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Creating Space & Place for Social-Emotional Learning

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In my 15-year career as an educator, I employed a variety of innovative pedagogical approaches to connect with students, such as jokes, open circles, movement, technology, gifs, memes and video clips, to name a few. However, the best tool I found to connect with students was to care about their emotions and experiences openly. Our students aren’t engaged by shiny objects or course content alone; instead, students are engaged by us when they feel connected and cared about as an individual. While it took time, through practice, patience and the reinforcement of social-emotional learning, I created a classroom culture where it was safer to share and be open. 

Social-emotional learning (SEL) refers to students’ social-emotional knowledge and skills to communicate effectively, interact with peers, resolve conflicts and manage their emotional responses to stressful situations. SEL is not another subject area to be plugged in for a 30-minute session once a week, and explicit SEL instruction is only one part of the recommendation by CASEL. Rather, social-emotional skills are better integrated when we can apply the skills students learn to real-life, or in vivo, moments. While SEL skills translate to a practical set of tools for creating good citizens, productive future employees, creative entrepreneurs and collaborative problem solvers, SEL also contributes to creating a learning environment in which all students can thrive, learn, explore and take ownership of their future education. If we take moments each day to build toward this ideal learning environment, we can create an emotionally safer and more open space for students and educators to take risks and be vulnerable. While this takes time, it is one of the most valuable ways to spend time in the school day.

Brené Brown reminds us that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Being vulnerable in the classroom and open about emotional experience, whether large or small, and how one can work through the experience can be incredibly helpful for students. Drawing on the pedagogy of vulnerability, we as educators can purposefully and selectively engage in self-disclosure to help build the conditions of trust and care needed for productive dialogue (Kelly & Kelly, 2020). Of course, the goal is not to focus on yourself or share inappropriate stories but to create a real-life connection between the content and personal experience. It encourages a space in which students feel safe to explore their own complex emotions. As educators, we can bring so much life experience and knowledge to the classroom and use it as a valuable learning tool. We can draw on our own lives and demonstrate to students how complex life is and that working through challenges takes time, effort, and often help from others.

We can model vulnerability by sharing the dialogue about our own thoughts and feelings related to personal challenges or experiences. Modeling dialogue can give students the sense that teachers are complex beings, just like they are. Sometimes, the most uncomplicated story about an experience from our lives can draw students into the class. It can be simple, such as what did you feel that morning driving to work? What is on your mind when you first wake up, walk into the building, or log in for class? It can also be more complex such as experiences of feeling alienated, lonely or judged based on your differences from social norms. Modeling a personal experience and connecting it to emotions can help demonstrate to students that you are authentic and willing to be vulnerable. 

Creating space for youth to feel comfortable exploring and sharing their thoughts and feelings is critical in the learning environment. School culture can be improved when we give students an open, non-judgmental space and adequate time to express their experiences, understanding and emotions, but so can the integration of class content and life skills development. Sometimes the most straightforward solutions can be the best steps in the right direction. As an educator, it is challenging to turn off feelings or pretend to be a robot in the classroom and someone completely different outside work. So come as you are! Be authentic and transparent, as appropriate, and build an open environment in which students feel safe to take risks themselves.

We know that the success of any school-based program depends on training and preparation, and we’re here to support you every step of the way. Navigate360 offers SEL Professional Development packages, a la carte training, coaching and customized sessions. Learn more about SEL Professional Development packages.

Kelly, U., & Kelly, R. (2020). Becoming vulnerable in the era of climate change: Questions and dilemmas for a pedagogy of vulnerability. In E. J. Brantmeir & M. K. McKenna (Eds.) Pedagogy of Vulnerability (pp. 177-202). Information Age Publishing.

Zac Speer, MSW, Med

About the Author

Zac Speer, MSW, MEd

Zac Speer is an educator with more than 20 years of experience working in youth development, teen support services and education. He has been in education for 15 years in Colorado and recently relocated to Pennsylvania. He loves the opportunity to work with different school districts across the country, exploring and sharing best practices in pedagogical practices and creating safe spaces for all students in schools.

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