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Social-emotional learning and academics: One coin, two sides

By April 18, 2022 No Comments

Part 1 of a four-part series on how SEL and great academics support each other

Last summer, when Pete and our colleague Tonia Gibson visited Liberty Union High School District in Brentwood, California, the changes from the old normal were impossible to miss:

Student achievement was down.

Student behavior issues were up.

Teacher stress was way, way up.

Teacher comforting student

And this was despite the fact that leaders in the five-campus district had, wisely, eased up on such external motivators as high-stakes testing. The teachers were being tough on themselves because they profoundly felt the urgency of getting students back into healthy learning routines. The conditions that would make that possible, however, no longer existed, leading teachers into unwinnable conundrums like trying to teach two years’ content simultaneously. It was a clear reminder of the importance of social-emotional learning, and an equally clear reminder of why teachers grow wary when outside experts like us start talking about SEL: One more thing?

It’s a familiar chicken-and-egg conundrum: Educators readily agree that there are preconditions to learning relating to a sense of safety and self-worth, and if those preconditions aren’t met, learning simply can’t happen. At the same time, teachers are paid to teach, and face pressure to stay in their lane. After two years of intermittent lockdowns, quarantines, masking, and school closures, this conundrum has only intensified. Many students do not appear to be ready to learn, yet teachers are pushing themselves to act as if they are, with predictably disappointing results.

So how do educators—many of whom are, themselves, feeling burned out and in need of emotional support—move forward? Moreover, is there any way to thrive, not just survive, in this current climate?

Fortunately, there is. And we don’t need to halt all instruction to tend to students’ social-emotional needs. Nor do we steam ahead with teaching while turning a blind eye towards students’ social and emotional needs. How do we do that?

By doing what great teachers have always done: provide challenging, engaging, and intentional instruction. In short, we can help students be well, by learning well—and vice versa. That is, we can use high-leverage teaching practices to create student-centered environments that support their social-emotional learning needs.

Defining student-centered practices

To explain how, let’s start by describing what we mean by student-centered learning environments. In his work in schools and districts nationwide with Kristin Souers, a licensed mental health counselor and childhood trauma expert, Pete has discovered, over and again, that five key attributes of healthy classrooms before the pandemic grew even more essential during the pandemic, and thus can be expected to remain crucial in the years to come:

Psychology and brain research shows that if kids don’t feel safe, they’re unable to learn. Indeed, learning only occurs when students can assure themselves that they are in an environment of safety, trust, and respect.

Like all people, students are social creatures who thrive on relationships and connections with others. Decades of research, in fact, shows that when students have strong connections with their teachers and classmates, they’re more likely to succeed. Simply stated, relationships matter.

Countless studies show that students who are self-aware are more likely to overcome barriers and succeed in the classroom (and in life). By self-aware we mean attuned to their own emotions (How do I feel? Why do I feel this way?) and progress in learning (How am I doing? What doesn’t make sense to me?), as well as able to engage in positive self-talk to guide their emotions and progress.

Decades of research shows that students who understand why they are learning what they are learning, connect their own efforts to success in school and the classroom, and make personal connections to their learning, are more engaged and successful learners.

Dozens of studies find that students who feel they have some control over their learning by being given choices (even simple ones) in what to learn, how to learn, and how to demonstrate their learning, are more likely to feel intrinsically motivated to learn, to persevere through barriers, and to achieve their learning goals.

Collectively, these five attributes help to paint a compelling and straightforward picture of what a student-centered, socially-emotionally competent classroom looks like.

So, do teachers have to stop everything and construct these learning environments? Not at all. As it turns out, we can create such environments by applying practical, evidence-based teaching practices—many of which are already familiar to many teachers and likely in their current repertoire of teaching techniques. We’ll dive into them in the next installment.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International. He’s the co-author of Learning That Sticks, a columnist for Educational Leadership, and a frequent conference presenter.

Pete Hall, the executive director of Education Hall, taught preK–8 in three states, then served as a principal for 12 years in three Title I schools. He’s the author or co-author of many works on teaching and learning, including McREL’s A Teachers’ Reflective Impact Journal: Pursuing Greatness Every Day, as well as the YA novel Chasing the Show.

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About McREL.org

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.