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[Edmentum Podcast] Episode 1: Identifying and Promoting SEL in Core Instruction

[Edmentum Podcast] Episode 1: Identifying and Promoting SEL in Core Instruction

I was able to sit down and explore the foundations of this idea and SEL fundamentals through my interview with David Adams, director of social-emotional learning at The Urban Assembly and member of the CASEL board of directors. Check out our first podcast episode to listen in!

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social and emotional learning, or SEL, is the “process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” As a core content area teacher, these learning goals may seem like quite the departure from your teaching strategy focus. You may wonder where you’ll find the time to learn and implement SEL strategies in your already-busy classroom schedule, or you may question your ability or responsibility to be an effective counselor in addition to a core subject matter expert. But, what if I told you that you are already an expert at identifying and responding to the same kind of thinking processes that SEL teachers and their students encounter when addressing emotional management?

Let’s have some fun with a quick thought experiment. Suppose a 5th grade student is being introduced to adding fractions with unlike denominators. One thing is for sure—a 5th grader knows how to add whole numbers. If the problem 4 + 3 = is presented, he or she knows to simply add those two numbers together to get 7. But, today, the teacher announces that the class will be learning to add fractions, and on the board, it reads: “1/2 + 1/3 =.”

Like many students, this student raises his or her hand immediately to give an answer—“It’s 2/5,” he or she says, and many classmates nod in agreement. He or she got that answer by adding 1 and 1 together and adding 2 and 3 together, not knowing that one has to find a common denominator first. Of course, the correct answer is 5/6.

This well-known misconception arises from the student’s belief that a fraction’s numerators and denominators can be added just like he or she learned to add two whole numbers. Although we understand what he or she has misconceived, why did the student act and present his or her answer?

Awareness that students are dealing with a separation between thought and action, in social and academic scenarios, is key in understanding as schools and teachers begin to think about where they are already and where they’d like to be in integrating SEL concepts. A teacher does not have to explicitly teach emotional management to help students build ways of thinking that also apply to social encounters. A first step that core content area teachers can take in supporting a school’s SEL initiative can be as simple as purposefully echoing SEL strategies as it applies to grappling with academic knowledge.

The brain is a highly complex organ that excels at creativity and logic, but it can also be demanding and unpredictable, especially if untrained to deal with emotions effectively. Let’s break down what happened in the example and look at similar scenarios in the context of emotional management.

The student took immediate action without considering all the information

Perhaps the student ignored the fraction bars and the placement of the numbers. Considering only the addition sign and whole numbers, the student added the numbers together. The student believed that he or she had received enough information and was confident in his or her solution method, so he or she responded with the answer.

In social settings, this sort of behavior is extremely common. Children and adults alike often spring into action with a verbal or physical response to a problem without the whole story or only knowing an incorrect version of it. But why?

As information from the eyes and ears enters the brain, a portion of that information passes through the thalamus to the amygdala before the entire message is received by the neocortex. It is sort of an express route allowing the amygdala to develop an emotional response and, potentially, an action, as quickly as possible. In Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel Coleman points out, “The amygdala can react . . . before the cortex knows what is going on because such raw emotion is triggered independent of, and prior to, thought.” To make things worse, there are instances where the amygdala pushes an emotional response on us that is out of date. An example is that if you had a bad experience with a dog as a child, it can be quite difficult to overcome a fear of dogs because the amygdala still has a warning sign attached to dogs.

In the previous example, a teacher may use the incorrect answer as opportunity to talk about the importance of recognizing all of the symbols that appear in the problem first and holding off on choosing a method and giving an answer until students have had time to consider how the method should affect the solution. Additionally, the teacher may compare the problem of adding two whole numbers with the problem of adding two fractions and explore with students why previously learned methods do not always apply and discuss ways to evaluate the validity of current knowledge before carrying a response.

The student evaluated the courses of action he or she had knowledge of and chose one

As the student ran down his or her mental list of possible responses to math problems, he or she may have only had one process associated to seeing an addition symbol, whole numbers, and an equal sign—add them. So, the student added them.

This sort of academic behavior is expected in a classroom—students do what they know. And, teachers understand that even after students have been taught the correct way of doing things, they may still do otherwise. In the math problem example, even after the teacher shows this student how to add fractions correctly, he or she still may simply add the numerators and denominators together. Teachers often need to teach a concept multiple times or investigate further and uncover deep seated, sometimes unexpected, misunderstandings that need to be resolved for a student to retain and appropriately use the new information. Interestingly, this academic circumstance is very similar to what teachers and students experience as a part of social and emotional learning programs.

Just as when one student calls another student’s shoes stupid because they aren’t trendy or a fight breaks out because one student stared at another a bit too long, it may be the same case when a student struggling to learn and retain academic content—a person’s brain may have only a single or very few responses stored to social problems even if he or she has been taught additional strategies.

The amygdala, receiving information before the cortex, has the power to cause one’s body to act. In some cases, giving a person a new way to process anger doesn’t necessarily ensure that the new response is attached to the right emotion. Neural alarms, as Daniel Coleman points out, are urgent messages sent from the amygdala about emotionally charged memories. Sometimes, these memories can be extremely difficult to pinpoint and treat. Infants, for example, don’t store experiences the same way adults do. One reason is that they don’t have the language for it. If a young man who developed emotionally charged memories as an infant is taught alternate responses to feeling “anger, those new strategies may not attach themselves to the right memories in the brain because, as an infant, the man was incapable of labeling the emotional experience as “anger.”

During my podcast interview with David Adams, the director of social-emotional learning at The Urban Assembly and board member for CASEL, he reiterates this concept for young and adult learners. David explains that many students come to the classroom with a “one-to-one” concept between emotions and actions. A student suffering from this misconception may not understand anger and physical aggression as two separate things if he or she were raised in an environment where the two always occur together—meaning that the person doesn’t understand how someone could be angry if he or she is not being physically aggressive. Treating this, David explains, involves having students think about and discuss emotions as a phenomenon independent of action.

As we’ve seen throughout this article, probing, tutoring, and reteaching are SEL-related activities that all teachers already participate in. By looking for opportunities to intervene in how students process and respond to information, whether it be social or academic, every teacher can teach and promote the kinds of social and emotional thinking that our students so desperately need.

Be sure to follow the Edmentum podcast on your favorite streaming service, and stay tuned for upcoming episodes!

david.cicero's picture
David Cicero

David has worked in education for 14 years. He has spent the last 6 years in the education technology industry and is currently working as an Educational Programs Consultant. As a trusted advisor and education technology advocate he has helped countless districts and schools successfully integrate technology. David holds a B.A. in Mathematics from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas and a M.A. in Teaching from Northern Arizona University.