credits William’s schools for developing his emotional intelligence through formal social-emotional learning (SEL). 

Home-school-life Connection

In his earliest days in school at Grand Rapids Child Discovery Center, she says that his teachers helped students and families understand emotions by modeling and coaching. And now, at Ada Vista Elementary School, she says that this continues through “social-emotional approaches….which normalize noticing and honoring other people’s emotions.” 

‘I want parents to feel connected and know what we are doing.’

— Nicole McCarthy, counselor and SEL teacher at Ada Vista

Videos, role-playing, and discussion are part of the lessons Ada Vista students experience, helping them build problem-solving skills, explains Nicole McCarthy, the school counselor who leads these lessons.

Students also write about their learning. For example, they may describe some of the ways they show emotion through their actions and words. Other times they might draw. McCarthy sends material about each lesson home. 

“I want parents to feel connected and know what we are doing,” she said. She emphasizes that common language at school and at home can help students gain confidence in using what they’ve learned. 

‘Bug and wish’ Strategy Helps Solve Problems 

When William talks about SEL, he mentions it helps him solve problems by understanding himself and others better. He appreciates how SEL helps in school-specific ways, like recess issues. “(McCarthy) helps us before problems start so we can play and have fun without arguing all the time.” 

A playground strategy he uses is called “bug and wish.” If someone interferes with the football game he is playing with friends at recess, he might say something like: “It bugs me when you interrupt our game; I wish you would please stop.” 

And he’s found the strategies helpful outside of school, too. The third-grader said when he gets mad, he tries to calm himself by taking some space or by walking away and playing with someone else. 

It turns out that this below-the-surface learning about emotions is enjoyable, too. “It is super-duper fun,” William says, “There is nothing I don’t like about it. It makes school better.” 

Valuable Skills for Students, Society

William’s mother, a teacher at Lee High School in Wyoming, said she thinks there is a need for both programming and skill-building opportunities for students and for more school staff with specialized training, like social workers. “As a culture, we desperately need more help in this area,” Hofman notes, pointing out headline-grabbing incidents like road rage, political name-calling and shootings as evidence. 

“Without programming in the schools, students who have experienced trauma and instability may spend their lives being controlled by their emotions — instead of effectively managing them — and they may continue this cycle with their children.” 

‘(SEL) is super-duper fun. There is nothing I don’t like about it. It makes school better.’

— William Huntington, third-grader at Ada Vista

The kind of skills students learn in these programs are also valued in the workplace. According to Timothy Dohrer, director of teacher leadership at Northwestern University, quoted in an EdWeek MarketBrief column: “If you asked 100 CEOs what skills they want in a new hire, the top five skills are going to be about social-emotional learning — not algebra.”   

He explains in a Northwestern University blog post that the real reason to teach skills like self-management, relationship-building, and decision-making is because they are all-purpose skills for college, career and life. Dohrer said, “These are the building blocks upon which all other learning rests!”

What is SEL and What Isn’t It?

An Edutopia post about social-emotional learning, as we know it today, traces its roots to two Connecticut schools in the late 1960s struggling to find student success. A team including teachers, parents, the principal, and mental health worker examined the school’s programs and procedures to look for contributing factors. “The team made decisions on issues ranging from the schools’ academic and social programs to how to change school procedures that seemed to be engendering behavior problems.”

Their work paid off, according to the Edutopia post. “By the early 1980s, academic performance at the two schools exceeded the national average, and truancy and behavior problems had declined….”

While programs like the one Hofman and her son described take place in many schools across the country, some people have raised questions or concerns about what this recent emphasis on SEL is all about.

So what is SEL – and what isn’t it? According to the EdWeek MarketBrief column:  

Setting and achieving goalsDiscussing social issues outside of students’ lives and experiences
Getting to know classmates and yourselfTeaching rigid and static definitions of emotions and feelings
Being active and moving while learningTeaching how anyone should feel or should not feel

Swimming in the SEL Pool

Chelsea Kittridge-Farrell is a mental wellness consultant at Kent ISD. She said that SEL trends in our area include training teachers and implementing programs. There is a wide variety in how schools provide this learning. Districts may offer training like Youth Mental Health First Aid, implement a school-wide program such as Capturing Kids’ Hearts, or adopt a classroom curriculum like Second Step. They may provide student support such as grief groups, and some may partner with community organizations like the Dispute Resolution Center of West Michigan or Arbor Circle

At Ada Vista, for example, McCarthy teaches SEL lessons to students in grades K-4. The curriculum was developed by district counselors with assistance from teachers to help inform the content. Five concepts form the core: Understanding emotions, regulating emotions, being a friend, resolving conflict and solving problems, and safety. 

When parents register students for school at Ada Vista, they get information about what is taught in SEL classes. They are asked to sign a permission slip, just like for other school opportunities, such as friendship groups. 

Taking a Deep Dive with Confidence

As I mentioned earlier, I never felt confident underwater — with one exception. My lifelong friend Carol (Golen) Jessop had a backyard pool I could see from my bedroom window. Some afternoons we would cool off there, where she swam around confidently while I mostly clung to the side. Her dad joined us after work sometimes, and I’d venture a little further out in the pool when we tossed a beach ball or splashed each other.  

One afternoon, Carol made up a new game. She jumped on her dad’s back and he swam around with her clinging to his neck, until she said “dive!” Under the water they would go, both laughing as they surfaced. 

At 98, Leonard still has strong shoulders to lean on (courtesy)

“Want to try it?” her dad asked me. Mustering all my courage, I climbed aboard, held my breath and went under, supported and encouraged by a confident swimmer. We, too, laughed as we surfaced. This past summer, I recounted this story to him at his 98th birthday party. We laughed together again, almost 60 years later, remembering those wonderful backyard days. 

We all need support and encouragement like that. The skill-building in an SEL program is one way to help students and families make their way through the rough waters of life’s inevitable conflicts.

And maybe SEL can also contribute to a society where we understand each other better before problems start “so we can play and have fun without arguing all the time,” as William observed. 

Now that’s an ideal worth diving into. 

What Can Families Do?

  • Ask: Find out about what SEL looks like in your child’s school including who is teaching it, what program is being used, and how your child is responding to the lessons. If you have questions, ask your child’s teacher or administrator. 
  • Do: For young learners, Hofman recommends viewing Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood together to help you talk with your child at home about social and emotional development. 
  • Read: EdWeek’s What SEL Is — and What It Is Not is a helpful resource for families and educators.

What Do You Want to Know about Schools? 
School News Network values and desires your input. What do you wonder about how schools work? What questions do you have about the world of education? I’ll review your ideas and hope to address many of them in a future column. Please email me at carollautenbach@snnkent.org

Read more about social-emotional learning: 
School develops system to address socio-emotional challenges
Learning opportunities for student social-emotional and mental-health support
How big an issue is mental health at your school?

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Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach
Carol Lautenbach is a reporter and columnist for School News Network. She has been a writer since second grade when her semi-autobiographical story, "The Magic Pencil," earned her a shiny Kennedy half-dollar in a metro-Detroit contest. For three wonderful decades, Carol served Godfrey-Lee Public Schools in a variety of teaching and administrative roles. In her current work as a consultant and at SNN, she continues to be part of telling the story of the great promise of public education. Carol has also written for The Alan Review, The Rapidian and Midwest Living, and is co-author of the book, “Making Schools Work: Bringing the Science of Learning to Joyful Classroom Practice.” She loves to not cook, and she keeps her bag packed for art, outdoor and writing adventures.


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