As teachers, we know that our teaching is never limited to just content. We teach our students everything! Along with content, teachers have been known to teach students how to tie their shoes; how to cook a meal; how to write a check, and even how to think. We do not simply teach students. We build people. That’s a powerful statement: We build people.
Cornerstones: Social-Emotional Learning and Social Studies
In Social Studies, for example, building people is one of the major cornerstones of the teaching we do. We have to teach students how to ask questions of the world and search for viable responses… All while simultaneously finding solutions for today’s ills. Although this is not a part of the content, we have to step outside of the specific content box and into an all-inclusive one that includes a healthy supplement to the content.
This complementary idea brings us to social and emotional learning.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is learning that takes place in the classroom, but which focuses heavily on interpersonal skills. These skills include:
- Understanding and managing emotions
- Setting and achieving positive goals
- Feeling and showing empathy for others
- Establishing and maintaining positive relationships
- Making responsible decisions.
As you can see, none of these have anything to do with content directly! However, in order for true learning to take place in your classroom, you will have to address these core competencies of SEL to give students a full scope. So let’s dive in deeply!
Understanding and Managing Emotions
First, students must learn how to understand and manage their emotions. Why? Because it is imperative for them to learn how to have positive relationships with others. It is natural to have emotions. However, we have to be taught how to “make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards as social norms.” (casel.org)
Yes, it is okay to be angry at someone or at a certain situation. However, lashing out against another classmate or individual just because of our anger does not justify that behavior. Believe me, this is a skill that students will spend most of their primary and secondary years trying to master!
We must also teach students that when they have certain emotions, especially negative ones, how to reach out for help to preserve their safety. Let’s say a student is being bullied. This student may feel disrespected, inferior, worthless, unattractive – just to name a few.
Obviously, this will vary from student to student. But feeling these emotions over time can lead to a huge blow-up where the bullied student takes revenge on his or her aggressor. This puts the aggressor and any bystanders in an unsafe situation. These negative feelings may also lead to mental health issues, like depression or anxiety. This could be dangerous to the well-being of our young students and hinder their positive development into adulthood.
I know what you are saying at this point, so I will answer you. No, as a collective, we are not counselors. Some of you may be, but the majority of us are not. But take this into consideration.
We may have never had a counseling training course or even a counseling session with a licensed professional. But, we have the responsibility of helping students learn to understand and manage their emotions. We are building people.
Setting and Achieving Positive Goals
This is another primary point we must teach our students. This point may seem to be unimportant, but it can be extremely positive when done to fidelity. Our young students only see either the beginning of the rainbow or the end of the rainbow. There is hardly a time when students walk the process of a situation.
For example, a student may notice that on their report card they have an F at the end of that marking period. They only see the end of the rainbow! They’re not connecting the dots to see all of the steps they took to get to that F. They beg you to change their grades. Maybe they even have their parents put pressure on the administration to make you change their grades. Or perhaps they ask for extra credit two days before grades are due.
That is where setting and achieving positive goals come in. Teach students how to take charge of their grades by setting and achieving positive goals in order to change the trajectory that they are on.
In the aforementioned example, this student may work with his or her teacher to develop a list of short term goals that, when put together, change their pot of coal at the end of the rainbow (the “F”) to a pot of gold (a passing grade) at the end of the rainbow.
I love having students write this process out in their agendas or in their notebooks, so they can see these goals every day and even multiple times per day. There is power in seeing those goals often: it becomes engrained into your mind AND you are ten times more likely to reach those goals because they are ever-present in your psyche!
In the past, I had an exceptional student who caught onto my material very quickly. He knew most of the answers and could even teach others. He was on it… when he was awake. After learning that his reasoning for sleeping had nothing to do with “the things counselors would handle,” we dove in and started creating goals to help him become more productive in class. We had to help him learn how to control his natural impulses to play his game from the night before to right before having to come to school the next day. (Yes, he loved playing his game!). To help him manage himself, we:
- Limited the amount of time he played his games in the evening. (We enlisted his father’s help with this!)
