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Posts from the ‘SEL’ Category

3 Key Lessons on Empathy

I did the last internship for my teaching credential in a rural town in Nicaragua, volunteering at a local NGO – Los Pipitos – that supported children with disabilities. During my time there, I worked alongside a promotora de salud (community health professional), Martha; the most patient human being I have ever met, I learned everything I know about empathy from her.

Martha and I used to walk several hours a day in the dusty trails of Yalagüina, trying to reach the homes where children with disabilities lived. Most of these families could not afford to send their children to a special education school or even to the local public school, therefore Los Pipitos educated the families so they could support their kids’ growth and development at home. During the many hours we spent walking, Martha and I developed a close friendship. She always answered my many questions about Nicaragua’s culture, politics and poverty with patience and care. Martha had an amazing capacity to connect with the families we visited and show love and concern, even when the things we saw and experienced were difficult.

These are 3 key lessons that I learned about empathy from watching Martha relate to others.

1. Empathy starts with self-awareness. Empathy is being able to walk in someone else’s shoes, to feel with them. Having a son with cerebral palsy herself, Martha had walked similar paths than the families we visited. Although it was difficult to watch people in pain, sometimes denial, Martha was able to connect with her own emotions, so she could open her heart to these families.

As teachers and parents, this self-awareness helps us to be more present in any given situation. It can be difficult to model empathy for our students or our own children, to connect with their feelings, if we are still thinking about work, an argument we had earlier that day or the endless to-do list. Once we have been able to check-in with ourselves, even if it means connecting with uncomfortable feelings, we’ll be in a better position to connect with others.

2. Empathy heals. Another important lesson that I learned from my dear friend is that when we are able to show empathy for others, they feel accepted and understood. We often encountered families that were skeptical of the help we could provide or scared that we would take their child away. Martha was able to validate their feelings, whatever they were, opening the door for conversation and connection.

When we show empathy for children and youth, or other adults, and we connect with their feelings, that connection and care is healing to whatever they are going through. Showing empathy makes the relationships with our children and students deeper and stronger.

3. Empathy teaches Empathy. I learned the power of empathy by watching Martha connect with people in the community. When she talked and related to others, she did it from the heart. Martha modeled empathy by connecting with people’s emotions, and also by talking about people’s behaviors without judgment.

Children learn how to show empathy from their parents and caregivers, so when adults around them show empathy towards others, they are teaching empathy with their actions. Mary Gordon, the founder of Roots of Empathy, says that empathy can’t be taught in traditional ways, it can only be taught experientially.

As we have seen, in order to show empathy, we need to have some clarity about our own feelings and leave room for the other person to take the stage, being fully present for them. Many people have a difficult time showing empathy, because it means going to a painful place within themselves. Part of showing empathy is being able to manage our own anxiety about the feelings of others and grow to accept them. Empathy, like other social and emotional skills, can be learned and developed over time.

Here are 3 things you can do to develop your empathy.

  • Listen without solving. Tell yourself “I am here to listen”. If you find yourself coming up with ways to solve the problem, go back to my earlier post Are You Listening? for tips on how to become a better listener. Be patient, the other person might not be ready to solve the situation yet.
  • Validate and reflect. Serve as a mirror to the other person. Acknowledge his/her emotions and (maybe) help them connect to the triggers: “You seem angry about the game getting cancelled”, “You sure are upset with me”.
  • Resonate: Match your reaction with his/her mood. Connect with your own emotions by asking yourself “Have I felt this way before?”. Offer comfort, without distracting the person from their own feelings.

Empathy helps people connect with each other at deeper levels, is healing and builds trust. You can develop your empathy by listening without solving, validating the other person’s feelings and resonating with them. It’s never too late to begin noticing when and how you show empathy, and start using the three strategies outlined above. Give it a try and let me know how it goes! I’d love to hear from you.

The Secret Sauce for SEL

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process through which students, teachers and families learn and practice the skills of emotional intelligence. As a process, implementation of SEL might look differently in different schools with unique needs and students. Although there are certain key ingredients to create an evidence-based, sustainable SEL program, the way in which schools, teachers and students make these ingredients come together will vary. Teachers’ readiness, leadership support, students’ social and emotional needs and existing resources, among other factors, will influence how schools go about making SEL “work” in their communities. This is both a challenge and an opportunity.

