Teaching Teachers SEL: A Conversation With Dr. Deirdre Hon

By Dr. Deirdre Hon

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What motivated you to pursue your current focus on teacher SEL?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: My passion is about seeing what we need to do to prepare teachers before they go in the field to be what I think of as “SEL ready”—ready to implement SEL. So that’s my focus right now in the teacher prep realm.

I started as a high school science teacher, then middle school. What I noticed was that students were very stressed. We weren’t maneuvering through supporting students in the changes and challenges that they encounter in that age group. I became curious about adolescent stress and how schools could be better at supporting students develop coping strategies and become more resilient during this important developmental period. That led me to go back to school and learn more about adolescent stress, and particularly the physiology and the biology of stress. I was a science teacher, so I was interested in the science of it. And then, I was knee deep in the adolescent stuff. I realized that what I wanted to do was to teach teachers about supporting students. I felt that if teachers had a better understanding of stress and well-being in their students that they would approach this time in a different way. 

I realized that in order for us to support students in maneuvering through their stress and well-­being and build resilience, teachers themselves need those skills, first and foremost. I thought if we started with the adults and helped them cultivate their own resilience and coping strategies, then they’d be in a better place to support adolescents. But for all students—it’s important that the teachers are equipped with their own resilience so that they can support the work that they do with the students. 

That led me on my way and social-emotional learning became my focus. I started to think about what it takes for a teacher to be able to implement high-quality, social-emotional learning. It takes their pedagogical ability, but it also takes a teacher’s own level of self-awareness and management and social awareness and their own social-emotional competencies to be able to model and connect with students on those levels.  I asked, “Where are we doing this work? Where are we helping teachers understand what it takes to implement social-emotional learning?” I saw lots of professional development that was emerging to support teachers and their well-being, but I thought, What are we doing before they get into the field? What do we do to prepare our new teachers? How do we build their resilience before they walk into their classroom? How do we build their skill set, their social-emotional competencies, and their cultural competencies? What are we doing in our preservice programs? 

There was a report that Kimberly Schonert-Reichl [2017] came out with that did a large scan of curricu­lum and preservice teacher education, looking at where social-emotional competencies are taught in preservice education. Thinking about the five competencies set out by the CASEL framework, she and a team looked at all of these different syllabi from all these programs across the country. They recognized that in preservice education we don’t do a ton of work with self-awareness and self-management, and that those are really lacking. In general, there isn’t a very clear place, other than classroom management, where we help teachers cultivate their skill set in social-emotional competencies, and then their efficacy in implementing SEL. So that’s where my work has turned. I developed a program here at University of Portland that focuses on cultivating those competencies and skill sets in preservice teachers.

What does cultivating those competencies and skills in preservice teachers look like?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: As a science teacher, early on, SEL wasn’t on my radar until after I went back to gradu­ate school, and I’ve been in academia ever since. I thought the only way that we’re all going to learn how to do this is to do it ourselves. So I’ve structured the courses in a meaningful way, such that the experiential component is central. I take ele­ments of what we know from evidence-based practice and common practice in social-emotional learning, and we do that in our classroom. 

I teach a three-course series in social-emotional learning. The first course is called Foundations of Social and Emotional Learning. One of the key components of the structure of the meeting time is that we meet in a circle. Every day we have a mindfulness activity, and we do different breathing activities. I introduce different breathing activities that are common with kids. Then we have a circle practice where there’s some sort of a question, a connection question that we all answer in a circle. These will build in their depth over time.  We always have an optimistic closing, which is usually also a circle practice around what we are going to take away from our session that day.

What has been the impact of the circle meetings on your students?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: Even though that structure is very simple, it is, I think, one of the most meaningful parts of the class, and it grows over time. These are education students, elementary and secondary education students, and they’ve been in classrooms a little bit, but they’re mostly traditional-aged undergraduates. So they’re ages 18, 19, 20. They will reflect on the fact that just simply setting the classroom up ​in a circle completely changes their experience in the class. Everything we know about circles in K–12 education I’m doing with these college students who have not experienced it. Their reflections are really quite deep on how much it impacts them. 

Building a circle practice doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an intentional thing created by the teacher. Just that simple practice has been really profound in my classes.  I have the content of the class nested in there as well. But the students have taken ownership of the circle. They were reflecting on it as well halfway through the semester and saying, “Gosh, this has become just like what we do now. And this feels so natural. And yet when we started it, it didn’t.” And they said, “Wow, we’re going to be able to implement this in our classroom so easily because we’ve experienced it.” They’ve experienced the time that it takes to set up that rapport. Now our circles in that particu­lar class are very deep. There are some very intense conversations that come up, because we have built that over time in our class. The students are seeing that they’re reaping the rewards of this practice.

