Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Helping teachers to address their children’s emotional needs

K-12 education has spent the lion’s share of its energies on developing the cognitive side of our children. And, that’s not a bad thing, don’t get us wrong! But, "we" educators, parents, researchers, and students are now seeing that "we" need to deal with the emotional, non-cognitive side of our children too. As we noted in our previous blog on SEL (social and emotional learning), a child who is hungry for food, is not prepared to learn, and a child hungry for emotional stability is also not prepared to learn.

Continuing, then, with our blogs that investigate SEL, in this week’s post, we explore the role that the classroom teacher can play in helping our children develop just such emotional stability. The blogpost is written by a noted expert on children, teachers, and education, Dr. Shelja Sen.  Based in Delhi, India, Shelja is a co-founder of Children First:

  • "… a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service, located across two sites in the National Capital Region of Delhi, India. We provide a range of holistic mental health care solutions for children and adolescents until the age of 25 years. … However, as the journey has progressed, we have learnt that our vision and intent is so much more than creating “a” centre."

Indeed! As a component in that vision, we hope you will enjoy Shelja’s description (see below) of the critical role the classroom teacher can play in providing our children with SEL – social and emotional learning – support.

We (CN & ES) had the good fortune to meet Shelja at TECH19, an international, education conference sponsored by MGIEP and recently held (Dec, 2019) in Vishakhapatnam, India. On a panel entitled "Catalytic Session 4: SEL for teachers empowering teachers with SEL for self and the classroom," she told a compelling story of how a teacher, using SEL, positively impacted a young, troubled child.

(For additional articles and resources (e.g., a course on SEL!) we urge our readers to check out the SEL blogspace being hosted by our good friends at MGIEP - the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development.)

We thank Shelja for sharing her thoughts on teachers and SEL with us. The floor is yours, Shelja…

It Takes Courage to Be a Teacher

Prepared by: Dr. Shelja Sen

As a mother and a therapist, I have seen children go through an almost magical transformation every time they have an exceptional teacher. I remember working with a child who was struggling with depression and recurrent self-harm. We had tried all kinds of interventions for months, but the darkness was not budging. Then the school decided to change his section and put him with a teacher whose skills were known far and wide. And what she did was amazing.  In a couple of months’ time this child had not only pushed depression out of his life but was actively involved in the class play, being a buddy for another child with a learning disability and making new friends. When I asked the boy what had changed, he replied with a shrug and, "Dunno!"

Not satisfied with this answer and thoroughly intrigued, I contacted the boy’s teacher and asked her what "strategies" she had used. Her answer was very simple, "I just make sure the child knows that he is loved, he belongs and that the whole class is with him. He is not alone." I remember just sitting still for a long time after talking to her as the power of her words struck me.  All that talk and the buzz we hear about classroom management, teaching strategies, and inclusion all amount to nothing if the teacher is not able to love each and every child in the class and make sure they know it.

It is my deep faith that the magical relationship that a teacher builds with each child is the heart, the lifeblood and the bare-bones of learning. I use a simple mantra that I call the message of WOW:

  • W: You are Worthy as you are now! I will not define your worth by your marks, abilities or background.
  • O: You are Original! I will value your uniqueness, what makes you — "you" and not compare you to others.
  • W: You are Welcome! I will accept you as you are, I will not shame you and will make sure I give you an emotionally safe space to grow.

The core thing in WOW is "no matter what" you are worthy, you are original and you are welcome – no matter what your gender, ability, marks, sexuality, looks or background.  WOW is at the core of Socio-emotional learning (SEL).

In order to help teachers better understand WOW, I have an exercise for them:

  • To start with, think of one or two children in your class with whom you might be struggling. Now take a paper and pencil or pen, and answer some of these questions.
  • Worthiness

    When I look at/think of this child, do I feel he is worthy of my attention, my recognition, my respect, my trust, my optimism?

    Do I see him as worthy as any other child in the class?

    Do I make this sense of worthiness unconditional

  • Original

    When I look at/think of this child, do I see the uniqueness of her being?

    Do I see her struggles, her difficulties but also her strengths, her assets and her affinities?

    Do I connect to what makes this child tick? Do I know her dreams, her passions, what makes her buzz?

  • Welcome

Do I enjoy the presence of this child in my class?

Do I communicate it through eye contact, calling out his name, greeting him, recognizing him at various levels?

Do I make sure that he understands that he has a unique place in the school community?

As teachers and adults, it is critical that we constantly keep reflecting and asking ourselves these questions. If you felt uncomfortable while doing this reflection, you are on the right track. These are tough and painful questions for us to face. It’s not about being a perfect teacher but a more mindful and compassionate one.  As a teacher, I have to be aware of children I connect to easily and where the WOW flows spontaneously.

However, more importantly I have to be mindful when I struggle to give WOW to a child. Again, here I would like to reiterate my deep belief that teaching is not about them but about us. It is a daily practice for us to connect to our children and create the wonder of learning. If I am not able to make the connection and see the WOW, I need to dig deep and reflect on what is stopping me from doing that. There is no greater learning than that. No workshop, seminar, training can help me become a better teacher till I look within and face the gremlins that stop me from connecting to the WOW in that child.