The Challenge: You could follow a scope and sequence from another school in your district, use the same SEL curriculum and attend the same training, and the outcomes for students could vary significantly. As we have discussed in prior posts, SEL is more than teaching a curriculum. It is a paradigm shift that requires schools to place social and emotional competencies at the core of what they do and how they do it, with the purpose of supporting students’ success in academics, but also in living healthy, happy and more fulfilling lives. Designing and implementing an SEL program is like building a puzzle, one piece at a time. If it fits, keep going! If it doesn’t, find another piece.

The Opportunity: One of the most creative times in my teaching career was when my school decided to move from a pull out model (where students always went outside of their regular classroom to work on their individual goals) to a push in model (where students received support from the teacher in their regular classrooms) to serve students with special needs. This paradigm shift required teachers and specialists to come together and figure out best ways to serve individual students’ needs. It also meant that general and special education teachers could learn from each other and share best practices. This kind of collaboration and shared responsibility, along with a push for creativity, is also needed when implementing SEL. The opportunity is in figuring out how to best teach SEL and offer opportunities to practice these skills given the unique needs of your school, your colleagues and your students. It requires all stakeholders in the community to come together and create a vision for great learning.

The good news is that you don’t have to do this alone. There are several organizations that support and provide guidelines to help schools and districts design and implement great SEL programs. For example, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was formed in 1994 with the goal of helping to make high-quality, evidence-based SEL programs and practices an integral part of schools. They recently released (March 2017) a report sharing what has been learned after 6 years of supporting systemic SEL implementation in large urban districts in the United States. With 10 districts and 900,000 students a year, this is one of the most comprehensive school district improvement initiatives ever taken. Here’s a summary of their main findings. You can access the full report here.

  1. Systemic SEL is possible even when leadership changes and relatively small budgets. This was possible with a broad stakeholder commitment to SEL and many people committed to deepen their expertise on the topic. Districts effectively integrated SEL across district departments, embedding SEL as a pillar in their strategic plans.
  2. SEL ideally is integrated into every aspect of the district’s work, from the strategic plan and budgets to human resources and operations. This is a big one. If you are having a hard time convincing your school about the importance of SEL, you might be wondering how you even approach the district. Don’t get discouraged! Sometimes it is a matter of finding who will be more responsive to your pitch: Special Education department, Student Services, Instructional Coaches. Find people at the district office that might be open to hear what you are doing. This might be an opportunity for you to learn how they think about SEL. You might be surprised!
  3. SEL ideally is integrated into every aspect of the school, from classroom instruction to school climate and culture to community-family partnerships. This is an essential piece of SEL implementation. We know that students need opportunities to learn and also practice these skills in order to internalize them. At the same time, teachers can become more effective when they teach with an SEL lens, considering the social and emotional skills students have (or don’t have) AND the skills that are needed to master academic content. If you are in the classroom, teach these competencies explicitly and infuse them in your teaching. Use your classroom as a model for others to learn and get them inspired to do the same!
  4. Successful implementation can follow multiple pathways, based on each district’s unique need and strengths. Regardless of the approach, the engagement and commitment of both school and district leadership is essential. It is important to get your principal on board (a few tips here) and to find other allies that can help you push this process forward. Think about who has influence at your school. Lead teachers, district coaches, maybe the school psychologist? Build alliances with those than can support you!
  5. Adult SEL matters, too. This is something I have discussed in the past. Teachers model, consciously or not, social and emotional skills for their students. Therefore, teachers need time and space to reflect, develop and practice their own social and emotional skills. If you need a refresher, read this article published in Edutopia.
  6. Data for continuous improvement are essential. From students’ assessments of social and emotional skills to school climate surveys, there are several tools currently available and many are free. Do you remember the study with middle school students? It was done using the Educational Vital Signs, the school climate assessment from Six Seconds. If you are interested in learning more about assessment, please get in touch.
  7. Districts benefit from collaborating with each other. This is a no-brainer! One of the common questions that I receive when working with schools is “how do other schools do it?”. There is great value in sharing and learning from other teachers and schools that are trying to do the same. Don’t be shy! If you know schools working on SEL in your area: reach out, ask to visit, make new friends!

