Child Development

Maintaining an Inclusive School Environment Through Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. -Theodore Roosevelt

An inclusive and supportive school climate is an important part of education for teachers, students, administrative staff, and parents. One of the ways that we can maintain a school culture that is inclusive is by ensuring that students have a Social-Emotional Learning program (SEL) in place, or, at the very least, that teachers are employing strategies to promote SEL in their classrooms.
SEL programs teach both children and adults how to understand and express their emotions in a healthy way, while also promoting empathy and acceptance for others. The ideas behind SEL programs and the research connected to these programs is part of a fairly new discussion, but it is one that is vital for teachers to have with school administrators and parents.
Schools are growing in diversity with regard to ethnicity, culture, socio-economic status (SES) and background.  As educators, we must provide a classroom environment that is welcoming and safe for all students.
What has happened a lot in education, particularly with certain “trends”, is that schools may adopt practices for a month, a semester and even as long as a year, but then, soon enough, they are ready to move onto the next hot topic.
Education is evolving and changing constantly; however, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) or whatever we may be calling it in 5 years, needs to remain a constant in order to have the most impact on the next generation of students. Luckily, SEL is something that can be integrated into the daily routine, no matter what age group you are working with.
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Check in at the beginning of class
Rather than hitting the ground running with course content, start the class with a moment to touch base with your students to help set the tone for the day.
With my college students, for instance, I usually incorporate a free-write activity that plays on the week, current events, or it might just be a way for students to get ideas/thoughts/feelings down on paper. We then have an open discussion for just a few minutes if anyone is willing to share. This moment usually sets the mood for the remainder of the class session.
Checking in can be as simple as greeting your students or starting with something light at the beginning of class, rather than just jumping right in. Typically, as teachers, this is something that we are likely doing already.
Build a classroom culture of kindness & openness
Creating a culture of kindness and openness must start from the beginning of the school year to effectively promote Social-Emotional Learning. We, as teachers, must lay the groundwork for how we communicate with our students and how we allow our students communicate with one another. But, the work doesn’t end once you’ve set ground rules in place, as they likely will need to be reinforced throughout the school year.
For example, during class discussions, things can get heated, and differences of opinion between students are likely to occur. These differences can provide for wonderful teachable moments to explain that the classroom is a safe place to voice your opinion, but that we must respect and listen to the opinions of others during discussions. Maintain the stance that all students are valued members of your classroom or learning community.
Work as a team
Though the idea of teamwork might be thought of as more common in early childhood and elementary classrooms,  it can work in a high school or college setting as well. A lot of one’s educational career and achievements are thought of as a solo activity, though there are ways to incorporate projects into your lessons to teach the importance of working together as a team.
In one of my college classrooms, I arranged a debate between students. I first asked the students their opinion on a certain topic, and then split them up into two groups, mixing together students with varying opinions. In each group, they needed to work together to create a solid case for whichever side of the argument they were assigned to represent, sort of like a group of lawyers working to prove their client’s innocence. They needed to create roles and “jobs” for each team member and needed to present their case to the class clearly and effectively.
As we progress through life, it becomes increasingly important for us, especially as adults, to be able to work together as part of a group. Being a “team player” is considered to be an invaluable skill in various professional settings. Activities that promote and teach teamwork help students to fine-tune their strengths while recognizing the strengths in others.
Explore the idea of mindfulness
Mindfulness meditation, and mindfulness in general has been finding its way into the classroom in recent years, and it can be incorporated to improve Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) as well.  In fact, there have been studies ranging from early childhood to high school regarding the benefits of incorporating mindfulness-type practices into the classroom.  Benefits range from stronger and longer attention spans to students who are more perceptive to the feelings of those around them.
These strategies are fairly simple and easy to incorporate. One particular strategy might be the practice of “mindful listening”, where you encourage students to really focus on one item or idea at a time. Or, some teachers have started ending their class time with a “mindful moment” to focus on what they learned or found interesting that day. Mindfulness Schools, a proponent of the movement, explains some of the ideas and background of mindfulness in more detail here.
A lot of the strategies and ideas mentioned here are things that teachers do daily without realizing that they are promoting Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Regardless of whether or not you are a teacher utilizing strategies like these in the classroom, it is important to remember that by promoting SEL, we help to enhance our students’ emotional intelligence and help to build a strong foundation for how they might approach relationships, both personal and professional,  in the future.

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