Social-Emotional Learning Starts with Adults

“Out of control” , by Erik Pevernagie, oil on canvas

A whole-school approach to [Social-Emotional Learning] means that all the adults in the building — not just teachers and principals, but lunchroom monitors, bus drivers, librarians, and specialists — have to be invested and on the same page with SEL. In their own interactions, as well as in their work with students, adults should model the type of behavior they want their students to exhibit . . .

So while regular professional development can teach adults the nuts and bolts of integrating SEL into the school day, one more step is crucial to a successful program: Ensuring that adults develop their own social-emotional capacities. “Our approach has shifted towards supporting the adults’ own social emotional needs, addressing the stressors they may be experiencing as professionals in education.

—Rebecca Bailey, as reported by Leah Shafer, “What makes SEL work?” on Usable Knowledge

More on the need for adults to have the capacity for modeling self-control: Learning and Teaching Self-Control

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Relationships Foster Resiliency

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Strikingly, even some children who had “gone off the rails” in their teenage years managed to turn things around and get their lives back on track by the time they were in their 30s and 40s, often without the help of mental health professionals.

Many of the factors involved in such turnarounds, and several of the factors associated with resilience throughout the children’s lives, involve relationships of some kind, whether within the context of a larger community – a school, a religion, the armed services – or in the context of one important person.

Our relationships really are key,” says McCubbin. “One person can make a big difference.

Wider research suggests that the more risk factors children face, the more protective factors they are likely to need to compensate. But as McCubbin says, “A lot of the research supports this idea of relationships, and the need to have a sense of someone that believes in you or someone that supports you – even in a chaotic environment, just having that one person.” . . . 

The idea of resilience as an adaptive process rather than an individual trait opens up the potential for other people to be involved in that process. McCubbin sees the importance of relationships as being wider than only protective relationships with people, and she and her team have created a new measure of “relational wellbeing” to try to capture this. “We think of relationship as with a person,” she says. “But what we really found was that it was relationship with the land, relationship with nature, relationship with God, relationship with ancestors, relationship with culture.” [Bold added]

—Lucy Maddox, “‘I saw things children shouldn’t see’ – surviving a troubled childhood” on Mosaic

Relationships

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When I began teaching in a 5th grade self-contained classroom in East Tremont, I found myself constantly confounded, on a moment-by-moment basis, by the behaviors of my students. The raw emotions, aggression, anger, and frustration that my students expressed, and that I also experienced, was like I can only imagine as comparable to the experience of warfare. I dragged myself home each night feeling like I’d been turned inside out.

I found some solace in reading a copy of Life Space Crisis Intervention (LSCI), a book about a therapeutic system of strategies for supporting children experiencing crisis developed in a residential care setting. But I did not have any formal training in the method.

Fortunately, in my 2nd year of teaching, it just so happened that I was able to attend a workshop from two educators from D75 on a method called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention—a modified and simplified version of LSCI created by Cornell University specifically for classroom use. This was and continues to be the most influential and useful professional development I have ever attended. It helped me begin to shift my mentality and how I approached student behavior.

So it was with delight that I saw one of the educators who provided me that training, Dana Ashley, featured in American Educator. I urge you to read her piece, “It’s About Relationships,” in full.

“When teachers wonder “What should I do?” in response to challenging student behaviors, the answers are not as simple as they might seem. Although an individual teacher asks the question, the response must be nuanced enough to take into account the specific school and community. As in any field—not just in education—context is key.” (Bold added)

Adaptive Learning: Rock Climbing

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“When you’re on a rock ledge,” Willson says, “there’s a sweet spot of arousal and stress that opens you up for adaptive learning. You find new ways of solving problems.”

—Florence Williams, “ADHD Is Fuel for Adventure” on Outside

Obliquity, Zen, and a Cultural Science of Schools

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Dominic Randolph, the head of Riverdale Country Schools, and Max Ventilla, the founder of AltSchool, have written a thought provoking series of letters on Medium, on the topic of “What’s the Point of School?

Randolph’s final letter, “Reimagining School,” contained two great concepts I wanted to especially highlight:

If schools took learning more seriously and aimed indirectly but intentionally, like a Zen archer, then I think they might be in quite different places.

This is an interesting way to phrase the principle of obliquity and pair it with the concept of social-psychological interventions! I agree strongly with Randolph on this. I tire of hearing leaders in education harp on shallow and direct sources of targets, such as test scores or standards or compliance rates, as if these are the ultimate drive or purpose in our work. Data and standards are only powerful when contextualized and analyzed from multiple perspectives, in consideration of the needs and interests of students and the curricular focus of the department and school. Compliance rates . . . well, that’s a baseline, not a target. Yet the messages I and other educators too often receive is that our focus should lie on such desultory targets.

How can we bring “applied anthropology” into schools so we can learn about how to more effectively construct the right culture of engaged and deep learning for our students, teachers, and parents?

People talk about the effect of a leader on a school environment or the way a particular class is difficult, but where is the science of the culture of schools?

Matt Candler’s ideas about “Tiny Schools,” in which small schools are begun as prototypical experiments, then brought to scale as they experience success, seems to be a great opportunity for such an expansion of “applied” science, most especially if the learnings from the failures of these experiments are shared transparently and openly.

I certainly hope there’s more thirst out there for such an education-specific science! I know I have this thirst myself. It’s hopeful that schools are pairing more often with academic researchers or design firms like IDEO, though I fear that such pairings end up focusing on schools and communities, like Randolph’s, that are already set up for success.

I’d perhaps be more interested in those pairings if they sought to expand the concepts of design thinking and character education to their broader community in the Bronx. How can school learning experiences build connections between students and schools of varying skills and backgrounds? And how can those connections be leveraged to actively overcome the physical and mental silos of our city and nation?

