Social-emotional skills are a pre-requirement for learning: experts (part two)

Social-emotional skills are a pre-requirement for learning: experts

Several experts in the education system say that social/emotional learning (SEL) is an important component of formal education. Part of the pandemic response has been recognizing that learning can’t take place when children are stressed from disruption to their routines and their social connections.

Several experts in the education system say that social/emotional learning (SEL) is an important component of formal education. Part of the pandemic response has been recognizing that learning can’t take place when children are stressed from disruption to their routines and their social connections.

The Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, through their Professional Learning (STFPL) branch, highlights a framework from a US-based organization called CASEL, which stands for Collaborative Social/Emotional Learning. CASEL’s goal is to integrate SEL into every classroom. The framework has five components for self-regulation:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

The key idea behind having a focus on competencies such as those above is that social/emotional skills benefit from study and practice – much like any other skill. Authorities in abstract fields such as math, chemistry, and biology may nevertheless be unable to grow strong relationships or manage their own emotions. Research shows that emotional stability and resilience can be taught and learned at any stage, from pre-schoolers to adults. The earlier the learning, the better the outcome.

STF’s professional development branch has an upcoming workshop focused on SEL and self-regulation.

“What we offer to educators,” said Connie Molnar, an associate director with STF Professional Learning, “is both the research side – a broad view of what the most current research is saying in terms of impact and importance of social/emotional learning and self-regulation – and the teacher practice side.”

Molnar works with a group of educators called the Provincial Facilitator Community. The group researches, plans, and facilitates professional development opportunities throughout the province. Molnar and her colleagues also receive feedback from the community on what the current needs of the provinces’ teachers are.

Molnar works with a group of educators called the Provincial Facilitator Community. The group researches, plans, and facilitates professional development opportunities throughout the province. Molnar and her colleagues also receive feedback from the community on what the current needs of the provinces’ teachers are.

One of the researchers whose work is used is Dr. Bruce Perry. Perry is a senior fellow of The Child Trauma Academy and a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences.

In a 2009 YouTube video, Perry said that the brain is made up of a series of complex systems, only one of which is responsible for thinking. These systems are related to and dependent on each other. If a child is emotionally unregulated (upset, distracted, fidgety, or bored) and doesn’t have self-regulation skills and strategies, learning is that much more difficult and inefficient.

Stuck in the middle with you: How parents and children can get through the 'tween' years

Stuck in the middle with you: How parents and children can get through the ‘tween’ years

Pre-teens begin to see the good and bad in people — the ones they’re friends with can be fun, but also mean and nasty. Picture: iStock Not long ago, she got invited to Paw Patrol-themed birthday parties. Now, your 11-year-old is receiving invitations to pamper parties with beauty treatments. Only a few years ago she watched Shaun the Sheep — now she’s making TikTok videos.

The tween stage can catch parents off guard. And it can be equally disorientating for children — that nine to 12-year-old cohort who are on a bridge between young childhood and the teens. It’s a steep trajectory and child psychotherapist Colman Noctor says children can be at different stages of it. “Some will enter it much quicker. They’ll be racing towards the teens, while others will cling to childhood — hold onto the Lego, the stuff they enjoy that’s no longer deemed cool by the others.”

Noctor says as children approach the teens, they can struggle to come to terms with the unpredictability of people. “In primary school, friendship is very territorial — ‘you’re my best friend, I’m yours’ — it’s very contractual. Pre-teens begin to see the good and bad in people — the ones they’re friends with can be fun, but also mean and nasty. They see another side of people and their social world becomes more complex.”

They’re also beginning to anticipate — with some anxiety — the organisational autonomy that will be expected of them. Noctor sees this starting at about age 11 or 12 when secondary schools come to pitch their schools to sixth class pupils. “The impending change plays on their mind. They’re hearing about timetables, lockers, different classrooms, and they’re thinking ‘crikey, how am I going to cope with this?’”

Brain flux

Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15-Minute Parenting 8-12 Years, says the pre-teen stage is one of significant growth and development across cognitive, social, emotional and physical faculties. “Their brains are in a constant state of flux. This process of intense change can feel confusing for parents,” she says.

Tweens are gradually capable of greater degrees of logic, their pre-frontal cortex is still very immature, she says. “So we see evidence of emerging maturity, self-regulation and capacity for greater responsibility. But it’s mixed with flashes of temper and emotional meltdowns that seemingly come from nowhere. And it is all part of this stage of middle childhood.”

At this age, children start pulling away from parents and family as their hub of social development, and towards peers. “They become very focused on what they think their peers are thinking about them,” says Fortune.

Noctor says parents can struggle with seeing children become less communicative with them. “Tweens need to retreat. They start spending more […]

What to Know About Social-Emotional Development

Many parents have heard the term “social-emotional development,” but what does it mean in the real world?

Put simply, social-emotional development refers to children’s ability to “experience, manage and express” their feelings, build relationships and actively explore their environment, according to a 2005 report from the nonprofit Zero to Three.

Managing one’s behavior, expressing emotions appropriately and developing empathy are all part of the journey.

