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Posts from the ‘Teaching with the Heart in Mind’ Category

Growing Leaders Through SEL

My oldest daughter came back from a field trip to the local water district ready to educate us about the many ways we can reduce water usage at home. She started noticing when a faucet was running unnecessarily and decided to use less water in her science experiments. She also started pointing out when her parents’ showers were too long! During the field trip, she developed a new awareness about the importance of water conservation, and decided to implement it at home. Her purpose is helping our family become more focused on reducing water usage.

Too often, Social and Emotional Learning is perceived as a tool for behavior management and compliance; something that needs to be done to students, so they can control their emotions and pay attention in class. I have written in the past about how SEL is a lot more than that: it is a tool to create positive relationships in the classroom, nurture awareness of strengths and challenges, remove barriers to learning, learn how to learn, persevere when faced with challenges and have difficult conversations, among others.

SEL is also a tool that helps students and teachers (re)discover what moves them inside and be able to articulate their purpose. In my new book, Teaching with the Heart in Mind, I explore how teachers and students can work together to articulate a sense of purpose, so they become change agents in their local and global communities. Enjoy this snippet and let me know if this resonates with your own SEL practice.

Sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, has become a global icon. In August 2018, she took time off school to demonstrate outside the Swedish parliament, calling for stronger climate change action. Other students joined her efforts, protesting in their own communities. Together they organized a school climate strike movement, called Fridays for Future. In September 2019, she gave a speech to hundreds of thousands of people in New York at the Global Climate Strike. Just a few days later, she spoke at the United Nations and told world leaders: “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood.” Greta is intrinsically motivated to take action on a topic that worries her. She is moved by a clear sense of purpose and concern for the future, and represents a positive role model for youth involvement in important topics.

Sadly, our current educational system is not focused on encouraging students to act on the problems they see in their communities and cultivating a sense of purpose[i]; it is increasingly focused on individual performance and achievement, with the promise that once students get into college, they will be able to engage in activities or topics of their interests. For some students, this may mean years of waiting to do something that stirs their imagination. Schools should be places where students’ interests and problem-solving skills are engaged, where they can discover their deepest passions and the gifts they can provide to the world. The results of students’ disengagement are daunting.

Stress, anxiety, and self-harm rates are on the rise in the US, which not only impacts students’ experiences in school, but are also indicators of mental health problems in adulthood.[ii] In 2019, internal surveys conducted at a suburban public high school in California determined that 75% of their students felt unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. This high school is not unique.

Researchers from the Stanford-based organization Challenge Success have found that 34% of middle school students and almost half (49%) of high school students work hard in school, but rarely enjoy or find value in their schoolwork[iii]. These students tend to have higher levels of academic stress (due to grades, quizzes, and tests) than those students who are more engaged in school.  At the same time, the American Psychological Association (2014) Stress in America Survey found that school was the main source of stress for teenagers (83%), followed by getting into a good college or deciding what to do after high school (69%).

We know that schools and teachers can implement and are implementing changes that address these issues. It starts with believing that students themselves have important ideas about how their schools could better support them. Transforming with Purpose, the last competency in the HEART model, is the place where students’ voices are elevated, and educators and students partner together to bring about change to improve their schools and communities.

Until next time, keep me posted on your SEL progress, and get in touch if you need any additional support.

Sign up for updates about the book. I’ll be sharing another excerpt soon. Stay tuned!



[i] Damon, W. (2008) The Path to Purpose. Simon & Schuster (New York)

[ii] Twenge, J. M., Cooper, A. B., Joiner, T. E., Duffy, M. E., & Binau, S. G. (2019). Age, period, and cohort trends in mood disorder indicators and suicide-related outcomes in a nationally representative dataset, 2005–2017. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 128(3), 185-199.

[iii] Villeneuve, J.C., Conner, J.O., Selby, S., and Pope, D.C. (2019, Oct. 28). Easing the stress at pressure-cooker schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 15-19.

Context Influences Relationships

This week, I will be spending two days with colleagues and friends from around the world who deeply care about the social and emotional health of children, youth and adults. This is CASEL’s first conference, a great opportunity to celebrate the work that has been done to date, identify the current challenges, and make plans to grow this practicing community. In addition to presenting research that I conducted with colleagues from the Learning Policy Institute, I look forward to connecting with the many people with whom I have collaborated over the years, and also meeting new colleagues. These relationships fill my bucket and strengthen my commitment to continue doing the work that matters.

