By Stephanie Filio, M.Ed., author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis
School counseling programs teach therapeutic interventions that methodologically meet the client where they are and help the counselor learn about the underlying causes of emotions and peel back the emotional layers to get to the root of the client’s behaviors. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is often compared to and confused with school counseling, though the two are very different. Some parents who confuse SEL with therapy might worry that SEL will open emotional wounds in children and retraumatize children and their families. Knowing this, and as a mom myself, I can understand why some parents might have concerns about this perceived, though incorrect, comparison.
So how do we clear up the confusion and get parents on board with SEL?
Explain What SEL Looks Like in School
To start, make a clear distinction between therapeutic practices and your SEL curriculum. This is an important part of getting parents to buy in to the SEL initiatives at your school.
Here’s the difference: in therapeutic counseling, a client is dealing with an emotion, and various forms of talk therapy are often used to explore triggering situations. The therapist and client work together to make a plan for how to move forward. The therapist considers the person’s individual trauma and associated feelings and makes a counseling plan dependent on the client and their specific goals for processing the past, present, and future.
SEL, on the other hand, is a comprehensive lesson that teaches students about social situations, appropriate reactions, and how our bodies feel in response to emotions. SEL is not taught in response to an individual experience or trauma. It is taught preemptively to help students respond appropriately to the situations and emotions that occur in life and to aid in students’ overall development.
In the classroom, SEL might look like lessons designed to educate students on different emotions and to teach coping skills. It’s not specific to the individual. Instead, it’s a generalized practice of understanding where emotions can come from, what they can look like, and how they might properly be resolved.
SEL is also helpful in building empathy within a broader context. In SEL we don’t address specific students’ views or behavior. Rather, we look at why someone might experience something differently and what various people might feel in the same situation. Helping students learn to accept these differences ultimately benefits their individual relationships, as well as the whole school environment, so that there is more time for academic learning.
Communication with Families
It’s no secret that communication is often the key to getting parent buy-in with any initiative your school is trying to adopt. Because children spend so much of the day in school, parents sometimes feel isolated from their kids when the school day seems like a mystery. This is certainly not the goal of any school. And we know that student learning is benefited most when connections are made between the academic/school environment and the home environment.
The “old school” view to communication with families centered on the thought that “What happens in school stays in school,” and families were only contacted when they were needed to correct behavior. Taking a step back, it’s easy to see how this practice could make a parent feel defensive. By keeping communication open, updating families on developments, and inviting them into the school’s plans, we instead set a positive and collaborative standard, where parents and the school are partners in a child’s education and development.
Good communication is particularly important with SEL programs. Parents need to know what the purpose of the program is and why it is needed. They need to know that part of SEL is teaching students to have grace for themselves and others in stressful times.
Parents want what’s best for their children, even if they don’t quite understand all the SEL tools that we are able to provide their children in school. It is our job to explain what these tools are and how they can benefit children moving forward.
My family often jokes that when I talk about my day, they only understand about half of what I’m saying. I throw out all kinds of abbreviations and terms specific to the education field. My accounts of busy days filled with SRTs, 504s, IEPs, RCs, PLCs, PLPs, PACs, and, of course, PTCs fall on deaf ears. To them, it sounds like I spend my day in a kindergarten classroom teaching ABCs and 123s!
In the same way that these industry terms are foreign to my family, they are puzzling to most of my students’ parents. This means that if I speak to parents using back-of-the-house lingo, there are often holes in our conversations. I find it helps to give an explicit definition of SEL, like the one below:
Social and emotional learning is something that we sometimes call SEL. Social and emotional learning is a practice of teaching students about the ways that relationships sometimes work and the way that our emotions impact our lives. With this curricula, our goal is to be able to help our students better interpret the world around them, including what is happening within their busy hallways.
The intention of social and emotional learning is to help students better understand what feelings might bubble up throughout the day, what they can do with these feelings, and how to stay on track academically despite these varying feelings. We would like to help our students be able to better handle challenges such as communicating with peers, advocating for themselves, and choosing how to help others while also upholding their values. We are seeking to reinforce their resources, such as continuing to reach out to the trusted adults in their lives (especially their parents/guardians) when they feel they need help.
Emotions covered in social and emotional learning might be anger, happiness, sadness, joy, and hope. These are all emotions that everyone feels at some point. By allowing students to be able to identify feelings, they will be able to better interpret how they and others feel so that they can move forward confidently and set/achieve their goals.
For somebody in the educational field, this definition might seem rudimentary. However, for parents, who likely didn’t spend hours in coursework learning about educational concepts and curriculum or developmental psychology, it can help them better understand what SEL is. Notice, for example, that part of this definition is that parents are a big part of the SEL process. It also explicitly states that SEL will strengthen all of their child’s relationships and that it will aid in the strong healthy development of interpersonal skills. This parent-friendly definition of SEL, along with a clear explanation of what SEL will look like in school and good communication, can help get everyone on the same team!
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.
Stephanie is the author of Responding to Student Trauma: A Toolkit for Schools in Times of Crisis.
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