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Social and Emotional Learning at Spero Academy Part I: What is SEL?

by Devin Taylor

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is an educational strategy focused on building student competency in the areas of Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning defines it as: 

“a process through which people build awareness and skills in managing emotions, setting goals, establishing relationships and making responsible decisions that supports their success in school and in life.” 

Basically, SEL teaches us how to handle the task of being a human in the world.

Social and Emotional learning is something we do naturally. With or without intentional instruction, children learn how to react to both internal and environmental stressors. They learn how to respond to conflict, pressure, and emotions -- their own and those of others -- based on what is present or absent in the guidance they receive from adults. 

So how do educators make their SEL instruction more intentional?

The SEL program at Spero Academy employs a curriculum from Move this World. Using a sequential approach, this curriculum offers simple lesson plans that focus on the individual skills needed to resolve conflict or deal with strong emotions. For example, when teaching very young children to manage their emotions, a necessary first step is to learn what feelings look like like so that these feelings are recognizable when they occur.

Young children in particular learn better when they can actively participate in the thing they are learning. A kindergartener probably won’t learn self-regulation just by hearing their teacher read about it. A better strategy is to create activities where students can actively practice managing their biological response to internal and environmental stress. This is key to mastering the SEL competencies of self-awareness and self-management, both of which are essential to the act of self-advocacy. The ability to communicate and stand up for one’s own needs, desires, and point of view is necessary to navigate any social system, but it doesn't always come easy for children with disabilities affecting speech and language, sensory processing, emotional regulation, and social skills. For this reason, SEL is especially vital to students in Special Education.

In the world of Special Education, Social and Emotional learning is almost inextricable from the academic school day. Empowering students to self-regulate contributes to academic growth by helping them make their bodies ready to learn. This concept has grown along with our knowledge of the connection between socioemotional wellness and academic success. But not all struggles related to SEL come from within. Living, working, and learning with other people means having to communicate, resolve conflicts, and problem solve. For this reason, peer communication is a central part of programming at Spero Academy, and a key part of helping students understand their own behavior and that of others.

But what is the relationship between communication skills and student behavior?

“Behavior is a form of communication,” says Ms. Larissa, Kindergarten teaching assistant at Spero Academy. “When our students have feelings and emotional responses, they are communicating a need with us. It is up to us to listen and respond to their emotional needs with what works best for them. Once they have their emotional needs met, then they will be ready to take on new learning endeavors.”  

Working with Spero Academy’s youngest learners, Ms. Larissa and the rest of the kindergarten team play a critical role in establishing the fundamentals of SEL, putting students on the right path to do their best learning and personal development throughout their elementary school years and beyond. When asked about serving in this role at this early stage, she states:

“The most critical aspects of SEL to establish early on are the students' understanding of their feelings and that it is healthy to have feelings. We work on acknowledging and understanding our feelings [and] the connections that our feelings have to our bodies. For example; ‘what happens to my body when I am mad’ and ‘what does my body need?’” 

Ms. Larissa became a passionate supporter of social and emotional learning during her internship with Free Arts MN. It was through this work, she says, that she learned how to connect with and support the development of children on a social and emotional level. 

“I was able to see firsthand how important it was for students to have an outlet in which they can explore their social and emotional needs,” says Ms. Larissa. “It is extremely important for children to have these social and emotional opportunities whether it be through art, play, curriculum, or everyday relationships.”

Starting the school year in Distance Learning meant that our new students -- including many kindergarteners who were new to school altogether -- had to get to know their teachers and classmates online. To establish a connection with their students and a foundation for social and emotional learning, the kindergarten team recreated videos from the curriculum from Move this World.

As we transitioned into a Hybrid Learning model, teachers created hands-on activities that students could complete at home or in the classroom. Kindergartners learned that Even Superheroes Have Bad Days and made their own masks and superhero cuffs so they could dress the part!

As important as it is to understand what social and emotional learning is, it’s equally important to understand what it is not. As management psychologist, David Caruso, says:

“It is very important to understand that emotional intelligence is not the opposite of intelligence. It is not the triumph of the heart over the head -- it is the unique intersection of both.”

SEL is not meant to supersede academic learning, but to support and work in tandem with it. Research shows that students who participate in SEL programming demonstrate increased academic success, improved self-esteem and peer relationships, and have fewer issues related to personal conduct. 

The integration of evidence-based social and emotional learning helps students better access their education while developing the skills to put that education to use in the world beyond the classroom.

“I notice many changes to the learning environment where the SEL curriculum is used,” says Ms. Larissa. “I notice the increase of awareness and advocacy that students have for their feelings and their needs. I am starting to notice students' awareness of their classmates’ feelings and needs as well! Helping students to understand their own feelings and needs will allow them to begin to understand other people's feelings and needs which leads to growth in social skills.” 

SEL can happen anywhere at any time. Children are always learning how to respond to life around and within them. But optimal social and emotional learning cannot occur if the surrounding environment does not feel socially and emotionally safe. Educators who teach SEL without knowing or considering a student’s background or experience may unknowingly fail to provide such safety. In our next installment, we will explore the importance of teaching culturally responsive SEL and the steps that educators can take to provide a safe learning space for all students.


Make sure to check out future installments in our Social Emotional Learning series!

Part II: Teaching Culturally Responsive SEL

Part III: SEL in the Special Education Classroom

Part IV: SEL at Home and in the Community