Learn how SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) in education is challenging—and changing—kids today.
As I enter a first-grade classroom in Sacramento, California, two girls leave the group and make a beeline for me.
“Welcome to Sutterville Elementary,” says the first brightly. “My name is Lyla. What’s your name?”
“Welcome to Sutterville Elementary,” says the second. “My name is Maria!”
The two shake my hand and then return to the floor. Their teacher, Tara Nye, is preparing to read The Brand New Kid by Katie Couric.
It’s a story about a boy named Lazlo, who’s new at school. As Nye reads the story, she stops frequently to ask questions of her eager listeners.
She points to an illustration of Lazlo. “Before he even said a word, I could tell a lot from his body language,” she says. “What is his body language?”
Nye nods and adds, “I think he looks uncomfortable.”
Things get worse for poor Lazlo.
“No one has chosen him to be on the team,” says Nye. “How’s he feeling now?”
“Sad,” the children chorus.
Then a girl befriends Lazlo in the story, and Nye points to several signs hanging on the wall over our heads that describe seven habits: be proactive, think win-win, sharpen the saw, begin with the end in mind, synergize, put first things first, and seek first to understand, then to be understood.
“Which of the seven habits do you see in our story?”
The kids describe how the girl, Ellie, is being proactive in befriending Lazlo and how the two are synergizing by playing together. They use the sophisticated terms confidently and fluently.
Nye nods. As she continues the story, she returns to several different themes: being a leader; how each person in the book is feeling, as indicated by his or her body language; and the seven habits.
Nye’s class, which she co-teaches with Deanna Hose, is part of a pilot program to incorporate Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) into the classroom. Their particular emphasis, called The Leader in Me, is based on Stephen Covey’s bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Developing Life Skills
Odds are good that your local schools are also incorporating SEL in some form into classrooms, especially at the preschool and elementary level. In a nutshell, Social-Emotional Learning aims to help students develop the emotional and social skills critical to academic success and, indeed, life success.
While there are many curricula and programs available, what all the programs have as their basis is an emphasis on identifying and managing emotions, developing empathy, forming positive relationships, and making good decisions.
It’s a pendulum swing from the primary focus on knowledge objectives. Kim Benson, an occupational therapist and developmentalist, explains, “In the past decade or so we’ve really swung to a task-oriented expectation of kids. So I think this is a swing back to the idea that it’s important for kids to have ownership over their brain in their education.”
SEL in the classroom can take many forms, for instance:
- engaging in regular discussion about emotions that kids and teachers are feeling and learning strategies to calm down or overcome anger or frustration
- awarding tickets to kids who demonstrate core values such as being hardworking, respectful, or responsible
- teaching children to resolve playground disputes with Rock, Paper, Scissors
- engaging in role play and discussions about dilemmas children might encounter in their everyday lives
It’s clear how developing these positive social and emotional skills might help kids become more successful in relationships.
SEL improves behavior.
A 2012 study conducted on fourth- and fifth-grade math students showed that peer acceptance was key to academic success. Teachers in SEL classrooms report less aggression and acting out, better attention spans, and more focus from their kids. SEL activities help develop the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the seat of emotion. It’s also thought to help kids with reasoning, planning, and impulse control.
SEL positively impacts learning and life skills.
SEL makes a quantitative difference as well. In a 2011 study, kids in SEL programs scored, on average, 11 points higher than their peers on standardized tests. A 2013 survey of over 600 teachers showed that over 90 percent believed SEL helped kids in life. Almost all the teachers felt that social and emotional skills were teachable.
Some kids in your ministry may be noticeably lacking in these skills.
“This has been a slow-growing problem over the last 20 years when kids are not knowing how to do their job as a student or how to deal with their successes and failures,” says Megan Stone, founder and president of Stone Foundations of Learning and author of Own Your Education! “They’ve had teachers or parents constantly showing them the right answers” rather than helping kids work through challenges.
