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Emotional learning in our schools through SEL
By Mikayla Lewis

There’s a lot of talk about whether school prepares students for the “real world” and whether our schools’ curriculum falls short when addressing the needs of the whole child.  Intelligence is far more complex than just cognitive ability. In fact, it is now widely accepted that emotional intelligence plays a large role in one’s overall ability to adapt and be successful in the world.

Interaction with others is a definite constant in life. Although simple addition tables and knowledge of the ABC’s will certainly help us navigate life, they aren’t going to help us understand ourselves, or those around us. If only there were a class to deal with these complex issues, ones that fit into the category of relationships or emotions.

This is, in a nutshell, the purpose of Social and Emotional Learning, known as SEL among public and private schools.  SEL programs seek to encourage students to think about, discuss, and understand the things that often prove mystifying well past our school years – emotions, relationships, and choices. It’s imperative that students dig deep to understand this type of intelligence at a young age.

The classic SEL approach is to start by teaching the five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. As students work through these competencies, they learn how to handle their own personal feelings, and how to respect others’ as well.

When speaking about SEL, Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, says, “when a child trying to learn is caught up in a distressing emotion, the centers for learning are temporarily hampered. In an ideal learning environment, children are focused, fully attentive, motivated and engaged and enjoy their work.”  In short, children who feel emotionally supported by their teacher, as well as by their peers, feel at ease in the classroom and are more apt to pay attention and feel happy about learning.  Social and emotional learning facilitates academic learning.

While the concept may seem simple, it hasn’t been a widely taught subject until very recently. William E. Miller Elementary School in Bend has been at the forefront of implementing SEL and has some wonderful ideas about the program.

Miller uses Growth Mindset, the idea that good habits and strong abilities are not fixtures to be unlocked and completed, but that they are developed and refined through tenacity and hard work – that learning and growing never stops. Jenny White, an SEL teacher at the school, explains how they teach their kids that the human brain is a muscle, which anyone can strengthen, “through perseverance, hard work, and mistakes.” This truth encourages a love of learning and a persevering spirit.

Social and Emotional Learning is far from just a speaking point or a book topic – it is important for educators to incorporate this type of learning into the day to day environment of the classroom.  “We do a lot of activities that support the goal of the lesson, so the students are up and moving around,” White said. Whether that means running “neuron races” to illustrate the strengthening of the brain, or playing tug-of-war to bring to life the topics of struggle and encouragement, it’s a sure thing that SEL isn’t a class where kids find themselves sleeping.

After starting the year by discussing and implementing the Growth Mindset, the rest of Miller’s school year cycles through the five competencies, giving special attention to each topic with its own curriculum, activities, and lessons. This next part of the program, according to White, will see the kids through the Relationship Skills portion, and will likely include conflict-resolution and cooperation

Miller isn’t the only school in Central Oregon to recognize the importance of SEL. Seven Peaks brings the conversation to their middle school with programs focused on empowerment and social awareness. The school has established a partnership with World Muse, an organization dedicated to inspiring women by equipping them to bring about positive change in the world around them. The partnership has manifested itself as a Muse Club for the middle school girls at Seven Peaks, designed to prepare and support the students as they grow and develop their identities as strong, educated women. The club will also be running an operation focused on the charities and organizations whose ideals are important to the students.

Schools throughout the Bend-La Pine District are getting on board by launching their own SEL programs and campaigns, and it’s easy to see why that’s such a good thing. Parents should feel confident that their children are learning in a supportive environment.

As these new programs take shape and become commonplace, they encourage a new generation of
young people to respect and strengthen others while learning to respect and strengthen themselves. What does the real world need more than just that?

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