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From our SEL Field Notebook: A Conversation with SEL Researchers Dr. Hedy Teglasi and Kelsey McCurdy

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CRS’s Emily Hemingway recently connected with Dr. Hedy Teglasi, who leads the Temperament and Narratives Lab at the University of Maryland, and Kelsey McCurdy, a doctoral student who works with Dr. Teglasi. The Temperament and Narratives Lab is within the Department of Counseling, Higher Education, and Special Education at the university. The Lab investigates young children and early career teachers’ emotional and cognitive processes that contribute to development and mental health. Their ongoing projects use multiple perspectives and measures to address basic temperamental processes of reactivity and self-regulation, evaluate the measurement of the constructs they study, and develop new measures, as well as develop and evaluate resources to support individuals experiencing daily stress.

Emily Hemingway: What drew you to this field?

Dr. Hedy Teglasi: My long-standing interest in understanding how people think about and learn from events in their lives was inspired by conducting family therapy as part of my School/Community Psychology graduate school studies. During these sessions, I had opportunities to hear about the same encounter from different family members’ perspectives, often in the form of stories. It struck me that the story organizes thoughts, feelings, and intentions that accompany family interactions and sometimes includes an action and its outcome. This experience started a journey that led me to value stories to encourage school-age children’s thinking about their feelings and relationships to expand their socialemotional learning, and for parents and educators to work with children in this process.

Kelsey McCurdy: Generally, I was drawn to social-emotional learning because of my desire to provide mental health services to children, in ways that support the students and the teachers. Teaching for even a short while (as part of a program aimed at reducing the “summer slide”) helped me more fully understand the importance of strategies to support teachers’ efforts to enhance children’s social-emotional learning as well as the logistical barriers that teachers face during implementation of intervention programs.

EH: Can you each describe your role at the Temperament and Narratives Lab?

HT: I am the Principal Investigator, supervising and coordinating the various projects being conducted with doctoral students, either in teams or in pursuit of independent research.

KM: I am a fourth-year doctoral student and the lab coordinator for the Temperament and Narratives Lab. Throughout my time in the lab I have worked on a variety of studies and taken on many different roles. Currently, I am in charge of one study, The Impact of COVID-19 on Teachers, and co-leader for a second study, Emotion Stories. As the lab coordinator, I also help organize and delegate tasks for all of the lab’s projects and help train new lab members on how we conduct our studies.

EH: Are there findings from your new study, The Impact of COVID-19 on Teachers, that are helpful for educators to know about?

KM: We started this study with the intention of better understanding teachers’ initial adjustment to teaching during the pandemic in the spring of 2020. During the first months of the pandemic, we asked, “What are the most important issues for you right now?” and “What are you often thinking about with COVID-19 impacting many areas of daily life?” In response to these questions, teachers expressed fear, anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, and even depression in the context of their own and their students’ personal or family hardships. We also asked teachers to write about a recent teaching experience that was meaningful and significant, which provided an opportunity to express a different perspective. What stood out were three driving forces that helped them continue teaching: First, an understanding that teaching is about more than just academics; second, engagement in a relationship with students and their families; and third, a sense that school is a place of community. Certainly, these attributes were present in the school environment prior to the pandemic, but crises have a way of highlighting and revitalizing what is important.

We doubt that anyone will be surprised that teachers reported many factors interfering with their ability to deliver quality instruction; for example, technical issues, distractions and lack of support by administrators, inability of students to receive instruction, limitations of online interactions, student’s home life, teacher’s own home life, illness, fear at both ends. However, it was striking that most teachers reported that the bigger frustrations had to do with factors that got in the way of their ability to build and maintain their personal connections with students and support their students’ social-emotional growth.

One teacher wondered: “How well are they learning without that personal connection? I am constantly worried that my students are unable to get what they need at home each day… I’ve never felt more powerless to effect change.” Another wrote of her pain: “Being a teacher means absolutely nothing but being there for each and every student.… It hurts me to think that these students in my current year are missing out on my values and love for them. School is so much more that math and reading.” These teachers’ sentiments suggest that there should be not three but four R’s: Reading, Writing, ‘Rithmetic, and Relationships. The following response echoes several others: “I have realized just how important being a teacher is, and it has absolutely nothing to do with academics… I didn’t realize this until I received this email within the first week of quarantine: Subject: “I Miss you.”

What perhaps makes our investigation different is that open-ended stories are rarely used when investigating teacher perspectives. Their stories tell us that the pandemic may have raised basic questions about what it means to be a teacher. There was a strong sense that teachers see their relationships with students as reciprocal rather than a one-sided, hierarchical transmission of curriculum. Additionally, the emotional work of teaching may not be sufficiently recognized. As the pandemic wears on, the stories may change, and we are beginning to look into the longer-term impacts on teachers.