How are you building on the practice of circle meetings? How do new teachers integrate this approach for themselves, so that after their first semester in the classroom they don’t get to the point of saying, “Did I really pick the right job?”

Dr. Deirdre Hon: One of the key features that’s happening now is that I’m giving students a toolkit of things that they can rely on to help them become deactivated or deescalated when they do become activated. By doing this, they are aware of when they are experiencing something they’ve never experienced, and they’re aware of their activation patterns and their abilities to deescalate themselves. 

I think that is really that self-awareness piece, right? It’s super important that they’re able on that first day to recognize what physiological signs are activated and how are they managing that. What’s their sphere of control? Where are they able to actually do certain things in a situation, and when are things outside of their sphere of control? I think we take these for granted as skills that we’re supposed to just have in the classroom. But where are they supposed to get it? We don’t formally train these things and allow them to practice it. The idea of fostering regular self-reflection around how the teaching experience impacts them as human beings, and how they maneuver through that, is how they’re going to develop the resilience that they need to stay in the profession. 

There’s all sorts of different tricks around managing students and stuff like that. But you have to know right when you are getting activated: When am I getting activated and what am I going to do? What are my strategies that I can utilize in the classroom when a student does something that I feel activated by? How do I recognize that, and what do I do with that? It’s a seemingly simple thing. Yet we absolutely do not address it regularly with our teachers before they enter the field.

How does this approach connect with your clinical work?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: In my PhD work, I was really interested in understanding more about the stress response system, how that works, and how we could use that to inform what we do in education. One of the key pieces of this is that the stress response is a natural and important response system in our bodies. Having a response where we release cortisol, and we are activated and engaged with whatever challenge we’re about to embark on, is a super important process. Stress is a necessary component of being human. I’ve always been very curious about the recovery from stress. There are patterns of when people get activated, their cortisol spikes, and then there’s a decline. For some people there isn’t a quick decline, but for others there is. Think about a stressful experience, such as public speaking, one of the most classic, that pretty much everyone gets activated by. I’m also curious about how people bring themselves back down. That’s where I got into the clinical work. 

A teaching situation is really the crux of what we’re talking about. To try to prevent all stressful activation in a classroom is just impossible. We’re going to be activated by what happens. To me, it’s about understanding how we get our cortisol back down to sort of a normal level, to baseline. Teachers have to figure out and develop those strategies themselves.

At what point can teachers—your students—start to develop these strategies?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: We’re hoping the skill teachers are developing along the way is the ability to recognize when they’re activated, and what skills they’re going to use to reduce it. Some of the work that I did early in my career was looking at cultivating mindfulness for teachers and allowing them to participate in regular activities around mindfulness. I think mindfulness is actually a really great preventative tool where teachers can understand just the basics of how do we recognize our activation and how do we use breathing and our physiological state in order to reduce our activation. Things like breath work, which seems so simple. But in my courses we practice multiple different types of breathing activities, whether it’s square breathing, hand breathing, bee breathing, or prana­yama breathing.  I ask students to find one that they really like, and use it on a regular basis in the hopes that then when they are in a moment in a classroom where they are activated, that they are like, “Oh, this is a strategy that I can use right now. I can, in my classroom, utilize a three-part breath. I can recognize that I need to calm my body.” 

One of the tricky things about all of this is that regu­latory strategies are only useful if we can use them in the environment that we’re in. This idea of regulating yourself is only possible in the school environment if people have those tools. Many people will talk about their regulatory strategies, like “I like to have tea,”  “I like to take a rest on the couch,” or “I want to go for a walk.” But the reality of it is that we can’t use all of our go-to regulatory strategies when we are in a classroom. There have to be appropriate regulatory strategies for that environment. In the student realm, sometimes breathing is not always everybody’s go-to. So there needs to be an understanding that regulation is a very individualistic activity.

Can you expand on that idea that understanding regulation is a very individualistic activity?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: That’s an important thing for teachers to understand themselves, so that they can be their regulated selves in their classroom, but also so that they can support their students. Because if we expect every single student to be able to calm down with doing box breathing, that’s not realistic. How does this translate to what’s happening in the students? Well, the modeling is the key. We know that when the adults in the room are dysregulated, the kids are likely to be dysregulated as well. I think that this is a pretty straightforward thing. We understand that people’s dysregulation is different—that certain kids get activated by this and other kids don’t. 

But we don’t talk about how our regulatory strategies are quite different. Some people need a physiological strategy in order to calm down. For instance, some people need to fidget or they need to go for a walk, or they need to do a yoga movement to calm their bodies. Other people need cognitive strategies. They like to sit down and read a book, or do a puzzle or draw, where they’re engaging and focusing their brain. On the flip side of that, some people, when they need to regulate, need to do it by themselves. And they want the time to take on their own to do whatever that regulatory strategy is. Other people are coregulators, and they need to actually regulate with others in order to deescalate themselves. We need to understand that regulatory strategies are very diverse. If teachers first understand that about themselves, then they can transfer that to their work with their students, and help them develop a myriad of strategies that are accessible to them in the classroom. 