It’s “understanding how our bodies and minds feel and think in relationship to the world around us,” says Mary Hadley, a speech-language pathologist in Texas who has spent 15 years helping adults and children communicate.

Children record many physical and mental milestones, especially in their first few years of life. Likewise, social-emotional skills grow throughout childhood and adolescence – also with milestones – and can be just as important.

Dr. Toya Roberson-Moore, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, says that social-emotional development relates to brain health, making it an element of both physical and mental health. Human development takes place simultaneously across many related areas, and it can look different for each child.

Social-emotional development changes as a child grows. A mother providing a feeling of safety for her baby begins the child’s process of healthy social-emotional development. Toddlers engage in pretend play and learn how to interact positively with others. As children enter school, they develop the ability to regulate their emotions and work well with others.

Just as children never stop learning, social-emotional development doesn’t stagnate. It builds as youngsters progress through school, allowing them to relate to others and handle challenges in healthy ways. For example:

  • Elementary school. In elementary school, social-emotional development often focuses on executive functioning skills, Hadley says, such as memory and self-control. Students engage in play-based skills, learn to advocate for themselves and practice empathy for others. When children feel safe and calm, Hadley says, parents can work on helping them recognize how their emotions feel and how to regulate themselves.
  • Middle school. Development in middle school looks similar, Hadley says. “We can teach students to be aware that the way their body and minds feel will affect their social communication,” she says. The goal is to help children understand that everyone experiences emotions, both good and bad. Yet, while middle-schoolers can verbalize their feelings, they also sometimes hide their concerns, Roberson-Moore says. They may feel ashamed of their emotions or want to avoid burdening others. This can raise additional challenges.
  • High school. “At the high school level, relationships with peer groups become very important,” says Kelly Oriard, a family therapist and co-founder of Slumberkins, a company that makes emotional learning products. As teenagers figure out where they fit in the world, it is normal and healthy for them to establish an identity outside of their family. That often means managing friendships, dating, workplace colleagues and other more complicated relationships.

When it comes to social-emotional development, parents are a primary resource for children, and experts say there are many ways to help. Here are some suggestions:

How to Help Young Children Build Resilience

How to Help Young Children Build Resilience

  • Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn, last year was difficult for everyone.
  • Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood.
  • But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity.
  • Here’s how to teach children resilience in the new year.

Between the global COVID-19 pandemic, the associated economic downturn, and widespread protests over racism, the last few years have been difficult for everyone. Many people are struggling, consumed with anxiety and stress, and finding themselves unable to sleep or focus.

As a developmental psychologist and researcher on anxiety and fear in infants and young children, I have been particularly concerned about the impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health. Many have not physically been in school consistently since March of 2020. They’re isolated from friends and relatives. Some fear that they or loved ones will contract the virus; they may be hurt in racial violence or violence at home—or they might lose their home in a wildfire or flood. These are very real-life stressors.

Decades of research have documented serious consequences from chronic stress in childhood (McEwen, 2011). But psychologists have identified ways in which parents teach children how to cope with adversity—an idea commonly known as resilience.

The Effects of Childhood Stress

Children cannot be protected from everything. Parents get divorced. Children grow up in poverty. Friends or loved ones are injured, fall ill, or die. Kids can experience neglect, physical or emotional abuse, or bullying. Families immigrate, end up homeless or live through natural disasters.

There can be long-term consequences (Masten et al., 1990). Hardship in childhood can physically alter the brain architecture of a developing child. It can impair cognitive and social-emotional development, impacting learning, memory, decision-making, and more.

Some children develop emotional problems, act out with aggressive or disruptive behavior, form unhealthy relationships, or end up in trouble with the law. School performance often suffers, ultimately limiting job and income opportunities. The risk of suicide or drug and alcohol abuse can increase (Khoury et al., 2010). Kids who are exposed to chronic stress may also develop lifelong health issues, including heart attack, stroke, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

So how do some kids thrive amidst serious challenges, while others are overwhelmed by them? Researchers in my field are working to identify what helps children overcome obstacles and flourish when the odds are stacked against them.

It seems to come down to both support and resilience. Resilience is defined as the ability to spring back, rebound, or readily recover from adversity. It’s a quality that allows people to be competent and accomplished despite tough circumstances. Some children from difficult backgrounds do well from a young age. Others bloom later, finding their paths once they reach adulthood.

Ann Masten, a pioneer in developmental psychology research, referred to resilience as “ordinary magic.” Resilient kids don’t have some kind of superpower that helps them persevere while others flounder. It isn’t a trait we’re born with; it’s something that can be fostered.

The Key Factors That Help Kids Build Resilience

The same executive function skills that create academic success seem to bestow critical coping strategies. With the capacity to focus, solve problems, and switch between tasks, children find ways to adapt and deal with obstacles in a healthy way.

Controlling behavior and emotions is also key. In a recent study, 8- to 17-year-olds who maintained emotional balance despite mistreatment were less likely to suffer from depression or other emotional problems.

