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4 Social-Emotional Learning Takeaways from SXSW EDU 2021

4 Social-Emotional Learning Takeaways from SXSW EDU 2021

As an educator, I’ve attended many education conferences with social-emotional learning (SEL) in mind. However, even I was in awe and appreciated all the press, integration, and explicit callout to SEL at the SXSW EDU conference this year. SEL has always been an important topic in education, but navigating COVID-19 over the last year has unified the call to meet students where they are, and leveled our understanding that everyone needs SEL. Here are four takeaways regarding SEL from SXSW EDU 2021:

1. Addressing social, emotional, and mental health needs should be given same effort as addressing academics. This is a job for everyone, and it requires student and parent voice as part of the picture.

As an educator, you’re responsible for teaching the whole child—this means both providing a curriculum and as supporting each child’s social and emotional needs. Various factors from students’ worlds outside of the classroom impact their day and success. For them to effectively learn, we must address the factors that influence learning—those nonacademic things that are foundational to learning. SEL provides that foundation.

In the closing keynote session of SXSW EDU, Dr. Tinisha Parker likened SEL to being the “plate” on which you put other things, like academics. You must shore up the plate before you can pile on other things.

To know what impacts children and their families, we must first listen and then include their voice. School communities can and should be safe spaces for collective voice. If we value those who make up our communities and provide opportunity to influence decisions, engagement will increase. It is that relational trust, built through connection, that will build the opportunity to bridge gaps and rebuild the school community again.

2. SEL teaching already likely exists in many classrooms, but it needs to be explicit and intentional. Curricula can help.

Many classroom teachers are already practicing SEL, but they may not be intentional or strategic about it. Teachers read stories that have social messages and themes at every grade level; this is often a way we implicitly teach SEL. By lifting it up, calling it out, and having an intentional discussion, we can become explicit teachers of SEL.

As Dr. Parker said in the closing keynote of SXSW EDU, “Strategy and intentionality will get us to where we want to go. If we think strategically about SEL, rather than reactively, we will be successful in modeling and reinforcing SEL for our students and for each other.”

3. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of everyone, and mental health is a major part of SEL. Students and teachers both need support.

Promoting positive mental health is a huge part of SEL, and yet, there still are so many stigmas around mental health issues. Breaking the stigma supports healthy SEL environments and removes barriers to implementation. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona provided an excellent example in the closing keynote: If a student broke his leg, we would get that student the medical help he needs and get his leg in a cast. We need to see mental health the same way—there are symptoms, and we can learn to recognize those to get a child the support they need.

To break down the stigma and support wellness, we will need to utilize all our resources. There are many cultural and community agencies that are embedded in our local areas that can help support collective success. Partnering with these agencies can help you reach out and network with the community to support all your students and families.

Educators need SEL too. Professional development which puts educators first helps support culture change by reinforcing the value of the person in front of you. Invest in professional development that values your SEL supports for not only teachers (and other adults in the school, such as bus drivers, lunch monitors, and administrators) but also the students they serve. Things like using emotional vocabulary, managing stress, and navigating difficult conversations are not skills we all naturally acquire. If we expect teachers to create safe and aware students, we need to model that behavior for students. Educators should be taught how to model for their students and invest in SEL through professional development and support systems.

4. The Biden administration is encouraging the prioritization of nonacademic supports and multiyear strategies to implement them with the coronavirus relief packages they’ve granted.

The funding that the Biden administration passed through the American Rescue Plan in March accounts for nonacademic spending around SEL, counselors, liaisons, social works, and more. That funding can be used to purchase SEL programs, as well as the professional development that comes along with them. The goal for education is to not just go back to the way things were in schools before the COVID-19 pandemic but to be better. To do that, we must set foundations for SEL supports and double down on those foundations for everyone in the building—students, teachers, administrators, and support staff. We can’t teach students the regular curriculum if we don’t allow them (and educators) to acknowledge the shared trauma of this last year and work through it together.

As Secretary Cardona said in the closing keynote session, the bottom line is that you have to keep students at the center and take care of them. We all need to heal together so that we can learn and growth together.

To learn more about SEL in school, visit our blog.