Social-Emotional Learning is Hard Work

4 Elementary students together on a playground

by John Suitor, Head of School

Several years ago I wrote on the rise of “soft skills” in school curricula across the United States. Social Intelligence (SI) and Emotional Intelligence (EI) were frequent topics of conversation in classrooms, print and social media, and among families. Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, the value of teaching these skills was often juxtaposed against the value of “hard” sciences or the three Rs of reading, writing, and arithmetic. I projected then and will repeat now, that what came to be called Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) can no longer take a back seat to more traditional instruction. Instead, SEL should be at the forefront of thought leaders throughout the K-16 educational experience.

The onset of the pandemic provides even more reason to focus on SEL. Disrupted school schedules, increased anxiety within and across families, and the politicizing of public health policy has impacted our children in profound ways. As I’ve said to some of you, the closest example I can remember when thinking about daily reports of case counts, hospitalization rates, and COVID-related deaths were the nightly news reports on Vietnam War casualties when I was younger. Add to this the very personal experiences many of our families have had with COVID trauma and we can only start to imagine how this is sitting in the minds of our children.

I shared with our faculty and staff last week the need for fresh perspective when approaching this challenge. All of us had hoped for a new year different from last, but, in reality, we cannot and should not wipe aside the very real impact the pandemic has had on our kids. Like many schools across the country – independent, parochial, and public – BCD is seeing more instances of students having difficulty regulating their emotions, struggling with peer-to-peer relationships, and lacking the same levels of resilience compared to previous years. Google “need for social emotional learning COVID” and your search will return over 190,000,000 results. That’s up over 50% since the day I searched for the same terms last week! The evidence tells us what we already know: focusing on social-emotional aspects of our children’s education is more critical than ever. 

Yoga in the classroom.

The good news is that BCD has a history of teaching (and I do mean teaching) SEL. Our Love & Logic (Preschool), Responsive Classroom (Elementary School), and Developmental Designs and the IB Learner Profile (Middle School) programs have student wellbeing at the heart of their philosophies. School counseling and a schedule that allows for students to connect during morning meetings or advisory at every grade level provide us with context and content. Knowing a coordinated effort works best, we offer a robust Parent Education Series to invite our families into partnership as we tackle some of these topics. Our collective goal is to enrich student wellbeing, which, in turn, will lead to better educational outcomes. 

Over the course of the next weeks and months you should expect to hear more from teachers, division heads, and folks like me regarding our intention to bring visibility to our SEL efforts. We welcome, encourage, and rely upon your partnership and participation to achieve our goals. We are in the process of putting together resources for our community and I’ve already determined that this work will be the topic of my next Parent Coffee and Conversation. We are also curating several different Parent Education Series events with this topic in mind. The next one, a viewing of the film Like followed by a guided discussion, addresses the impact of social media on our and our children’s lives. Finally, Kath Courter, Head of BCD’s preschool, often remarks about the importance of teaching SEL to youngest students. She says, “Whether you are 5 years-old and knocking over someone’s block tower in preschool or 45 and not being very nice at a copy machine, the behaviors are the same. We have to be intentional with our instruction in order to teach our students how to navigate their social and emotional worlds.” This is hard work, not soft, and requires us to elevate social-emotional education to its rightful place in our schools.