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Removing Barriers to Learning

I just returned from attending the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), one of the largest educational research gatherings in the world. Among the thousands of scholars participating in the meeting, there is a special interest group for those passionate about SEL. This year, I organized the program for SEL researchers and was excited to see some new research areas, such as parenting and SEL, cultural competency and diversity, and teachers’ wellbeing. At the same time, I was disappointed to encounter several inquiries that measured social and emotional skills, while ignoring (conscious or unconsciously) the context in which this learning takes place.

SEL implementation is a schoolwide effort to remove barriers to learning, as much as it is a process to teach social and emotional competencies to students. Many schools focus their initial SEL implementation efforts on selecting and implementing an SEL curriculum; that is fine. However, that is not the end of the process. When done well, SEL transforms the fabric of the school and the relationships that take place there. As Kamilah Drummond-Forrester, Director at Open Circle, said during the conference: “We are in the business of human connections.”

In Teaching with the Heart in Mind, my forthcoming SEL book, I discuss the importance of adopting SEL as a transformational process. It does not matter how you get started with SEL, but it does matter that you look at the social and emotional conditions of the learning environment. Here’s a snippet from chapter 4 – Essential Skills for Life. If you want to receive these excerpts directly in your email, sign up  for updates or send me a message. I love hearing from you!

SEL is a tool that guides the social and emotional factors in the context that influence learning. For example, the leadership and management style of school administrators and staff impacts the type of learning environment that is created in schools. When principals are warm with students and approachable to families, it is more likely that they will feel welcome in school. At the same time, the rules and protocols that schools put in place to address students’ misbehavior will influence the learning environment that is created at school. For instance, restorative justice focuses on building relationships and repairing harm, rather than simply punishing students for misbehavior. In schools that incorporate restorative practices, when people make mistakes or cause harm, restorative interventions help these students or adults understand the impact of their actions, heal the harm, and restore the community.

Some schools and districts focus on the teaching of social and emotional competencies as the first step in their SEL implementation efforts. Although that is a common strategy, schools’ efforts shouldn’t stop there. SEL is more than just a program or lesson; it is about considering how classroom’s practices and school policies support (or not) students’ learning and growth, and making appropriate changes when needed.

Imagine a middle school student, Shakti, who doesn’t participate in whole class conversations. She may feel insecure, shy or afraid to make a mistake. The teacher could focus on teaching Shakti strategies to navigate her emotions in these situations. That would be helpful. However, in addition to teaching these management tools, the teacher could also consider adapting her teaching to better meet Shakti’s needs. For example, by providing the question ahead of the classroom conversation, so Shakti can prepare a response or by creating opportunities for the student to participate in group conversations that increase in size over time. The key here is to consider not only the skills that students should develop (and that we will teach), but also how our teaching practices may impact students’ ability to engage with the content or their peers, and learn what they need to learn.

SEL implementation is a schoolwide effort to remove barriers to learning, as much as it is a process to teach social and emotional competencies to students. This long-term effort is most effective when all the stakeholders in the school community are involved-school administrators, educators (including out-of-school time), students, families, and community partners. These partnerships not only enrich students’ experiences in schools, but they also provide a sense that everybody is working together to support students’ learning and growth.

Do you want to be in the loop about the book? Sign up for updates or follow #teachingheartinmind on Twitter. I’ll be sharing another excerpt soon. Stay tuned!

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