Holly Valentine | September 2019

Social-Emotional Learning for All


SEL. Social-Emotional Learning. If you really think about what this is, we encounter it absolutely everywhere, and it’s not just something for students. We all need to think about SEL, and it’s an ongoing, needed area of growth for everyone. It can change so much with so little, and so easily, for so many. SEL benefits us all.

It seems as though everywhere we turn lately, there are products aimed at capturing our heart and our emotions with just a catchphrase or even with single words. I find myself drawn to them. Plain white mugs with just a single word on them: “create”, “sing”, “happy”. Wall decor that is targeting home and family. Just today in my social media feed, there was an ad for the simplest of t-shirts. It was black, with plain multi-colored letters in a very simple font. It read, “Human•Kind … be both”. I was struck by that message, and how simply it said something that mattered so much. Aren’t these the skills that we try to teach students? We talk and talk about it, sometimes to the point where it becomes a catchphrase, but have you ever tried to do the opposite? Say more with less?

SEL Benefits: Less is More

There are articles after articles about the benefits of the arts in the classroom for SEL purposes. It is not a hidden fact that using the arts allows students to express themselves. Allowing for creativity helps to build a safe, risk-taking environment for them. Elizabeth Peterson talks about the idea of truly combining SEL and the Arts into one term, SEAL. There are also so many fantastic ideas and ways to build social awareness through the arts. There is a multitude of incredible articles and resources right here within the topics in EducationCloset.

What I notice though, is that so many of the articles (which are wonderful and filled with fantastic ideas that you can implement immediately) and the ideas to promote it in our classrooms are aimed at we can do for the kids. But what if we reversed that and let the kids tell us what they need and want? What would help them to feel safe and part of an environment that cares with them, and also allows them to connect on a stronger level with their peers?

Challenge Them

Allow them the opportunity to create the new phrase, the new motto that will aim at our hearts, and allow us to see into their childlike minds – which are often considered simplistic, but can be so profound in what they truly want and ask for. We so often tell kids we want MORE: more details, more quality, more patience. But what if we tell them we want less? What if we ask them to create a message (or even a hashtag) to tell us the thing they want most from their world. Notice I say their world – not our world. Let them show us their world and let us take the time to look through their lenses. All too often we are putting our world onto them.

Think about those one-word mugs, the short phrase t-shirts. A teacher I work with has one that says simply: “be a nice human”.  Whenever she wears it, she gets so many positive comments about it. Tell your students you want them to reach the heart of the matter, (and the heart), simply. If they need help getting started, give them a simple phrase to complete about their world and the people in it: “I just wish...” That will put them at the simplest point of what they wish were different in their world and allow them a starting point to adapt into a phrase.

Visualize the Message

Once students have created their phrase or message, allow them to bring it to life. How will they represent it? In the less is more notion, ask them to consider how they can draw attention to their message, but not hit someone over the face with it. Let them experiment and consider the elements of art and how their message fits. What are the colors they choose? The fonts? The style? The layout? Why do they make the choices they do?

Having them justify their choices brings closure to the idea that artists constantly edit, revise and evaluate while connecting with their audience. Isn’t this what we do as learners every single day? Of course, don’t forget to have them consider why this is the message they created. Inevitably, they have a personal connection to it and a desire for their message to take hold. It’s important to listen to the kids in front of you. They are sharing what you need and want to know.

Send It Out

In this age of social media, have your students come up with a plan to put their message out into the world. Allow them to collaborate and feed off of each other for ideas. Let the action come from them. Just the very act of discussing, collaborating and creating together is building on so many important SEL strategies and allowing them time to learn from each other. Just remember to take note of their words yourself. As stated earlier, SEL benefits all of us, and from the simplest of ideas, the biggest change and growth can occur. Take a step back and become the learner. Watch your own emotional health expand through the heartfelt words of your students.

About the Author

Holly Valentine is the Director of Curriculum and Assessment for the Institute for Arts Integration and Steam. Prior to joining the Institute, Holly worked as an Arts Integration and Classroom Teacher for 20 years in a suburb of Rochester, NY. She is a certified Arts Integration Specialist and has served as an Arts Standards Writer for the New York State Education Department. Holly has been a recipient of the NYC Broadway League's Apple Award for her work in Arts Education. She also serves as the Director of Education for the Rochester Broadway Theatre League, where she has created nationally recognized programs and develops standards-based curriculum for touring Broadway shows in order to bring the theatre to classrooms and classrooms to the theatre. Holly holds both a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theatre and Psychology as well as a Masters degree in Education from Nazareth College in Rochester, NY,  where she currently lives.