Starting a new school year always prompts me to reflect on previous years. What can I do better? What do I need to implement? What do I want to continue? What’s different this year that needs to be addressed in a distinct way?
One thing that I keep coming back to as a paramount need is to build my program on a strong base of social-emotional learning (SEL) and mental health and wellness support.
So what is social-emotional learning? Well, social-emotional learning can be divided into five core competencies:
Self-awareness: The capacity to reflect on one’s own feelings, values, and behaviours.
Social awareness: The ability to view situations from another perspective, respect the social and cultural norms of others, and celebrate diversity.
Relationship skills: The ability to initiate and sustain positive connections with peers, teachers, families, and other groups.
Self-management: The set of skills that includes self-motivation, goal-setting, personal organization, self-discipline, impulse control, and use of strategies for coping with stress.
Responsible decision-making: The ability to make choices that consider the well-being of oneself and others.
A brief overview of what social-emotional learning is and why it is important can be found in this video:
Social-emotional learning is foundational to well-being and success in school and life. Not only that, it benefits everyone. Listen to Caige Jambor explain why in his TedTalk “How Social-Emotional learning Benefits Everyone.
So now that we understand SEL, we need to make sure we are framing it not as another ‘add-on’ but as an integral part of everything we do. So how do we do that?
I look at incorporating SEL in a multi-pronged approach namely Structure, Policy, Check-ins, Community Building, and Targeted Teaching.
Supporting mental wellness involves many things. One way to support it that may not immediately come to mind is structure. Having predictable and regular routines and structures in your classes lowers cognitive overload, which not only lowers stress but also creates a more optimal learning environment. Creating class routines is something that is pretty standard practice for educators in face-to-face classes. Teaching in an online environment may require a little more thought. For example, in my high school e-learning classes, which are asynchronous, students create their own routines around when, where, and how they go about doing their work. What I can control to help reduce cognitive load is the structure. One way to do this is by using templates. Templates help develop consistency, which is equivalent to routine in face-to-face classes. Templates help incorporate white space on the page, which is important because white space helps keep the page uncluttered, so they aren’t visually overwhelming. Furthermore, templates utilize layout features that are very helpful, like titles and headings, as well as incorporating consistent fonts and colour. These features not only reduce clutter and prevent visually overwhelming students; they also promote better accessibility. Screen readers function more successfully when pages are laid out consistently with headings, for example. Increasing accessibility is necessary for some students, but it’s helpful for all, so it’s a great stress reducer when accessibility features are incorporated into the design of your online components. Moreover, making accessibility a standard practice is inclusive—another supportive measure.
Have you ever heard the phrase “actions speak louder than words”? That is the phrase I think about when I’m looking at my classroom policies for late work, redoing assignments, grading and assessment, etc. If I’m focused on supporting student SEL and mental health and wellness, then my policies need to align with that. I ask myself questions like “Are my policies punitive?” Take, for example, a common practice like deducting marks for late work—is deducting marks supportive? Does deducting marks increase student learning of curriculum expectations in my subject area? In practice, does it help students get work in on time? In my particular case, deducting marks has not encouraged students to get work in any earlier than when I do not deduct marks. I’ve instead moved to a policy that takes into consideration the busy, stressful lives my students lead. First, I give students a weekly overview at the beginning of every week. Then students are aware and prepared for what is happening, and they, in turn, develop their self-regulation and organizational skills by scheduling their time to ensure their work gets done. I also utilize the Calendar tool and Work-to-Do widget in our virtual learning environment, which gives students the tools they need to help themselves stay organized and manage their time. Second, I stress that students communicate with me. I try not to look at due dates as ‘hard stops. Instead, I’ve taken a ‘Jack Sparrow’ approach—due dates are more guidelines than rules. What I’ve found is that students appreciate me respecting their time and rising to the occasion in creating their own schedules. It has also created more open communication with students because they no longer ‘fear’ the due date and take the initiative to talk to me when they are having challenges meeting any given date. A few students still struggle to get work submitted within a reasonable amount of time, but the open communication policy means students who have difficulty are more open to conference with me and develop a plan to support them. Respecting their time in this way has done far more than deducting marks ever did. I have had a higher percentage of assignments submitted in a timely manner, and students are learning self-management skills. In extenuating circumstances, students come to talk to me, which further supports them in advocating for themselves. Overall, reviewing my policies through this lens has been extremely effective in attaining the goals of the original policies but also much more supportive of students’ stress levels and has naturally given students opportunities to strengthen their time management, self-advocacy, and organizational skills.
