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Social Emotional Learning: Whose Job is it Anyway?

Recently, while visiting with an Irish friend, I recounted the story of a boy in my son’s class in France.  I told of how this child had been relentlessly bullied by his peers, perhaps even emboldened by their teacher who often singled him out (negatively) in class, until he no longer wanted to go to school. He was in Kindergarten.  In our ensuing  conversation about the differences between schools here and in Europe where she grew up, I said that I wished more attention had been paid to the children’s social and emotional development in their French school.  Suddenly, a wry little smirk spread across my friend’s face and she responded tartly, “Not me—that’s my job!  The teacher is meant to handle the academics.”

So, which is it?  As parents, many of us may be asking the same question about social emotional learning, or SEL.  I eagerly anticipated the SEL Workshop lead by Kate Lussen to learn exactly how ISTP was integrating SEL into the curriculum.  Was it going to be a bunch of touchy-feely mumbo jumbo or would it hold promise?

Upon arrival, Kate handed each workshop participant a straight metal wire approximately 18 inches long.  She then asked us to think about our day, week, month or year and shape the wire to represent how we felt about the time period we selected.  As I glanced around the room, there were many wires that resembled the Dow Jones Industrial Average. But, there was also a knot, a heart and a question mark, among others.  We were then asked to share our creation with our neighbor and, finally, to reflect upon the experience.  In just a few minutes, we were able to check-in with ourselves, our neighbors, make connections, and empathize.  This quick check-in is an example of one of the many tools available to teachers in their SEL toolbox, helping to identify the language of emotions—moving beyond mad, sad, and glad to enthusiastic, proud, anxious, intimidated, appreciative, frustrated, confused or excited.  What impressed me the most about the SEL curriculum selected by ISTP is that is it builds a common vocabulary across languages and cultures, can be naturally infused into the curriculum, and can be adapted to be developmentally appropriate.

As Kate explained, “SEL is about teaching life skills that allow students to be successful learners.”  Thus, SEL is about teaching the whole child.  By developing children’s emotional aptitude—the ability to manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, and avoid negative behavior—in concert with their academic aptitude, the whole community is strengthened.  In fact, research has shown that schools with an SEL program have a more positive school environment overall in terms of student behavior, relationships among students, greater ownership and investment in education and overall teacher and student well-being.

So, which is it—the parent’s job or the school’s?  From my perspective, it is a job we share.  As parents, we can support ISTP’s goals by encouraging a safe environment for expressing and managing feelings—ours and our children’s, by putting down our smartphones (speaking for myself) and listening actively to our children, giving logical consequences, eliminating bribes and threats, and enriching self-esteem by acknowledging, appreciating and encouraging effort and improvement.  We will, as parents, teachers and as a community, continue to have our ups and downs.  We may sometimes wind ourselves up in knots.  But, it is my hope that along the way, we embrace the tools we have, ask our questions and move forward with an open heart.

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