by Michelle Benedict
Have you ever walked into a classroom of chaos? How did that feel as the adult in the room? How do you think it feels as a student? Learning in today’s classroom environment is quite different from 30 years ago when I sat in a fourth grade classroom. I remember the level of control my teacher maintained each day. Most of our activities were whole group, with little reason for squabbles between individual students.
Over the years, the dynamic of the classroom itself has changed, but so have the students who sit in the room. It would have been unheard of to see flexible seating in a 1980s classroom, though you find that in many typical classrooms today. Students came to school with a different social-emotional skill set as well. Most children who grew up in the 1980s played outside with other children regularly, and had time to practice skills like turn-taking, engaging in conversations, and practicing empathy in that setting. They waited in lines with their parents with no device to keep them company, so they learned patience.
Today’s students might play outside sometimes (or hardly ever), and may practice more of their
conversational skills through social media than with each other. This potentially creates a barrier for
students when they need to be able to play a learning game in the classroom, for example. If they only
played a video game with one player, there was no reason to have to wait for a turn. If they played this
same game for hours alone in a room, as many students do, there is no reason to carry a conversation or
feel empathy for anyone. There are devices of all kinds keeping children from the “boredom” of waiting
for anything. This is why social-emotional learning (SEL) is needed in every classroom, both as part of
the instruction, and as school-wide programming.
Social-emotional learning prepares students to participate actively in their school environment, but it
also increases students’ capacity to learn academic material. Student learning is improved when
teachers marry SEL with academic tasks. When students develop an understanding of conflict resolution
through a picture book, for example, they are more motivated to learn and make a real connection to the
practice of that skill as well as the literary content, such as characters, setting, plot, etc. Students who
have social-emotional learning embedded throughout their entire school experience (as compared to
those who did not) demonstrate the following:
- Increased academic achievement
- Increased social-emotional skills
- Improved attitudes toward self and others
- Improved positive social behaviors
- Decreased conduct problems and emotional distress
These results were consistent across grade level (elementary, middle, and high schools); location
(urban, rural, and suburban); and school type (schools serving ethnically and racially diverse student
populations). This means that all students need to learn social-emotional skills in the same way that
students need to learn academic content. What’s really amazing about focusing on social-emotional
learning is that is actually makes teaching content easier, because once students have practiced many of
the SEL skills, they are able to interact with the teacher and other students in a deeper way, and with
fewer disruptions, when academic content is then introduced.
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. and Schellinger, K. B. (2011), The Impact of
Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal
Interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x
Brackett, M. A., Elbertson, N. A., Weissberg, R. P. (2000), School-Based Social and Emotional Learning
(SEL) Programming: Current Perspectives, Springer International Handbooks of Education 23,
Zins, J., Bloodworth, M., Weissberg, R., & Walberg, H. (2004). The scientific base linking social and
emotional learning to school success. In J. Zins, R. Weissberg, M. Wang, & H. Walberg (Eds.), Building
academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say (pp. 3-22)? New York,
NY: Teachers College Press.
Join Michelle Benedict for Mindful Instruction: Teaching the Standards with Intention at the 2018 Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth Conference.