Social Emotional Education: Teacher's hold the Key

Social Emotional Education is a big buzz phrase in teaching these days and for good reasons. We have known for a while now that children learn better when they feel safe.  And now we know there are kids (people) who do not learn about social interactions and emotions through everyday  interactions the way most people do.  These folks need to be explicitly taught.  You probably know someone like this already.  Is there someone who rambles on as if they don't notice you are yawning and giving other signals you are bored of the conversation?  Well, they probably really don't notice.  How bout that one who interrupts a conversation to interject their ideas and are a bit off topic? In the classroom there is the child who shouts out answers in class despite being told repeatedly to raise his hand.  There are the children who don't seem to understand how their actions make others feel in some moments. Some are not always sure what they are feeling themselves.  

When I was in college one of our textbooks was Teaching Children To Care, by Ruth Sydney Charney.  It was a pivotal book that led to many schools, including the one I worked at, to acquire staff training in the Responsive Classroom Method.  Responsive Classroom addressed classroom management, community building, and social emotional education.  The pieces were all there:
  1. Create a safe, nurturing classroom environment
  2. teach skills explicitly.
  3. Provide time to practice- particularly using role play.
We did this with everything from procedures for handwashing and using new classroom tools or supplies to how to ask someone to play at recess or handle sharing with a friend.

Nowadays, with 8-10% of kids with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders on a steep rise over the last 10 years, it is becomming more common knowledge that some children need explicit instruction in recognizing emotions in themselves and in others, and in handling social situations many people take for granted.  How do you know if people are interested in what you have to say?  How do you  know how another person is feeling at a given moment? 

More and more schools are adopting social curriculums and asking for teachers who have experience with Social Emotional Education.  I know that I myself have continued to build my skills in this area, not because it is a trend, but because it is essential in helping all kids have the skills they need in life.  I am a little leary of SE Curriculums that are in a box, "We are going to do SEcurriculum now children".  What about the rest of the day or the specific needs of the class?  Making time for explicit instruction and practice of new skills is truly important, yes, I won't argue that ever.  But I am concerned about a prescribed approach.  Integrating the "practice", the "positive",  for the visual, auditory, or tactile learner in a way that doesn't single out one or two children is also a vital piece of the puzzle.  A piece that can be addressed through focus on one skill classwide, with some form of visual/tactile reminder as a stoplight card on a desk or as a necklace.  Green, good; yellow, warning,slow down or change direction; red, Stop!  This system can be used all day for all the kids, just with eyecontact and a pointed finger.  Love it. 

The other component, is to create a safe, nurturing classroom environment all day, every day, for every child.  In order to ensure that the classroom environment is that nurturing, teachers need to be in firm possession of a positive discipline style, that capitalizes on positive moments, and does not overemphasize the mistakes or problems.  The kids who have the most difficulties in the area of Social Emotional Learning can be some of the most frustrating for some teachers.  These are the kids for whom ordinary discipline strategies don't work well if at all.  Sometimes these kids can come across as unlikeable to peers and teachers alike. 

This is where the teacher truly holds the key.  For these kids it is my experience that they will only succeed or thrive with a teacher that can love them anyway, despite what others may percieve as rude, disruptive, or uncaring nature.  A teacher who can see the sweet child through the spectrum of odd and or unlikeable behaviors, will do more good for the child's success and attitude at school than any mandated curriculum.  Love alone is the basis for the tone in the classroom and the foundation for building positive peer and teacher relationships within the class.

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