Monday, May 27, 2013

The Importance of Social Emotional Learning in Schools
by Mike Nitzel, Principal
Thomas Jefferson Elementary School
Rock Island-Milan (IL) School District 

A few minutes ago, I just finished participating in an exceptional #iledchat on Twitter on the topic of Social Emotional Learning.  As an aside, if you have not participated in an #iledchat, please consider doing so.  You can find #iledchat at 9:00 p.m. central time every Monday.  Many of the responses got me to thinking about the importance of SEL in our schools so I thought I would share some brief thoughts on the topic. 

The Necessity of SEL: Social Emotional Learning is not an add-on or "one more thing to do"; SEL should be central to what we do, equal in importance to reading, mathematics, writing, science, social studies and all of the other "stuff" we teach.  In point of fact, it should probably take on GREATER significance.  Consider Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  If you look at Maslow's "pyramid", you will see at its foundation the physiological needs--breathing, food, water, sleep--those things that are essential to life itself. Moving up the hierarchy, we next find safety needs and then the need for love and belonging.  The central thesis of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is that those needs at the bottom must be met before any of the higher needs--esteem and self-actualization--can possibly be attained.  In school vernacular, it works like this--kids can't learn if they're hungry, afraid, or don't feel a sense of belonging.  Yet, how many students do we encounter each day who do not receive the basic, foundational yet essential needs that Maslow outlines for us?  You know the answer as well as I--too many.  We might not like it or feel prepared for it, but it IS our job to provide these essential, foundational needs to many of our students.  Students CANNOT learn if they do not have access to the most basic needs necessary to sustain life or if they feel unsafe, unloved or uncared for.  I'm fond of reminding my staff that theirs may be the only loving, caring faces that some of their kids may see during the day; that the breakfast and lunch that their students eat with us each day might be the only food they see until they come back to us the following day.  If we want our kids to care about the "stuff" we teach them, we had better first care about them as people, recognize their simple most basic needs, and do "whatever it takes" to meet them.  The reading series we choose, the math practices we employ, the writing model we decide upon mean nothing if our kids don't see them as important; how important can they be to our kids if those same kids are wondering where their next meal is coming from, whether or not mom or dad will be there to look after them when they get home or what they are going to feed their younger brother or sister for supper--or whether today is the day the class bully is going to get them at recess? 

Even if you don't work in a high poverty school such as mine, your kids still have those basic needs for safety and love and belonging that must be met.  School is a tough place for kids to navigate; I think we lose sight of that sometimes.  Peer pressure, the desire to fit in, the pressures of social media, all create stressors on our students, no matter their socio-economic status.  Helping our students learn respect, responsibility, empathy and (gasp!) character are essential to give them the tools they need in order to be safe, and part of a loving, caring community.

Meeting Our Students' SEL Needs: We can help meet our students' SEL needs both explicitly and implicitly.  There are many programs out there that we can use to explicitly teach our kids how to help form productive relationships, to build community, and to help meet their safety and love and belonging needs.  PBIS, Conscious Discipline, Steps to Respect, Second Step, and The Leader in Me are a few that we use in my school district.  The concepts found in these programs can be taught in a variety of ways--teacher or counselor-led whole group lessons and class meetings are just two that come to mind.  These explicitly taught programs can be very effective programs if used with fidelity and integrity.  And extensive professional development on how to teach these programs is a must.  But as importantly, or perhaps more importantly, are those things that we do in those small moments every day that help our kids feel safe and a part of a community.  By treating students in the same manner we would wish to be treated, by modeling the behavior we expect of our students, and by being present for them in those moments they need us, regardless of how small the issue might seem to us, we will be taking enormous steps towards helping them meet Maslow's needs for safety and love and belonging. This will help make all of our students not only happier, healthier, and safer, but more productive academically.  

In short, I think we often fail to put first things first in our zeal to improve our schools.  When we stop thinking of Social Emotional Learning as something "extra" that we do or as expendible during budget cutting season, we will be advancing our academic agenda in a very real way.  It is really quite simple; if we can help our kids meet their physiological needs, safety needs, and needs for love and belonging, we will be putting them on the launching pad for academic success.  The alternative is to continue to believe that in spite of the very real and very significant struggles that many of our students face on a daily basis, they can be successful if we only choose the "right" reading or math program.  Belief in the latter will not only hurt our students socially and emotionally, and it will lead to continued academic failure.  We should remember that at budget cutting time when it seems so easy to reduce one counselor, one social worker or one interventionist and think that it won't impact our academic programs.  If we want our schools to improve, we had better start focusing on the right things, the foundational things.  To be sure, that's a jump-shift in thinking for many.  If this is a difficult concept for you to grasp, think of it this way--you don't improve your home by removing the cement blocks that provide its foundation. 

I would be interested to know what you think.  Please feel free to share a comment about what I've written.  And as always, thank you for taking time to read this.  I really do appreciate it. 

No comments:

Post a Comment