Educators are looking for help. Benson has had numerous preschools approach her over the last several years to help them teach social skills to their preschoolers.
“We’re getting feedback from the preschools that more and more kids are having a hard time with the social relatedness pieces in the preschool classroom,” she says. “Not that they can’t learn their colors or their numbers. They don’t have frustration tolerance or the basic play skills to play independently without an adult showing them what to do.”
Learning Through Success and Failure
In response to these lacking skills, SEL seeks to empower children to take ownership of their lives and education.
Kids experience empowerment.
In Nye and Hose’s classroom, there’s a leadership tree on the bulletin board listing various roles the kids themselves have come up with as solutions to classroom problems. For example, when Nye found that she was spending a large portion of her day tying shoes, one child, Spencer, volunteered to serve as CEO of Shoe-Tying. Although he doesn’t know how to tie shoes yet, he organizes those who can to help. Other jobs include Garbage Stomper (someone who stomps down the papers in the garbage can when it overflows), Gretter Leaders (those girls who welcomed me so warmly when I entered the room), and Journal Sentence Leaders (kids who check other students’ journals and pass out stickers for every page with a sentence). Kids who want to fulfill a role such as Journal Sentence Leader must fill out an application describing why they think they’d be good at the job.
Kids problem-solve through failure.
Another important component of empowering kids, emphasized by both Stone and Benson, is teaching kids to deal with failure, beginning with not trying to fix everything for them but rather helping them learn how to “problem-solve back to success,” as Benson puts it.
“These are just as essential tools for success as an adult as learning your ABCs,” says Benson.
Incorporating SEL in Your Ministry
Many of the elements related to SEL are likely already present in your children’s ministry, but here are additional ways to emphasize social and emotional skills.
A good first step, if most of your kids are in the same school district, is to find out what SEL curriculum, if any, the elementary schools in your community are using so you and your team can use language the children are already familiar with.
Stone suggests several other specific SEL strategies for children’s ministry.
Choose a leader of the week.
Choose a leader of the week, either from the entire group or from within each small group. Ask the other kids why they think you chose this child, and then explain, “Mark helped [this person]” or “Morgan handled [this disappointment] so well.” Make sure over the course of the year you choose each child at least once. This is a powerful way to connect personally with each child.
Seek out jobs.
Seek out jobs within your ministry or within the larger church that children can volunteer for: helping with snacks, passing out napkins, assisting with the setup of chairs. Encourage kids to come up with some of the jobs or tasks.
Gather good words about kids.
At the end of each year, ask parents to write a positive letter to each of their children. It might work best to give them a form with specific questions, such as “When were you most proud of your child?” “What was a failure your child walked through?” and “What are some of the positive qualities you’ve seen your child develop this year?” For any parents who decline to participate, ask your pastor or someone on your team who knows the child well to write the letter. Create a special time within your service where parents and your team can present the letters to the kids.
End meetings with an affirmation circle.
Ask each child to recall one positive anecdote about each of the other kids. Encourage each child to name something very specific rather than a general quality. For example, instead of “Keegan is nice,” try “Keegan helped me bring in bookies from my mom’s car.” If you find the kids tend to copy each other, then use written affirmations once a month instead, with a jar for each child. For older kids, you can call them “likes,” as on Instagram or Facebook.
In general, help kids—and parents—understand that failure is a part of life.
Failure is a part of life and what matters is how we walk through that failure. Remind them that Jesus’ life shows us life isn’t meant to be easy but we control how we respond to the challenges we encounter. This is a great focus for parent education. If Jesus shows us life isn’t meant to be easy, why are we trying to fix life for our children all the time?
Encourage parents to have their kids take more responsibility.
Start with things like allowing even preschoolers to pack and unpack their own backpacks so they experience more of the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes with doing things for themselves.
By empowering our children to lead, we might find them teaching us. In that first-grade classroom in Sacramento, Nye and Hose find that parents are learning better emotional management techniques form their children, who aren’t shy about reminding their busy parents of critical coping skills.
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