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

Several experts in the education system say that social/emotional learning (SEL) is an important component of formal education
Children learning music in the classroom (Jose Luis Pelaez-Stone-Getty Images)
Children learning music in the classroom. Taking the time to learn self-regulation skills and strategies has been shown to increase children's academic success

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.

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.

“Ironically enough,” Perry explains, “the best way to make the top part of the brain receptive to learning is to make sure these lower parts of the brain are regulated. And one of the most effective ways to regulate lower parts of the brain is to take advantage of patterned, repetitive sensory experiences.”

Strategies that use these patterned, repetitive sensory experiences can be learned and used by children to reach the calm, alert state where the best learning happens. Students can also be taught to help other children reach that state. This is called co-regulation, which is an extremely valuable skill for high-quality social connections.

“I think one of the most important things that we stress,” Molnar said, “is that these aren’t just what some people call ‘soft skills’ versus, you know, academic content. They’re actually the skills of living with humans, with yourself and others.” She said that by changing how we understand behaviour, we can move from an outdated punishment focus to an understanding of how to help children consistently and deliberately achieve a learning state that will propel them to academic success.

The first step is to help children recognize and label their emotions. “So, recognizing that they’re in an emotional state or a high-stress stage, or that there’s something going on with their body, that there are external stressors,” Molnar explained. This leads to a feedback response. For example, children may recognize that their heart is racing, identify that they’re stressed, and use a strategy to calm themselves.

“One of the big ‘aha!’ moments that always comes out in these workshops is that these are life skills,” Molnar said. Small stress responses seen in four-year-olds become bigger stress responses in teens, then adults. Road rage, for instance. Learning the skills earlier is easier, like riding a bike, Molnar said.

Children can also benefit from the co-regulation of their parents and teachers – modelling is one of the most effective teaching techniques.

Some strategies/methods to teach our children and ourselves to return to a calm, alert, learning state are:

  • Learning to recognize and label emotional states
  • Learning body awareness (clenched jaw, racing heart, cold sweat, fidgeting)
  • Finding a quiet spot for a few minutes
  • Listening to music
  • Exercise (jumping jacks, walking, yoga)
  • Deep breathing and meditative techniques

This is part two of a two-part article on social/emotional learning. Part one can be found here.