Initiatives I’m Excited About at My School This Year

There’s an unfortunate narrative that sometimes gets pushed in the ed reform community that charter schools are places of innovation and effective practice, while traditional district schools are maintainers of the status quo.

At my school, Jonas Bronck Academy, there’s a few initiatives that I’m excited to help support in this new school year that I think any school, whether charter, district, or private, might learn something from. Check out a short overview of those initiatives in this presentation:

If you’re interested in learning any more about any of these initiatives or would like to share resources, feel free to reach out to me!

Stealthy Interventions in Action

We recently examined “stealthy”— or social-psychological—interventions: the idea that you can have a tremendous and long-lasting effect on student academic success via small interventions that target a student’s subject experiences at school.

Here’s a high school in San Bernadino, California, doing these interventions effectively, despite significant challenges:

“For some of the most troubled students, creative holistic solutions are there; the Ladies Club asks its girls to commit to graduate, with the promise of a pink sash draping the commencement robe waiting for those who succeed. The program is shaped around a butterfly concept, helping girls through “I am wonderful” classes to emerge with self-esteem. An “angel closet” provides clothing for the girls; snacks provide enticement to show up as well as nutrition; old-fashioned-seeming teas and a Thanksgiving dinner provide a backdrop of social graces.

Some programs are run by the students themselves: Best Buddies for students helping mentally disabled students; the Link Crew, for mentorships between upperclassmen and entering 9th graders; University Prep Club for older students to work with younger ones on college-prep skills and calendars.”

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/a-high-school-that-changes-lives-one-at-a-time/393896/

Adults need social-emotional learning too

“In some ways, it’s really our teachers and administration who are doing some serious social and emotional learning. When teachers get to know students’ lives, it’s easier to understand where a student’s bad mood or overreaction to a social slight might come from. When a teacher finds out a child is homeless and sleeps on a different couch each week, that teacher is more likely to take a problem-solving approach to student tardiness than a punitive one.”

–Phillip Cantor, “When Kids Connect, They Learn” in the Chicago Sun Times

Empowering Environments

By Davidemerald (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
In my last post here, one facet we examined of autism and its relation to anxiety was the importance in creating a structured environment of psychological and physical safety.

Building on the idea that children need a “zone of safety that they can retreat to,” as Catharine Alvarez put it, I found an interesting (and unexpected) addition to this in a recent article on human vision.

In “Use your illusion: why human vision is a mathematical impossibility
by Tom Chivers on The Telegraph, a very interesting article on the complexity of sight, there’s a suggestion that a sense of empowerment can lead to a stronger resistance to perceptual illusions.

The only way you’re able to validate the information is behaviourally: you can say, that was useful, or that was not useful. . .

What that means is that context is everything. . . When I change your perception of it, what I’m changing is the meaning of the information, I’m not changing the physics of the information itself. . .

But “context” in the sense that Lotto means it is both deeper and broader than simply the surrounding colours. “For instance, how powerful people feel alters their perception of colour,” he says. “If I make you feel a bit more powerful, a little more in control, the strength of the illusions that I make decrease. If I put you in a state of powerlessness, the strength of illusions increases.” It’s because we become more sensitive to context when we are feeling out of control; we become less comfortable with uncertainty.

Similarly, he says, these illusions are more effective on people from Eastern cultures, where social context is a greater part of people’s lives. “The people around you are far more important in the East, whereas in the West we’re far more individualistic.” Children are also more sensitive to context, and thus to these illusions [Bold added].

If children in general are more sensitive to context, than children with disabilities are even more sensitive. Beyond perceptual illusion, this tidbit also made me think about the importance in structuring enabling environments in schools.

Building an Enabling Environment

Handicap sign

Handicap sign (Photo credit: MattGrommes)

In the last post, Will wrote about the disconnect between the manner in which people with disabilities are depicted by mass media and the sometimes harsh reality that students with disabilities may face in schools every day.

Continuing with the theme of special education, I recently read a fascinating essay on a designer, Sara Hendren, who challenges conventional perspectives of disability and access, and which ties into our advocacy here on EcoSchools for the importance and impact of a school’s environment on well-being and learning.

In “Pretty Ramp Machine” by Tim Maly, Hendren presents a more inclusive vision of disability:

“What I want is much more energy and imagination given to questions of access and use — not tiresome and medicalized ‘accommodations,’ but edited cities where alternate bodies are assumed to be part of the landscape, and where the use of structures and tools might be less scripted,” she says.

This passage resonated with me, as in the realm of special education, we also speak frequently of “accommodations” for students with disabilities, as if all that is required is a systematic program or intervention that will magically enable a student to progress academically. But as Hendren points out, this very word, “accommodations,” reveals a deficit in our thinking. If we truly value diversity and inclusion, then we would develop our curriculum and our systems with access and use for all in mind from the very beginning, rather than as an afterthought.

Hendren thinks designers and architects can do better. “It’s possible to have a very ‘correct’ idea about accommodations, provisions for schooling and such, and still presume a medical model,” says Hendren. “You can carry around the notion that a democratic society is one in which everyone thrives — regardless of productivity, regardless of capacity — and want to provide for those ‘needs.’”

But it’s a much more radical notion to start to think about the ways structures have been un-imagined or preemptively imagined without much variation in body or mind. What would it mean to really profoundly undo our sense of which bodies count?” (bold added)

Here is food for thought. What if we designed school environments, curriculum, and transitional opportunities with a diversity of student needs in mind?

In such an approach, failure would no longer be the hidden option. We would instead consider what students who might “fail” in conventional routes might succeed in otherwise, and provide opportunities for them to engage successfully in that divergency.