Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Raising a "Normal" Child - Social and Emotional Learning

One day, while watching one of my son's soccer practices, I began to notice how the kids interacted with each other and their coach. If a conflict arose, there would be some words exchanged and maybe a few huffs and eye-rolls here and there. But whatever the problem was either got fixed, or it wasn't important enough to continue talking about. The ones that did require some intervention were brought up to the coach, who appeared to handle the disagreements appropriately and to everyone's satisfaction. The coach always maintained a very positive attitude and no one was ever singled out as "the problem." He was able to get everyone back on track.

So a question popped into my head: My son had difficulties getting along with other kids in his school, but he had no trouble working with his teammates in soccer, why was that?

It's been almost a year now since I first asked myself this question, but I think I may have just found my answer. I recently discovered that a nearby school district had integrated a "Social and Emotional Learning component" into its curriculum. This district made the commitment to go beyond the "common core" and address the skills that we seem to have forgotten are just as important for academic success.
Image from Wikipedia

What are Social and Emotional Skills?

Social and emotional skills are the tools we use to understand who we are and how we develop positive relationships with others. Properly developed, these skills give us the ability to manage our feelings, gain perspective and empathy of others, and appropriately handle conflicts with others. Children learn these skills at an early age through life experiences. But not all children have the same experiences, and so some social and emotional skills may need to be learned in school.

It is not good practice for educators to assume that every child entering kindergarten and first grade has a basic mastery of self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making - all core competencies of social and emotional learning. Children with siblings, for example, might practice social awareness and conflict resolution much sooner than an only child. Educators need to "fill in" these social and emotional skill gaps in order for all students to have meaningful and collaborative relationships in the classroom. If students do not have a positive and supportive learning environment in which to develop their social and emotional skills, these students may find themselves behind not only in their social skills, but their academic skills as well.

How can schools teach social and emotional skills?

Researchers at Yale University discovered strong social skills lead to higher academic achievement and increased student engagement. High emotional intelligence also reduced bullying, anxiety, and depression in students. Following what is called the RULER approach, it involves the following skills:
     Recognizing emotion
     Understanding emotion
     Labeling emotion
     Expressing emotion
     Regulating emotion

To help learn these skills, these researchers developed four anchor tools that both students and staff will use:
     Charter: Charters are documents that students and staff create together. It spells out how everyone wants to feel when they are in class, and what each person can do to support those feelings through conflict resolution and positive behaviors.
     Mood Meter:  Most schools will have a visual form of a mood meter that might have a range of faces from smiling to angry. This anchor takes the faces a step further by integrating various words to describe how a person feels. As the students get older, the words become more complex, which allows students to see how diverse feelings can be.
     Meta-Moments:  Students are taught to "take a step back" and think before reacting to a situation. This allows students to make positive and productive responses.
     Blueprint:  Researchers have developed a method to solve conflicts through the use of empathy and perspective-taking, and working together to solve the problem.

Team Fire
Going back to my son's soccer team, I believe the coach's positive teaching and supportive attitude helped all the kids on the team learn to focus on working together. He may not have done the RULER approach or used the four anchors, but he certainly taught the team to do more than play a sport.

I also believe that educators have a responsibility to teach our kids to do more than pass a test. This RULER approach will help all students become better learners and responsible citizens. Every school should build these anchors into their school curriculum. It is especially important in the elementary school years, where children are learning to work together in groups, to have a solid foundation with which to develop positive working relationships with their classmates. If students fall behind in social and emotional learning in elementary school, their ability to succeed in middle school and beyond will become even harder. If schools really do care about "preparing our children to be successful in college," then they need to go beyond math and reading scores to address the need to learn empathy and collaboration.

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