5 Ways Education Leaders Can Maximize the Impact of Social-Emotional Learning

Contributing Writer
How education organizations can help districts maximize the potential of SEL in school distrits, EdWeek Market Brief

School and district leaders are focusing on social-emotional learning this year, with new initiatives and programs designed to meet the needs of students and build a stronger foundation for learning. But SEL isn’t simply a box to check or a curriculum add-on. Education organizations can help educators and families take full advantage of SEL through intentional practices that deepen social-emotional development.

Here are 5 ways education organizations can help leaders maximize the impact of SEL efforts:

1. Create Time and Space for SEL

The start and end of the school day are natural times for students to practice SEL, providing an opportunity to ground students and transition to learning at the beginning of the school day and reflect and say goodbye as students return home when the day is over. “In our district, each teacher incorporates SEL into their morning routine in the elementary classrooms,” says Rachelle Cook, the Superintendent of Alanson Public Schools in Michigan. “Our middle school teachers do this during homeroom each morning. We have seen our students over time be better at handling, controlling, and expressing their emotions. Our students seem more in tune with how others are feeling as well as how their actions affect others.” But what about the adults in kids’ lives?

Educators can intentionally open and close meetings with brief SEL exercises, like a breathing practice or an embodied exercise. A quick opportunity to practice SEL at the beginning and end of a meeting not only supports the well-being of educators, but also provides a clear start and end to meeting times, helping to keep the team focused. One idea of an opening exercise is to create a frozen statue or share a movement that reflects how you are feeling in the moment. All meeting participants can share their frozen statue or movement together, or one at a time with an opportunity for the rest of the group to mirror that statue or movement back. One idea for a closing exercise is to take three deep breaths together, reflecting on the purpose of the meeting, the strength of the team, and the influence of the individual.

2. Incorporate Creative Practices to Deepen SEL

SEL needs to be interactive, collaborative, and experiential in order to be authentic. Creativity invites students, educators, and families to communicate with each other outside of their thoughts and words, or explore their own internal feelings in simple and quick ways. “Creative practices are part of our SEL curriculum,” says Cook, “and teachers are able to incorporate these creative strategies like drawing, creating frozen statues with our bodies, or writing throughout the day as students need support during conflicts or transitions, like after lunch or an assembly to bring everyone back together.” Discovery drawings, for example, is a reflection practice that prompts students or adults to explore their inner feelings by drawing their responses to a given prompt, like “How would you like to feel when this day ends?”

Creative practices also support academic learning for children of all ages, as well as educators and families. Play should not be restricted to certain grade levels or age groups, though too often it’s limited to preschool or early childhood classrooms. Everyone can benefit from connecting more to their body and getting out of their head. Movement and play can ease transitions from one lesson to the next, or from the school day to a staff meeting, and keep people energized and focused. Diverse creative modalities provide multiple avenues of expression, which can maximize the learning opportunity for students.

3. Connect Through Play

Play provides students, educators, and families with authentic opportunities to put SEL skills into practice, like taking turns, planning your next move, active listening, and becoming aware of and controlling impulses. Play, especially through games, even enriches language skills! People connect authentically and organically through play, deepening relationships and building new connections.

Cook has seen the impact that play has had on students in her district. “It is so important for all students to have time for a brain break and move their body in order for them to focus on the academic items throughout the day,” she said. “This is why our teachers start each morning with a movement-and-play-based SEL curriculum, and then sometimes utilize the curriculum again in the afternoon or to close the day.”

Classic playground games can be structured to serve as great movement breaks for all ages. Incorporating them into a lesson or a staff meeting when they are needed can go a long way to provide a burst of energy. Simon Says; Thumbs Up, 7 Up; or Red Light, Green Light are interactive games that work well in the classroom and that many adults grew up playing.

4. Create Time for Reflection

For students, reflection is often where the learning happens, but reflection is critical for families and educators, too. “We have been trying to incorporate more reflection in our community, not just as staff but also with our students,” explains Cook. “As teachers, reflection is so important to determine if lessons went well and are students grasping the concept.” Use SEL to incorporate opportunities for reflection each day to give students, educators, and families the time, language, and framework to reflect on their own learning, feelings, and needs and better understand their experiences.

5. Engage Families

Social-emotional development does not just happen at school! At home, families can help maintain continuity to strengthen the social-emotional development of their children. Schools can help families learn about the components of social-emotional learning that students are practicing and engage families in strategies and exercises that can support students in authentic moments of practice at home, like during a conflict with a sibling or transitioning to bedtime.

Families themselves also benefit from dedicated time and space to practice SEL, whether together as a family unit or within the school community. Podcasts, like The Emotion Motion Podcast, are one new popular way that families can practice SEL together at home. Family nights or events dedicated to SEL can help build families’ capacity for SEL at home while also uniting the school community in celebration. Another way schools engage families in SEL is by creating monthly themes, like “respect” or “empathy,” and sharing resources, events, and opportunities to support students at home.

“Our students need us this year,” says Cook. “By intentionally incorporating social-emotional learning, we are creating a strong and resilient school community that gives all students a sense of belonging, safety, and purpose.”

Social-emotional learning requires active engagement and authentic experiences, and incorporating simple, thoughtful practices can maximize the impact of SEL for students, educators, and families.

Image by Getty

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