- Gave a hard bedtime requirement according to his age. (We enlisted his father’s help with this, too!)
- Set expectations for homework completion.
- Set a time frame where we could monitor improvements.
We discussed the benefits of doing these things over time. I even let him decide upon what types of incentives at different checkpoints.
By the end of the second semester, this student was able to pull his significantly low grade up to a low B, which was more representative of what he actually knew!
Why Should We Care?
Feeling and showing empathy for others is the third primary skill our students must learn to be able to master social and emotional learning. I will admit that our students tend to feel out of touch with caring about what others go to. This is especially true when they have not experienced what another individual is enduring.
In my experience, this is the biggest hindrance to students learning Social Studies. It was even the case for me in college as I barely waded through Western Civilizations I and Western Civilizations II. If students cannot feel, they will not connect!
Let’s revert back to the topic of bullying. There are many times when students are bullied, for example, but no one comes to the aid of the person being bullied. Those bystanders blend into the crowd as if to protect themselves from being singled out as the next victim. Consider this video, in which the bystanders live their lives isolated from the bullying incident without showing empathy to the person being bullied. Yes, they may feel empathy, but feeling empathy and actually showing empathy are two separate actions.
In the past 10 years, this country has seen an influx of students committing suicide as a way to escape bullying in the past. The families of those affected have said in numerous interviews that their child was bullied, but no one did anything to stop the bullying and protect the affected child. Even when parents tried to intervene, school and school administration did nothing to protect their children. This is extremely disappointing because it tells us that our students lack empathy for other people’s struggles. Adults lacked empathy, too.
In Social Studies, we emphasize social awareness as we discuss varying world cultures. We have to teach our students (and even ourselves sometimes) that differences do not mean deficits. We find it difficult to empathize with other groups of people because we focus on the immediate differences between the two (e.g., Black and white, American and Mexican, male and female) and we immediately distance ourselves from that group if they don’t “match” us.
For example, a male may distance himself from feminism simply because he is of a different gender. He will not empathize with the plight of women because it is not “his problem.” An example of a man who is empathetic to women’s rights would stand firmly and shout loudly, “Women’s reproductive rights should be determined by women!”
Establishing and Maintaining Positive Relationships
This is also a key skill that will benefit students from childhood through adulthood. This set of skills can be seen as an extension of understanding and managing their emotions because a lot of doors will be shut to people who do not understand how to manage their emotions.
We see many of our students come through our doors year after year who have all of the academic promise in the world, but who are challenged in the way of establishing and maintaining positive relationships. A lot of times our students consider their relationships with their peers, and even teachers, as “either-or.” Either the person is all in with the student – or – all against them. They see no “grey area.”
That is where we come in! Consider this: How do we learn to view people as assets as opposed to liabilities?
Yes, you may have a negative interaction in the moment, but how can this person be an asset to you in the future? First, we must help students learn to think before they act. During that thinking time, help students consider how their nemesis in this situation can help them in the future.
For example, becoming irate with the highest scoring student in the math class may not be a good idea if you need a math tutor. Fussing and arguing with the cheerleading coach may not be a great idea if you were considering joining the cheerleading squad. I have learned just talking students through difficult times will help position their thinking to one where they slowly began to understand the power and benefits of establishing and maintaining positive relationships.
Making responsible decisions
This is is hard enough for adults to do so making responsible decisions may be more difficult for developing children.
As mentioned earlier, students tend to think in the moment as opposed to thinking beyond the next few moments to a few days. But who can blame them, though? We live in a microwave age! This is the era where everything is done for us and is done quickly. If it takes longer, it annoys us and we will quickly make the wrong decision – just for the sake of actually making a decision.
In Social Studies, we teach students to think critically about the world around them. We learn the ramifications of historical decisions that morphed one era into another era. We learn about the benefits and disadvantages of the decisions of leaders – great and not so great. Once students realize that they are bound to their decisions and that they can have very negative or very positive effects on their young lives, they become committed to the process.
In order to make a great decision, one must first consider both the positive and negative effects of that decision!