How to Foreground Social Emotional Learning from the First Day of School
What It Means to Foreground SEL
As summer gives way to perhaps the most uncertain educational environment in memory, proactive foregrounding of a social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum that helps students feel safe, secure, and self-regulated, will be more important than ever. But what does it mean to “foreground?” Well, think of your favorite painting or a famous photograph and try to recall “the area that is of most importance and activity.” That’s the foreground. The other elements are still present, but one area has been brought into sharp relief, serving as a location of ultimate focus. That is our task beginning from the first day of school: to create an area of sharp focus around the guiding principles of SEL: to create, integrate, communicate, instruct, and empower.
The Classroom Culture: Students First
Although there are many different SEL models, frameworks, and state initiatives, the five core competencies of the CASEL framework are typical: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. The classroom, with its ability to place focus both on explicit curriculum as well as the general cultural “feel” of the space, is the first ring in the framework. Foregrounding social emotional learning means putting classroom culture, and each student’s place in it, at the center.
A positive social emotional learning culture in the classroom must be strong if it’s going to make a difference. Getting Smart identified the following five strategies to do so: Establish common SEL language, develop classroom norms, schedule time for meaningful conversations, utilize group work and interdisciplinary projects, and keep the focus on building relationships. To be successfully foregrounded, SEL in the classroom cannot be a hodgepodge implementation. It must be implemented across classrooms and grade levels with fidelity and be adequately supported and tracked by school and district leadership—and it must start on day one.
Social Emotional Learning: Inside and Outside of School
There is no doubt that placing a foreground focus on SEL requires a major investment inside the classroom. The Wallace Foundation profiled more than a dozen in-school, lesson-based curricula, as well as several in-school, non-curricular approaches, and those were just at the elementary and middle levels. For example, the Caring School Community program focused on taking time to “build classroom community, set class norms and goals, build social skills, and help students learn to make decisions and solve problems related to classroom life” and was shown to result in increased positive behaviors, decreased delinquent behaviors, and achievement gains in reading and math, among other positive outcomes.
Out-of-School Time, or OST, programs also hold promise for your SEL foregrounding strategy. These programs, like Girls on the Run or WINGS for Kids, are usually after school programs that meet regularly—often daily—during the school year, and combine explicit SEL curriculum with games, activities, snacks, and community service projects.
There is no need to limit yourself to a “formal” program. When I was a middle school administrator, I partnered with a professor and students from a local college to establish two primarily OST program partnerships. One in particular had social emotional learning outcomes built into its DNA; it was a program run by women students at the college and was geared toward helping at-risk girls build stronger interpersonal relationships, aspire to college as a viable option for their futures, and develop more positive feelings about themselves in general. With appropriate levels of oversight and family permission in place, programs like these became a key part of our approach to social emotional support for our students, because they fostered real-world conversations, not scripted interactions, for our middle school population.
Involve Parents in SEL
Speaking of outside-of-school programming, one of the best ways to ensure that social emotional learning will be in the foreground as you start the year is to reinvigorate your relationship—preferably partnership—with parents. Communicate your SEL strategy to parents before the start of the school year, laying out how you will support, say, the development of executive functioning skills and the building of interpersonal relationships—but don’t forget to ask parents what skills they feel are most important for the school to teach and to provide opportunities for them to volunteer.
If a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) program is already part of your social and emotional/multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) portfolio, think of ways to bring parents and parent organizations into active participation with that initiative. If parents and families are expressing a desire to use more SEL outside of school hours, encourage them and engage them in a discussion of how to bring social emotional learning home. Anything the school can do to promote positive behaviors and strengthen families is to the good.
Blended Learning and SEL
Distance learning has presented near-universal challenges for educators. As the fully remote learning world gradually gives way to school re-opening and more of a blended learning approach, it’s the perfect time to plan for social emotional learning to occupy a prominent spot in the foreground. For example, when planning your blended learning schedule, schedule either rotation time, “home base” time, or similar specific to social emotional learning and building relationships, both peer to peer and peer to adult. Show students and families that this time will be prominent and protected as part of any blended learning strategy at your school. They’ll see it and feel it on the first day of classes.
Leverage Your Learning Management System for Social Emotional Learning
Your learning management system (LMS) is the digital space where curriculum and relationships intersect, and it’s also a critical tool in foregrounding social emotional learning, particularly in a blended learning environment. For example, let’s say a school decides to work on responsible decision-making at the secondary level as an SEL goal. Teachers might decide to incorporate information on digital decision making and citizenship as part of this initiative. Teachers could curate, store, and provide digital citizenship resources to students via the LMS and launch an asynchronous discussion board topic about what elements students would like to include as classroom online behavior guidelines. Then, during a “soft start” or other designated meeting time, teachers and students could collaborate to refine, publish, and collectively commit to the final list, thus setting the SEL tone for the rest of the year.
Welcome the Whole Child Back to School
As students and families transition from distance learning to blended learning this fall, uncertainty and COVID-19 concerns are driving a massive increase in mental health concerns among young people. There will be plenty of time to assess and address curriculum gaps and the like, but the old adage is especially true this year: students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. That’s why, for right now, curriculum issues will remain a little bit fuzzier in the background. This fall, foreground social emotional learning, and continue to pursue policies that support the whole child. In this unprecedented time, it’s more important than ever.