I have written in the past about the power of relationships—nurturing our human capacity to form and maintain relationships is essential to developing a positive sense of wellbeing. When we connect with others at an emotional level, we simply feel better. In my forthcoming book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, building relationships is one of the core competencies. In this snippet, I discuss how context influences the way we practice our social and emotional skills. Let me know what you think. I appreciate your feedback.

There is a particular year in my teaching career that I remember with acute nostalgia; a time when I clearly felt the magic of meaningful relationships. I was new to the school, and coming to take the place of a well-loved teacher, who was on sick leave. The students did not want me there; they missed their former teacher and were counting the days for him to be back. As things go sometimes, this teacher was not able to return to work, and I stayed. My partner teacher, Toni, had been at the school for more than 15 years. He was warm and funny, and deeply cared about the children. We quickly connected and had a lot of fun working together. Although he had a lot more teaching experience than I did, he was generally open to my suggestions and ideas for new projects. He made me feel welcome and part of the team; he was there when I needed support with my class or just to vent about students’ behaviors. With his support, I was able to earn my students’ trust and we ended up having a great year.

If you have had a similar experience in your teaching career, you know how important it is to have supportive and caring colleagues. Not only are these relationships important for teachers’ wellbeing, but also they influence how teachers feel about their teaching and the relationships they establish with their students. Let me explain why.

The way we practice our social and emotional skills is influenced by context[i]. For example, if I had encountered a partner who complained and gossiped about other teachers, or who ignored me, my tendency would have probably been to display more negative behaviors. On the other hand, when people work in supportive and welcoming environments, they are more inclined to successfully manage job stressors (such as handling a challenging class), and ask for or offer help when needed.

Now, think about your current workplace. How does it affect your behavior and the ways in which you relate to students, colleagues and families? Are you able to be your “better self”? Being aware of how your work environment affects your behavior will help you make different choices if necessary. Whenever possible, surround yourself with supportive colleagues.

While you may have less control over certain aspects of your school’s climate, you do play a big role in creating an environment in your classroom that is conducive to positive relationships, enjoyable experiences, and meaningful learning. A big part of this endeavor is developing students’ relationship building skills, so they can learn how to work with different people, have productive disagreements, and have tools to “find their place” in a group.

As you have probably experienced in your professional and personal life, for relationships to be strong and long-lasting, you need to cultivate them. In a way, relationships are like a fire—sometimes you have to build them from scratch, using tinder and kindling, while other times you can sit back and enjoy the warmth before adding some more wood. This is why the verb in this competency is to reignite, which means to burn again, to give new life and energy.

Until next time, keep me posted on your SEL progress, and get in touch if you need any additional support.

Sign up for updates about the book. I’ll be sharing another excerpt soon. Stay tuned!

[i]   Jones, S. M., Bouffard, S. M., & Weissbourd, R. (2013). Educators’ Social and Emotional Skills Vital to Learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(8), 62–65.

Behavior is Communication

“What happened, Mom? What is going on?” My daughter asked the other night, while she climbed on a chair to look at my computer. I was staring at my laptop, looking at pictures of the destruction caused by hurricane Dorian in The Bahamas. I felt speechless. Miles and miles of destroyed homes, entire towns swapped away by the hurricane. According to CNN, 70,000 people lost almost everything, and thousands of survivors are still trying to escape the destroyed areas. Read more

Doing the Work that Matters

Working with educators is probably the favorite part of my job. They are committed, passionate and courageous. They want to get better at teaching, because they care about their students’ wellbeing and success. They are a force for good. Read more

Summer is for Self-Empathy

“I don’t have enough time to do everything that needs to be done.” The end of the school year is a busy and stressful time of year―for teachers, students and parents. Schedules are packed with deadlines, school activities and family events, leaving everybody feeling stressed and overwhelmed. According to research, our perceived time pressure is about how well the activities we need to perform fit together in our heads and how much control we think we have over them. This is good news, because it means we can do something about it! Check out this article from Greater Good Science Center, if you need some tips for handling time pressure. Read more

Creating an SEL Mindset

Two weeks ago, I visited a high school in Los Angeles (California) to gather data for a case study that I am conducting with the Learning Policy Institute. Serving around 500 mostly low-income students, the school has raised its graduation rates from 83 percent in its first year to 99 percent last year. A school that is built on teacher leadership, the educational program prioritizes a whole child approach with a relentless focus on providing students with the social, emotional and academic supports they need to ensure they are ready to lead successful and productive lives in college and beyond. Read more

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. Read more

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