When people talk about regulation, they’ll list all of these different strategies. But we have to make sure those are available to both the teachers and the students in a classroom setting. Sometimes we have a tendency to rely on certain regulatory strategies in the classroom. We say, “Oh, well, we have a calm-down corner.” Well, a calm-down corner is not going to work really well for a kid who needs to talk it out, who needs to have that interaction. Same thing with the adults in the situation: If they are coregulators, asking them to take a moment to sit in a corner could actually be activating for them, as opposed to deactivating.

It all goes back to my work with the stress physiology. There are ways that we can prevent activation, but we can’t do it all the time. What are our reactive strategies? And how do those help us regulate in the moment?

How do you see a teacher managing different regulation strategies in one classroom?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: It’s about teaching teachers and helping them develop a social-emotional learning lens, where they’re thinking about these things in a broad way, and that it’s baked into what they’re doing in their classroom. We can’t say this strategy will always work in every second grade classroom. It’s not that straightforward. But if teachers initially have this lens, this idea that we all become activated and we all need to regulate, then they’re able to approach their classrooms in this way, where it’s not about regulating behavior, it’s not about controlling students or controlling yourself. It’s about recognizing that we are emotional beings, who have emotional experiences, and that these are intertwined in our learning.

How do you approach equity when you’re teaching teachers about SEL?

Dr. Deirdre Hon: When we think about creating equitable learning environments, it starts with seeing people as individuals, and understanding that we are different. If we take that down to the level of our emotional experience in the classroom, and if that’s where we start with in terms of different things activate us, and we regulate in different ways—if that’s the lens that a teacher starts with, then that is foundational for understanding along the way how to support a large diversity of students. Then we’re not trying to backtrack and say, “Well, what does this behavior from this student mean?” We’re starting with “We are different.” This is a skill set that we all learn along the way. And we’re learning together—which, to me, is a really huge component of the adult SEL piece—that SEL is not something that we do to students; it’s something we do with students. And that’s really key to me in in this whole process. 

That’s why I shy away from this skill or this activity, because I think doing so reduces it down to a level that I think is problematic, especially in the SEL world where people focus on, “Oh, it’s this framework, not that framework,” or “It’s this program, not that program.” But to me, it’s really a lens. And all of these things—whether it be a program, a framework, or an activity—are tools to help us support the intra- and interpersonal development of students, and ourselves.

The idea of an SEL lens gets back to what you were talking about with your own students, when you have them meet in a circle, as a part of that essential community-building that you want to see in the classroom.

Dr. Deirdre Hon: If we are hoping that our teachers implement high-quality SEL that makes a meaningful difference for a wide variety of students across the board equally and not just certain students, it should start with the adults experiencing all of that themselves. Oftentimes we push that aside or do a professional development that says, “Here’s the order of the lessons” or things like that. But the experiential piece of really getting into the weeds of practicing these things ourselves is the only way that we’re going to be able to transfer that and do meaningful work with our students in the classroom. 

It’s so interesting because I am doing this, but at a university level. I had never taught SEL, and I wouldn’t say I had a great quiver of skills in social-emotional competencies when I was a younger teacher. I think I was activated pretty often. I didn’t have a wide skill set myself. I got burnt out. I was really stressed. Now I look at myself and what I’m doing with my students—and this is a personal journey at this point—is that me engaging with my students is also me doing SEL with my students. Again, even though I’ve read a ton of articles and done these studies, at the end of the day, I think that the meaningful difference that’s happening in my classroom is that I am doing SEL with my students in the hopes I’m modeling that—so that they are doing SEL with their students when they’re in the classroom, not to them.

For more on Dr. Hon’s work, see her most recent publication, Hon, D., Sauve, J. A., Mahfouz, J. & Schonert-Reichl, K. A., “Cultivating SEL-Ready Teachers: SEL in Teacher Preparation,” a chapter to be published in S. Rimm-Kauffman, M. J. Strambler, & K. A. Schonert-Reichl (Eds.), Social and Emotional Learning in Action: Creating Systemic Change in Schools, Guilford, forthcoming in 2023.

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Dr. Deirdre Hon

Deirdre Hon is an assistant professor of education at the University of Portland, bringing to her work many years as a middle and high school science teacher. She has worked with Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Committee to develop standards for the creation of an SEL specialty endorsement as an add-on to Oregon teaching licenses, and has developed a three-course series in SEL that culminates in this endorsement. Her current research centers on how preservice teachers develop resilience.