One of my favorite shows, when I was a kid, was Little House on the Prairie. The people of Walnut Grove knew each other; they did life together. If one of the students didn’t make it to the schoolhouse on time, Mr. Ingalls at the mill or Mrs. Olson at the general store were sure to encounter the meandering straggler. With a heartfelt conversation, the town fathers and mothers got him or her back on the right path.
As a fan of historical fiction, I think about this show a lot, not only for the storylines but the cultural representation. Although these early pioneers did not have our modern conveniences, such as cars, washing machines, department stores or fast food, they did have things that we lack. One of those things was the town center, a common intersection for anyone and everyone living in or traveling through their farming community. Seeing each other on a daily basis, everybody knew each other’s names.
Living in the booming city of Nashville, my children and I do not usually have the privilege of seeing their fellow classmates or teachers outside of school time. It is not uncommon for students to be bussed great distances to the schools of their choice, rather than attending schools in their neighborhoods. Teachers often live far from where they teach, not always because of a lack of desire but because of a shortage of affordable housing. To be honest, we do not even usually see our neighbors who live next door to us every day. Life is just too busy.
Despite this societal disconnectedness, there is one place that students and families go almost on a daily basis: school. In many ways, our schools have become the town centers of old. Therefore, we educators must take full advantage of this incredible opportunity and attend to the needs of the whole child.
What are the reasons SEL is important to have in every classroom?
Not only are schools the common meeting place, but students also spend more waking hours with the adults and children at their school than with their own families. Additionally, in our world of uncertainty, more and more students are coming to class hungry, tired or distressed. As caring adults, we must put children first, providing for their physical, social, emotional and academic needs. When children walk into our classrooms, they need to feel like they belong…they are seen, known and valued.
How can teachers set a positive example of SEL so students can follow?
As teachers, we are role models. Our students are learning from our attitudes, words and actions. We do not have to be perfect, but we do need to be authentic. When we are having a bad day, we can let our students know that we have a lot on our minds. They don’t need to know all the details. However, we can let them know that even adults have tough days. When we make a mistake, we can own it. Taking responsibility and asking forgiveness teaches powerful lessons about conflict resolution and relationship management. Above all, we must keep it real.
What must teachers say and do to gain students’ buy-in for SEL initiatives?
We do not need to begin the discussion with “Today we are going to talk about SEL…”. Instead, we need to integrate SEL with our teaching practice seamlessly. In order to gain student buy-in for SEL initiatives, we must be natural, intentional, and practical. Kids are smart; they see right through our pretenses. More than fancy technology or fear-based expectations, what engages kids most is an adult who truly cares. We must cultivate natural heart connections with our students. Intentional conversations and activities about issues that matter resonate. Stories from literature and Social Studies can be jumping off points for a deeper look at everyday problems and practical solutions for self, friends, family and community – both local and global.
Three things every teacher should understand about SEL:
1.) What SEL is:
According to CASEL, SEL is the process of acquiring and applying the knowledge, attitudes, and skills to:
- Understand and manage emotions.
- Set and achieve positive goals.
- Feel and show empathy for others.
- Establish and maintain positive relationships.
- Make responsible decisions.
In other words, SEL helps us identify what is going on in our heads and our hearts so we can use our hands to build up, not tear down.
2.) How we teach SEL:
SEL is taught both through content and process. Content includes common language as well as engaging, meaningful and culturally-relevant source material. Process is instructional teaching practices, such as classroom conversations, cooperative learning, problem-based learning, reflection, and service learning.
3.) The goal of SEL:
The goal of SEL is to equip students for life both in and out of school, now and in the future. As James P. Comer says, “While most of today's jobs do not require great intelligence, they do require greater frustration tolerance, personal discipline, organization, management, and interpersonal skills than were required two decades and more ago. These are precisely the skills that many of the young people who are staying in school today, as opposed to two decades ago, lack.”