The Need for Social Emotional Learning TODAY
Many people bemoan all the changes that have occurred since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2019. It’s been especially hard for teachers, who have suddenly become essential, not just to our students, but to society, offering wrap-around support to families, providing a safe place for kids to go while parents try to navigate no jobs / different jobs / changed hours / changed childcare / working from home. Schools feel pressure to open because kids need stability, parents need to work and society needs to find SOME sense of normalcy. We all crave a sense of normalcy.
Children are resilient – at least on the outside. But many of us who have spent our lives working closely with children know that stress often shows up wearing different clothes in kids, than it does in adults. Kids might sleep more – or not sleep. They might be noisy and provocative, or exceptionally quiet and compliant. Previously learned self-care routines (toileting, turn-taking, rules-following) may regress. Some kids might vanish from our rosters. We have been instructed, therefore, to pay especially close attention to social emotional learning and the mental health needs of our charges, as they return to the classroom this fall.
The Five Elements of Social Emotional Learning
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) promotes the incorporation of social emotional skills into students’ daily curriculum, not just to support their social emotional needs, specifically. Boosting students’ skills through social-emotional learning (SEL) has also been shown to increase their academic performance (Durlak et. al., 2011).
CASEL identifies five proficiencies in SEL: self-awareness, self- management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. As a special educator, I find that addressing social skills – or any skills, in fact – through real-life situations gives them relevance and leads to better mastery. Such real-world situations might include service learning projects, special school events, classroom management tasks and similar activities.
Gardening to Support SEL
Working in a classroom garden can be an excellent opportunity to practice five strategies that will give students a chance to work on these five proficiency areas. Each strategy is coded to show what area it supports: self-awareness (A); self-management (M); social awareness (S); relationship skills (R); responsible decision-making (D). In child-friendly terms, Kaci Rae Christopher, author of The School Garden Curriculum, refers to three principles, which reflect these nicely: Care for Self, Care for Others and Care for the Land.
Show Responsibility for Something (A, D, M)
Elementary teachers know the power of “job charts.” I once knew a veteran teacher who used a colorful, cardboard wheel with student names and classroom jobs. She had about nine wheels in her closet, to pull from depending on how many kids she had in a given year. Teachers are resourceful!
Teens like responsibility, too. Knowing that a living things depends on them increases that sense of responsibility. Having the living thing be a plant instead of a class pet makes it a little more risk-free. Having a set time for gardening each day or week, and a job chart that rotates tasks among kids, gives kids a chance to get outside in a purposeful way, gives them a creative outlet, and gives them parameters to work within.
Use Collaboration and Cooperation to Accomplish a Task (M, R, S)
Anyone who has ever been involved in hiring or sports teams knows the importance of having an individual who can work with others. In basketball, you don’t need five people fighting to shoot the ball. Being able to contribute by fulfilling a role that is in harmony with the roles of others is a “soft skill” that is important for adult living.
Having a variety of jobs for students to do individually (planting an area, watering, weeding, sign creation) or with a peer (moving bags of soil/mulch. making a plan) gives kids a chance to work in harmony with others, either directly or through parallel, yet connected, tasks.
Demonstrate kindness toward people and other living things (A, M, S, R)
I work with teens with social-emotional, behavioral and mental health issues. Being kind is something that sometimes is difficult for them, as is relating to others in a healthy way. We often ask our students to reflect on whether they prefer to work with people, technology or other living things. People is often their last choice, because working with other people is hard. For ALL of us!
Working with plants provides students a chance to practice kindness toward other living things in a more risk-free scenario. It might seem silly, but students DO develop an affection for the plants they plant, tend and observe. These skills can then be transferred to other living things, as they develop.
In addition, caring for something else often enables students to look outside themselves for a moment, and be relieved of their inner stressors.
Make decisions based on evidence (D)
I was once gifted a chrysanthemum as a plant for my classroom, for my birthday. One of my students took on the responsibility of watering it daily. He was terribly dismayed when the blossoms turned brown and dried up, scolded me about watering the plant with cold coffee (something I confess to – and which doesn’t hurt plants), and proceeded to overwater the plant because “it’s DYING, Miss!” I had to explain to him that blossoms don’t last forever. The plant blooms, the flowers do what they do, then they fade. I showed him that the leaves and stem still looked green and healthy. We hunted until we found a withered flower with seeds forming, so I could show him the natural order of things.
Getting students to observe, ask questions, do research then make good decisions is one of those overarching skills that can be used in all aspects of daily living.
Reflect, set goals and work toward them (A, M, D)
As fall turns to winter, as plants give up their harvest and die for the season, students have the opportunity to contemplate what went well, what the possibilities are for continued gardening, and what they want to and need to do as next steps. This organized, strategic thinking extends into all aspects of life, and helps kids begin to practice some forward thinking, choosing their actions now in anticipation of the goal they are working toward.
Getting that Garden Going…
In the previous post, I shared some ideas for fall gardening. If vegetables aren’t your think, you can scatter wildflower seed, plant a fall flower garden, or decorate with a harvest theme, using decorative gourds, mums and a scarecrow. There really are so many possibilities – and all of them a good way to foster social emotional learning in your students, get them outside and active, and give them a break from screen time during a distance learning day.
Share your photos! As for me, I’m heading to Home Depot right now…