Breaking Through Barriers

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Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of presenting to thousands of educators the importance of teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools. At the opening of each session, I state the following:

In order to be successful in and out of school, students need to learn a set of social-emotional competencies: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control; and as educators, it’s our role to create opportunities for that learning through the school day.

At that point, participants typically react in one of two ways:

  1. Head nods, rapid note-taking
  2. Furrowed brows, arms crossed over their chest

First, let’s take a look at those who are nodding their heads. These educators want to do their jobs well and many immediately recognize that this statement about teaching social-emotional competencies in schools is a key to doing their jobs well. They believe that for deep academic learning to occur, and for students to develop into consciously acting citizens, educators need to incorporate into their already busy school day the teaching of skillsets that require students to engage, interact, and thrive within a community. Teaching social-emotional competencies is a natural extension of their belief system about teaching and learning.

Now let’s take a look at those who have furrowed brows. These educators want to do their jobs well, and while they likely see the truth in that statement about teaching social-emotional competencies, they are filtering the statement through a series of lenses. If this furrowed brow group gave voice to their thoughts, they might sound something like this:

“We also have a new reading curriculum this year.”
“Here comes another new thing that will fall by the wayside.”
“I already don’t have enough time to teach the academic content in my pacing guide!”
“This is new and new is hard.”

In other words, the perception of an increased workload within the same time constraints is seen as a possible barrier to doing their jobs well. Once we identify who might be feeling this way, we should find ways to support them in removing these perceived barriers. We can acknowledge that this might feel overwhelming and difficult, but we can’t stop there. We need to ensure teachers have the resources they need and put processes in place that support them in managing their workload and developing the skills the teaching of social-emotional learning requires.

There may also be underlying beliefs about families this body language conveys that materials and processes can’t fix. These furrowed brows could also be telling a story that sounds something like:

“Isn’t this the family’s job? When I was in school, teachers taught content, and families were expected to teach us to cooperate and have self-control.”

This line of thought reflects a different frame of mind than those previously mentioned, one formed out of educators’ belief systems about who families are and what they value. Statements like these reflect a deficit-oriented mindset when it comes to working with families and exist in many school communities. As education leaders, when we hear this type of language it is critical we acknowledge it, name it, and take steps to address it within our school communities. Unchecked, this mindset can form quick and lasting barriers to collaborative relationships with families and consequently affect students’ success in school.

When working to help shift mindsets about the intersection of families and social-emotional learning, leaders can redefine what it means to partner with families, name contradicting narratives around families, and reset expectations around the responsibility for teaching social-emotional competencies.

Redefine School and Family Partnerships

It is a widely held belief in education that everyone benefits when schools and families have strong, positive partnerships. Those partnerships are associated with magnified outcomes for students in the following areas (Fredericks et al., 2016):

  • More regular school attendance
  • Higher standardized test scores
  • Less likelihood of being placed in special education classes
  • More likely to avoid high-risk behaviors
  • Improved behavior at home and in school
  • Better social skills and adjustment in school

To shift away from the mindset that teaching cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control is the family’s job, schools need to truly partner with families. Consider taking the following actions to help establish these partnerships:

  • Host ongoing family gatherings (virtual if needed) where you define and discuss the social-emotional competencies to reach a common understanding of what they mean and how they look and sound at school and at home.
  • Share research with families about the positive outcomes of teaching social-emotional competencies so they see the immediate and long-term benefits for their children.
  • Explain how teachers embed these skills in their lessons throughout the school day or how they teach them through an SEL curriculum.
  • Bring social-emotional competencies into family conferences and use “get to know you” forms to find out how families see these competencies developing at home. Then work together to identify a student’s SEL strengths and which ones will need to be more developed.
  • Elevate the development of social-emotional skills to the same level as that of academic skills. Make time for students and families to reflect on ways the student has developed cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control at home and at school throughout the year.

Again, remember that family gatherings won’t fix a belief system. In order to do that, education leaders will need to help teachers recognize and value the fact that students’ families are teaching SEL skills at home. Caregivers are teaching their children the social-emotional competencies they need to engage and thrive in their unique family structure and context. Similarly, as educators, it is our responsibility to teach children the social-emotional skills they need to engage and thrive in the structure and context of school.

Rewrite Narratives

If the dominant narrative in your setting is that you are teaching social-emotional competencies because some families are not, consider shifting that narrative by inviting staff to examine the data about the outcomes of teaching competencies to manage oneself and make positive contributions to the community. For example, a study of students participating in SEL programs showed that they significantly improved their social-emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance when compared with students not participating in SEL programs (Durlak et al., 2011). The increasing trend of teaching students the skills they need to develop social-emotional competencies in school is largely due to educators’ increased understanding that students benefit from this instruction in school, regardless of how these skills are taught at home.

Reset Expectations

Cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control are just like any other set of content skills that students will develop over time through a blend of instruction and practice. Educators accept that students will come to school with varying levels of math and reading skills, and the same should be applied to social-emotional learning. When students need extra instruction to develop number sense or decoding skills, educators don’t usually get upset or blame families. Instead, teachers will design instruction to meet the varying needs of students or elicit the support of a team within the school for assistance.

Furthermore, we accept that families share reading and math with students at varying levels at home. Although we do encourage families to read together at home and to discuss mathematical thinking when possible, we also understand that the bulk of students’ math and reading instruction will occur at school. Why then would the development of SEL skills be any different—especially when a school setting provides a perfect microcosm in which to practice these skills?

When we see teachers with furrowed brows, we need to recognize the response as an opportunity for reflection and growth that could have a lasting impact on students’ success. As leaders, we need to step into this space, help individuals acknowledge this opportunity, and give them tools to make that reflection and growth a reality.