By Stephanie Filio
What is social and emotional learning (SEL)? Let’s break it down. Social constructs are the norms we adhere to as we interact with people every day. We interact by waving hello, making eye contact in a meeting, and casually talking on the phone on the way to work. Emotions are feelings. Sadness, happiness, and fear are emotions we might feel when we disagree with a coworker, celebrate a success, or get stuck in traffic behind a car accident. Learning occurs when we acquire new information and apply it to old data collected over time and through many experiences.
When we put social situations and internal feelings together, we get reactions, relationships, and recollection. We are taught, at the foundation of our education as school counselors, how important SEL is to healthy lifelong development as we face obstacles and navigate decisions.
Now SEL is starting to get a bigger and better reputation within the larger education community. It is such a complex and important topic, but it can also be tricky to parse out enough material for an actual curriculum. There is no better way for counselors to advocate for our profession than to show our knowledge in this area as go-to experts for all things SEL!
So what is the best way to learn about social development and emotional control? By living it! The Harvard EASEL Lab (Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning Laboratory) has developed an ideology that takes the abstract concept of SEL and anchors it with small implements, or tools, called SEL kernels that have specific mini goals on several levels. This might include small practices in the classroom, schoolwide consistent activities, and common language so that all students experience the concepts through ongoing patterns. This idea is such a great way to ingrain personal development into the larger school network.
Putting It Together
Many school counselors have had to become more creative when it comes to reaching students because of growing caseloads and increasing demands added to our job descriptions. This makes EASEL Lab SEL kernels a perfect fit for our programs, and using kernels allows us to practice our collaborative skills. Kernels can be implemented in the same intentional manner in which we might put together a comprehensive school counseling program with classroom lessons and schoolwide activities.
- Collect your data to determine what students need.
- Meet as a team to decide which modes of exposure have been successful for various ages and groups.
- Brainstorm and research some mini activities, or kernels, that can be easily implemented. If you have time (ha!), use small groups as focus groups to see if the mini activities work.
- Work together with your team to make easy outlines that teachers and staff can follow.
- Model practices for staff, offer professional development for teachers, ask for assistance with projects, and make cookies for break rooms (a little bribery never hurts, right?).
While SEL is a long game of instilling information over time, kernels give us results for the short game, by bringing the student population together with consistent language and habitual practice. The EASEL Lab has designed kernels for specific SEL targets, but I love looking at other concepts through that lens as well. For example, there are several specific concerns about students that I repeatedly hear from staff members. Though these concerns make up informal data at best, they are a good starting point for brainstorming school-specific practices that might help teachers see change in the classroom.
Here are a few of those frequent concerns. Let’s see what we can do about them!
- Pop-up workshops and talent expos for students to explore various hobbies—with an emphasis on the importance of having a creative or contemplative outlet
- A varied and diverse professional speaker series to tour classrooms or hold assemblies
- Goal planning with an emphasis on accessible resources to help students learn time management (especially work vs. play)
- Private and comfortable mediation centers in each classroom with detailed mediation phases outlined for reference
- Embed stories of people working out conflict in assignments for content classes, such as math word problems, reading materials, and essays with regular pair and group discussions
- Brain breaks in the classroom to use for relaxation that also help teach calming emotions and regulating response to stimuli
- 4×4 breathing techniques to use for stress reduction, emotional management, and responding to stimuli calmly
- Development of personal goal setting in mini conferences with a peer or teacher at the beginning of each day
- Self-reflection with “Friday Friends” using guided questions in small groups, to include modeling of encouragement
- Shout-outs in the lunchroom such as a “what’s the good word?” wall or other public announcements from peers or staff members
- Hallway huddles with a daily intention (like a sports team!) to add a fun and random model of celebrating the self and the day
- Celebrate positive interactions with caught being kind recognition within a classroom or whole school
More Than a Buzzword
Social and emotional learning is much more than today’s biggest buzz phrase in education. SEL is giving kids an insider look into their daily interactions and by-the-minute feelings so that they can identify emotions, feel comfortable in their skin, and manage their future contentions.
By dispersing smaller SEL lessons into the school environment, we embed essential SEL concepts naturally into life so they are less like traditional lessons and more like habits. Such small exercises can transform a classroom and school environment.
With basic language and easy, straightforward instruction, anyone can implement SEL! Kernels give school counselors the ability to offer training, assistance for implementation, and consistent follow-through with students while ensuring that all students are getting the developmental support they need to become independent and strong adults.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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