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Learning is social and emotional: Recognize these dimensions.

As TrustED continues its month-long look at customer experience in schools, we examine the effect that strong relationships among students, parents, teachers, and staff can have on student and school success.

We have come to understand that each interaction an adult has with a child at school has the potential to build, or damage, that child’s social and emotional development.

Children and adolescents look to their peers and the adults around them as they develop their sense of self. They observe the interactions humans have with each other and develop their ways of being with others. We are not discounting inherited genetic pre-dispositions, but rather acknowledging that the environment plays a major role in human development.  If you doubt the impact that human interaction has on a child’s sense of well-being, take a few minutes to view the “still face” experiment.

A recent school visit illustrates just how important a social and emotional approach is to student progress and success.

The wrong approach

We were recently invited to visit a school to learn about their programs. There were probably 50 or so visitors on the day we observed classrooms. One of our scheduled stops was to a fourth grade class in which the teacher was teaching mathematics.

The lesson seemed to be moving along nicely, when the white male teacher called on a student seemingly at random. The black student, fumbling with his papers, was unable to answer the question. The teacher stopped the class and said, in front of everyone, “Why are you here? You’re wasting our time. Not being ready is rude to your classmates and prevents them from learning. Are you even listening? And don’t you dare cry. If you are going to cry, leave this room. We don’t want to see your ugly cry face in here.”

In the debrief with the visitors, the teacher said that he believed that teachers need to be clear with expectations and hold students accountable. He told us that adults cannot be soft and that students needed discipline. The majority of visitors agreed and said that they needed to be more direct with students.

We strongly disagree with the approach of this teacher. To our thinking, his actions reinforced his position of power and he did not allow the student an opportunity to regulate his behavior, identify emotions, or reflect on his habits. In addition, the teacher humiliated the student in front of his peers, reducing his overall agency.

This was not the only occurrence of this type of treatment of students at this school on the day we were there. The school was proud of its “rigorous and demanding academic climate.” Yet we saw students act in fear and wondered about their overall social and emotional development, even if their academic progress suggested that the school was “successful.” Sacrificing a child’s social and emotional learning, while focusing only on academic measures, is shortsighted. To paraphrase Frederick Douglass, “it is easier to build strong children than repair broken men and women.”

Recent research on social and emotional learning indicates that teachers should consider five components as they plan lessons and engage with students, including:

  1. Identity and agency. Agency is a person’s belief in their own ability to influence the world around them. Agency is developed when students are provided experiences and opportunities to reflect on those experiences. Agency both influences and is influenced by an individual’s identity. Over time, students develop a mindset that they are learners who strive and persevere through challenges.
  2. Emotional regulation. Emotions are part of being human and young people need to learn that some emotions negatively affect them and others. Emotional self-regulation requires the habits of self-checking and moderating responses. Students learn how to manage their behavior by accurately identifying their emotions, engaging in impulse control, and developing coping skills.
  3. Cognitive regulation. Learning is not about pouring information into empty brains, but rather helping students learn to regulate their own learning. Students learn to think about their thinking (metacognition), focus their attention, set and monitor goals, recognize and resolve problems, make decisions, and develop their organizational skills.
  4. Social skills and relationships. Children and adolescents build and develop relationships by learning what it means to be a friend and a classmate. They learn how to work collaboratively with others, share, and list. In addition, students learn to repair harm they cause to others.
  5. Public spirit. Public spirit involves the development of students’ character, their respect for others, ethical responsibilities, a sense of justice, perseverance in the face of injustice, and leadership. Students need experiences that foster their sense of the public good and their role in maintaining our democracy.

The SEL approach

Let’s now reimagine the classroom in which the student was not prepared to answer the question his teacher asked. Taking a social and emotional lens, how might that experience change?

The fact is that the student was not ready. What we don’t know is why.

Perhaps the teacher needed to ask the students to individually or collaboratively solve the problem while he walked over to the student who could not answer, in order to investigate. At this point, there could have been a private conversation about responsibility, goals for behavior and learning, as well as an opportunity for the student to explain what happened to his peers, depending on the reason he was not ready. To our thinking, this would have been a much more robust social learning experience for this young man.

Of course, the fourth grade situation was not planned. Still, it was a missed opportunity to develop social and emotional skills of students. As teachers, we can plan social and emotional learning as well. In fact, the texts teachers select for students send powerful messages about the values and behaviors of others. Unfortunately, some teachers focus on reading comprehension alone, and not the social and emotional learning that can occur alongside the academic goals.

A sixth grade class was reading the book Wonder (Palacio, 2012) and the teacher regularly asked students about the emotional state of various characters in the book. The obvious conversation is about Auggie (the main character), but the teacher also asked her students to consider the emotions of his parents, the teacher, classmates, and so on. This simple addition allowed students to consider the emotional lives of others and to learn to name emotions and the behaviors associated with those emotions.

Later, when two boys had an altercation about using supplies, their teacher did not just settle the dispute for them. Instead, she noted the problem, namely that two people wanted the same materials at the same time.  She said, “When this happens, it can be a struggle and can harm friendships. Can the two of you talk about options, besides a power struggle, when two people want the same supply at the same time? And can you reach an agreement about what to do next?”

The boys negotiated and came to an agreement. Their agreement is not that important (they decided to play rock-paper-scissors to see who went first and then used a timer to allow the other to use it) but, rather, that they learned a social skill in the process. Rather than have an adult tell them how to solve the problem, they engaged in learning that they might be able to apply when this situation occurs again.

We could go on, but suffice it to say that social and emotional learning is always occurring in the classroom. Rather than letting it happen by chance, we believe that teachers should be consciously aware of the opportunities to develop students’ thinking in these areas and that they should plan lessons that intentionally and purposefully develop these skills with their students.

About the authors

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are both professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and the authors of several books, including All Learning is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond (ASCD, 2019). Co-author Dominique Smith is the director of student services at Health Sciences High & Middle College. Frey, Fisher and Smith are also the authors of Building Equity: Policies and Practices to Empower All Learners (ASCD, 2017) and Better than Carrots or Sticks: Restorative Practices for Positive Classroom Management (ASCD, 2015).