EH: What are one or two projects you’re working on right now?

KM: One project that has really evolved over the years is Emotion Stories. It started out as a short set of lessons focused on providing psychoeducational interventions about anxiety to kindergarteners because one of the schools we’ve partnered with to conduct research requested our help them work with children to reduce their worries about making mistakes. Lab members became very interested in extending the project by adding lessons that included storytelling and emotion regulation strategies for children and creating lessons for parents. Since then we have conducted two trials of the intervention with groups of parents and their behaviorally inhibited children. While it is a very time intensive study, it has been rewarding for the lab, and we have gotten great feedback from the parents and children.

Due to COVID-19, we have had to put the Emotion Stories project on hold since we cannot meet with the children and parents in person. To continue with the spirit of the project, we have developed a study that is conducted fully online where we are researching the relation between a child’s temperament—such as level of activity, emotional reactivity, and self-regulation—to adults’ stress. In this study, we are interested in learning more about how children’s temperamental individuality translates into day-to-day behaviors and how parents relate to these behaviors, especially in the context of stress. For instance, an active, energetic child who has trouble sitting through dinner or a class lesson likely receives frequent reminders to behave. With insight about the child’s temperament, parents and educators are better positioned to promote social-emotional growth.

Interested in participating in this study? You can find more information here

EH: What do you hope to achieve with your research?

HT: The way individuals think and talk about their day-to-day experiences is key to what they learn from those experiences and to their mental health. In our research, we use storytelling to gain insight about how individuals organize their thoughts, feelings, intentions, actions, and expected outcomes in a particular context. We are developing procedures for psychological assessment and intervention to be used in home and school settings. For example, by using stories, we can assess children’s social-emotional problem-solving, emotion regulation, and relationships—all of which may be targeted for intervention.

EH: What is your favorite aspect of your work?

HT: I enjoy the intellectual challenge of trying to untangle the complex, interrelated influences that shape how individuals think about, organize, and learn from experience. I feel fortunate to share conversations with my students who are enthusiastic, motivated, and highly capable. I particularly enjoy projects that involve the development and implementation of interventions such as Emotion Stories, described earlier by Kelsey, in which lab members work and learn as a team.

KM: My favorite aspect is getting to work on many types of projects with different groups of people. I enjoy working with children, parents, and teachers and love that my work broadens my perspective and understanding of others’ experiences. One of the teachers in our study described listening to students tell stories about their experiences during the start of COVID-19 and ended the response with, “It’s just wild to me that I am in a city of 8.6 million stories that I don’t know right now. This student’s story and reaction is one of many. I just wish everyone had someone to tell their story to right now.” This statement stuck out to me from the moment I read it, and I think my favorite part of our work is that I get to be the person that hears the stories that others want to tell, and I am able to witness their difficult moments, their positive moments, and all the moments in between.

EH: Have any recent findings in your work been unexpected or surprising to you?

KM: In our Emotion Stories study, one finding that struck me was the different reactions that parents and children had to a story that we used. The story follows a child who for a variety of reasons is overcome with anxiety when he arrives at a birthday party and ends up requesting to leave the party that day, but also asks his family for help to practice his skills for future parties. He and his mother discuss and problem-solve collaboratively.

was a co-leader for the children’s group and was able to observe their reaction to the story. The children were accepting of the ending, noting that the character was making a choice that was best for him in the situation and that even though he was leaving, he was still addressing the problem by planning to prepare before the next party. Some noted that they too would want to leave the party, while others stated that they would not want to leave the party but acknowledged that in that situation, they would not have felt as anxious as the main character. One child hilariously reported that he would want to leave the party, but he would want to take a piece of cake with him too!

After that session, I spoke with the lab members who were leading the parent group and was surprised that the parents had a very different reaction to the story. In the parent group, there was concern that the parent in the story had done the wrong thing by allowing the child to leave. The parents noted that the child should stay and learn that he can be brave and make it through the birthday party. They reasoned that this ending went against all of the things that they had been told they were supposed to do with their inhibited children.

Interestingly, the ending to the story was not intended to suggest that the solution was the only correct one for the situation, but rather that a solution is dependent on the individual child’s needs. The ending also promotes collaborative problem solving between children and their parents and can lead to short- and long-term solutions for inhibited children. All in all, because of the difference in parent and child responses, the story was successful because it did spark conversations between parents and their children about dealing with difficult situations. Nonetheless, it was interesting and surprising that the children and parents had such different reactions to the story and exhibited different reasoning about the story, too.

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