Implementation of SEL programs and practices is a multi-year process that requires several key ingredients and the commitment of all stakeholders. CASEL has shared 7 insights from working with 10 of the largest urban districts in the United States. No matter your role (teacher, parent, administrator or student), there is something that you can do within each one of these lessons to move SEL forward in your school community. Keep pushing! And get in touch if you need support or encouragement. I’d love to hear from you.

Are You Listening?

When I was a kid, I became fascinated with the story of Momo by Michael Ende. Have you read it? Momo is a little girl of mysterious origin with an extraordinary ability to listen – really listen. I remember reading the book and wondering, how does she do it? Can I really listen that way too?

She listened in a way that made slow-witted people have flashes of inspiration. It wasn’t that she actually said anything or asked questions that put such ideas into their heads. She simply sat there and listened with the upmost attention and sympathy, fixing them with her big, dark eyes, and they suddenly became aware of ideas whose existence they had never suspected. Momo could listen in such a way that worried and indecisive people knew their own minds from one moment to the next, or shy people felt suddenly confident and at ease, or down-hearted people felt happy and hopeful. Read more

Focus on Yourself to Nurture Positive Relationships

The relationships that children and youth establish with adults are critical for a healthy social and emotional development. When students and teachers establish positive, caring relationships, students are more likely to use their teachers as resource to solve problems, engage in learning activities, and better navigate the demands of school (Williford & Sanger Wolcott, 2015). Researchers have found that high-quality relationships between students and teachers are linked with students’ academic and social-emotional outcomes. Read more

Ready for School?

A few weeks back, I registered my daughter for kindergarten in the local school district. It was a moment filled with different emotions: excitement for the new experiences she will have, worry for the challenges, and also a bit of sadness because she is no longer my little “baby”. A moment of true self-awareness! Read more

Creating Positive Change in the New Year

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.” wrote cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Unfortunately, many people have been anesthetized into believing they don’t count, that they can’t make a difference. These beliefs cause people to detach emotionally and retreat from taking any action. Read more

Teachers’ Voices on SEL

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is becoming a world-wide phenomenon.” These are the words of Dr. Elias and Dr. Hatzichristou in the latest issue of the International Journal of Emotional Education. It appears that SEL competencies are valued across countries and cultures, and more and more teachers and administrators are ready to teach these skills in schools. Great! AND we know that SEL programs and practices help students be more engaged, resilient and ready to learn. So… let’s do it! Read more

Choosing to Be Grateful

This year, many families in the US are feeling fearful or anxious about having political conversations during the Thanksgiving dinner. A time to show appreciation and gratitude towards loved ones may become sour if we affirm “our” experience and opinion, without considering the experience of others or how our comments might affect them. Ask yourself, how am I feeling? And (even if it is difficult) also ask, how are you feeling? Having an enjoyable Thanksgiving meal might require us to practice and model our best emotional intelligence skills! Read more

Getting Your Principal to Support SEL

Last week, I got a message from an elementary school teacher in New Jersey. Maria integrates Social Emotional Learning in her 2nd grade class and has observed significant changes in her students’ ability to express emotions and solve conflicts independently. In her message, she expressed some frustration because the principal, although supportive of her work, doesn’t want to allocate any resources to implement SEL across classrooms. Read more

3 Skills To Discuss Racism with Emotional Intelligence

You do not look how I expected you to look. Are you Asian?”. He turns to my husband and asks “Don’t you think you should have told us your wife was Asian?”.

A former colleague recently posted these sentences on Facebook in response to the article “Go Back to China” recently published in the New York Times. Reporter Michael Luo was told to go back to China when walking with his family and friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan on a Sunday morning. My colleague was among many others who replied to Luo’s article describing their own experience of racism and discrimination. Read more

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