However, relationships seem to be the foundation that keeps children grounded. “Attachment relationships” provide a lifelong sense of security and belonging. A parent’s or caregiver’s consistent support and protection are crucial for healthy development and the most important of these relationships. Other caring adults can help: friends, teachers, neighbors, coaches, mentors, or others. Having steadfast support lends stability and helps kids build self-esteem, self-reliance, and strength.

Getting Stuck in Negative Emotions and Relationship Patterns

  • Our current moods set up “emotional filters” that only let thoughts, memories, and emotions that are congruent with those moods through.
  • Competing (maybe positive) thoughts, memories, and emotions get filtered out by your attentional system when you are feeling down.
  • Developing emotional intelligence and learning to direct your attention and thoughts away from negative cues can let you shift your experience.

You are having a bad day. Like most days lately, you feel anxious and worried — maybe even a bit hopeless and depressed. Nothing seems to be going right. You might think, “My life just sucks.”

Now ask yourself: Why do I have to wake up tomorrow feeling the same way I did today? The truth is that you don’t.

Changing Your Negative Experience and Thoughts

The main reason for the continuation of negative experience lies in how your brain’s attention and memory systems work. But each day you wake up, you don’t have to tell yourself the same painful story.

What if you lost your memory overnight and forgot the painful experiences and tortured thoughts you were having today. Would you still feel sad and anxious? I think not. You would literally wake up with a new outlook on life — one that is fresh and clean.

At this point, you might wonder if I am suggesting staying in negative circumstances. But that is not at all the case. If you woke up in a negative environment and experienced pain, you would probably get out of there and change your environment. So, why don’t you? If you say it is not that simple, then you probably need to consider whether the problem is with the situation or with the story you are telling yourself about it.

For example: Let’s say that this afternoon I have a disagreement with my wife about how to handle a behavior problem with one of our children. I then have a difficult conversation with that child in front of my wife. The result might be that the child has a strong negative emotional experience, I feel bad and dysregulated, and my wife feels bothered that she had to witness the exchange and see her child have a negative experience.

You might know people who would bounce back from this and 30 minutes later it is like nothing happened. You also might know people for whom the negative experience lasts all day or beyond. If I or my partner are in depressive mood states, we might perceive more negative emotions in each other and respond to each other assuming disapproval or bad feelings where they need not (or may not) really exist.

Our current moods set up “emotional filters” that only let thoughts, memories, and emotions that are congruent with those moods through. Competing (maybe positive) thoughts, memories, and emotions get filtered out.

In a recent paper on happiness at Widener University, clinical psychology doctoral students David Albert, Amanda Blazkiewicz, Ariful Karim, and Ariana Swenson, uncovered the following:

Research has demonstrated that when we are socially anxious or otherwise in a negative mood state, we are more likely to perceive that others are in negative mood states even when they are actually feeling neutral or happy (Garcia & Calvo, 2014). Obviously, if we think that others are looking at us with negative expressions, we are likely to tell ourselves a negative story that will further increase our own bad feelings.

Another study by Beevers et al. (2009) showed that, when people are in more negative moods, they are likely to perceive more negative moods in others. The authors of this study suggested that partners of those who are depressive might need to regularly focus on exaggerating their positive expressions in order to compensate for this effect. Over time, this might cause undue stress on the relationship and lead to more negative feelings. So, you can see that over time being in a negative mood could actually increase the chance that you will get even more depressed and less likely that you will be able to shift your focus to positive experiences.

Does Social-Emotional Learning Help Students Who Could Benefit the Most? We Don’t Know

Does Social-Emotional Learning Help Students Who Could Benefit the Most?

Let’s talk about what we know about social and emotional learning from the research.

SEL is understood as an interrelated set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills and strategies that underscore how we learn, form, and maintain supportive relationships; make empathetic and equitable decisions; and thrive both physically and psychologically.

Students today are more anxious, less connected, and more likely to have experienced trauma—a threat to their safety, agency, dignity, and belonging—than they were two years ago. And these experiences have been most profound for students marginalized by race, ethnicity, and ability. These students are more likely than their peers to have had their learning interrupted, be underserved, experience the loss of loved ones, and have their household income negatively impacted during the pandemic.

Fortunately, a significant portion of the $190 billion allocated by Congress to the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund must be specifically used to “respond to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs and address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on underrepresented student subgroups.” Accordingly, three-quarters of states list SEL or mental health as a top priority in their plans for ESSER funding, according to a recent review from our colleagues at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

We know that high-quality, systemic SEL can help students identify emotions from social cues, set goals, consider multiple perspectives, and problem solve. We also know that SEL can reduce bullying and school suspensions and improve academic performance and school climate.

But what research hasn’t yet established is how—or even whether—universal school-based SEL programs serve students with disabilities and students of color, who are among the most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the evidence for SEL’s impact on racially- and ability-marginalized youth is murky at best and nonexistent at worst because we haven’t looked deeply enough. And that’s a big problem.

To be honest, education research is riddled with descriptions of school-based interventions that, once studied, are revealed to inequitably serve students with disabilities and/or those of color. To quantify the extent of this problem, teams at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the education nonprofit EdTogether reviewed the current evidence describing whether SEL interventions are inclusive and representative. Our recent findings were nothing short of devastating.