Checking in with students is an important part of developing SEL skills. There are many means of doing check-ins with students, but one that can track and provide data to teachers is a game changer. Microsoft’s Reflect app in Teams is just that tool.
Reflect—a feature in Microsoft Teams—helps learners expand their emotional vocabulary, recognize and navigate their emotions better, and deepen empathy for their peers. It does this in part by providing regular opportunities for students to share and be heard.
When given a check-in question in the Reflect app, students select amongst 5 basic emojis ranging from very good to very bad. The emojis are also colour coded from green for very good to red for very bad with yellow being neutral. Once students select one of the five emojis, they are taken to a screen like the one seen below. You will notice the variety of words to help students be more specific about what they are feeling. As they hover over each word, the emoji monster changes expressions and a brief definition is given helping to improve the student’s emotional granularity.
Students as well as teachers are able to see responses over time in the Response view, seen below.
Teachers can choose to show the Reflect Together view to students to let them see the distribution of feelings in the class, allowing for discussion about the overall “temperature” in the room. Student names are always private and only ever shown to the teacher.
Furthermore, teachers can use Education Insights to get views on a class’s overall emotional state and individual student patterns. Filtering the data can let a teacher search for a specific time period, a specific student, a specific emotion, or a specific check-in question. This powerful data allows the teacher to be more in tune with the emotions of their students and gives them the capability to meet needs or implement support based on the patterns seen in the check-ins.
Another means of supporting student mental wellness and promoting social-emotional learning is through community building via inclusive and culturally responsive practices. Building social awareness involves helping the students to view situations from another perspective, respect the social and cultural norms of others, and celebrate diversity. Ensuring that lessons are built using diverse voices is key. In an English class, that means texts that are written by people of diverse backgrounds and whose content and themes reflect the lived experience of a wide array of cultures and backgrounds. In the process, social awareness, self-awareness, and relationship skills are strengthened. Building in reflective practices is a great way to do just that. Finally, the ability to make choices that consider the well-being of oneself and others is nurtured when we hear others’ stories and build empathy.
Research has demonstrated that explicit teaching of social and emotional skills improves student academic and behavioural performance and has lifelong positive effects. This rings true for me. A very successful method in my classes is embedding brain and learning science and self-help techniques into my lessons. If we are working on creating and giving presentations, we talk about the stress response and the things we can do to overcome those negative fears. Students see that what they are feeling is normal and that stress doesn’t have to stop them from achieving because we can learn coping mechanisms to help ourselves.
Lastly, there are a number of teaching strategies that support social-emotional learning. Project-Based Learning (PBL), for example, allows students to be in charge of their own learning, thus helping them build key skills like self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship-building. PBL is a teaching method where students gain work for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. PBL is different from other projects that are often used to wrap up a unit of study because, in PBL, the project is the unit of study and acts as the vehicle for teaching the important knowledge and skills students need to learn. The project itself contains and frames curriculum and instruction. PBL requires critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, and various forms of communication, all of which enhance and build social-emotional learning. Stories and perspective-taking, as touched on earlier in Community Building, are another powerful way to enhance social-emotional learning by building social awareness and empathy. Another method that is very supportive is Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Innovation defines UDL as “a teaching approach that works to accommodate the needs and abilities of all learners and eliminates unnecessary hurdles in the learning process” (Cornell University, 2022). Designing with challenges students may face and eliminating those challenges allows students to reach their full potential. UDL supports learners to cope with challenging activities by modelling specific learning strategies and providing mastery-oriented feedback, in turn, students learn self-regulation and self-awareness skills. Both SEL and UDL promote self-reflection and empower students to make decisions that best meet their needs. You can learn about other teaching methods and strategies that can support SEL by using the Learner Variability Navigator. Learn about the Navigator in my post Learner Variability and Digital Promise’s Instructional Design Tool.