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social-emotional learning

Imagine you must construct a building. When is the right time for you and your team to consider preparedness for natural disasters such as earthquakes?

You’d want to design the building with a proper foundation to absorb shock waves and remain standing, and you’d want an emergency response plan just in case the worst were to happen.

A proactive approach with a built-in back-up plan is preferable to a solely reactive one. The same goes for social-emotional learning (SEL) instruction in schools. A foundation in social and emotional strength is proven to benefit students, both in the classroom and later in life.

Related: New advances in measuring social-emotional learning

When I was an educator, I saw firsthand how trauma can affect students, whether it was a student who experienced bullying, one who was coping with her parents’ divorce, or another who had witnessed a family member’s murder before immigrating to America with his mother, in search of safety.

As social-emotional learning is adopted by an increasing number of schools and districts around the country, we have a unique and important opportunity to embrace and integrate SEL instruction as an essential foundation relevant to everyday lessons and life — not simply as an emergency response to trauma.

1. Clarifying the relationship between SEL and trauma-informed practices. When I think about my classroom, I remember the multitude of daily challenges, ranging from the photocopier not working to impatient students, frustrated by the slow-moving lunch line. These are small stressors or setbacks — and perfect opportunities to model or encourage resilience and help students develop strategies for resilience. Rather than over-emphasizing traumatic events and defining students by them, let’s give young people the power to define their own experiences — starting with the assurance that resilience, a protective trait that helps kids recovery from adversity, can be taught. Furthermore, evidence shows that students who leave school having participated in empowering experiences are the ones most likely to remain optimistic about their educational and personal futures.

2. Understanding the power of labels for students. Think about how we talk about students’ inner lives: What do we communicate to ourselves and others about a student if we say he or she is “damaged” or “has a rough background”? Or if we say, “He’s a bad kid” or “She struggles”? As educators, we know that language matters. It’s a small tweak to change the nomenclature from “trauma-informed” to “resilience-informed,” but while the use of the word “trauma” implies victimhood, the word “resilience” implies agency — which makes space for students to express themselves and take increased ownership of their learning. If we must use labels, why not use ones rooted in optimism?

”We’ll be on a faster road to recovery if the foundation of social-emotional learning has already been laid.”

3. Getting proactive. Think back to the broken photocopier scenario. These informal, unplanned moments became teachable moments. “Can I tell you all how frustrated I felt this morning when the copier wasn’t working? I had to go to a happy place in my mind and think calm thoughts because I was getting stressed! Have you felt that way? How can I calm down next time?” and “How can we make the time pass in the lunch line? Let’s have a silent rock/paper/scissors tournament for bragging rights until the next turtle line we are stuck in!” Of course, these are the small-scale challenges that can help inspire resilience and teach some low-level strategies for coping with things like frustration and impatience.

We also know that educators face a far bigger and more serious challenge when it comes to supporting students through trauma such as unrelenting bullying or difficult home environments. That said, it’s key to build relationships early. When you make yourself available and become a trusted, accessible source, students will come to you when they need you.

Related: NYC’s bold gamble: Spend big on impoverished students’ social and emotional needs to get academic gains

Emergency responses such as trauma-informed instruction have their place, but those efforts should work in concert with focused, intentional SEL implementations. As all parents and educators know, children are born inquisitive, optimistic and naturally resilient. Parents and educators have the opportunity and responsibility to encourage students to set and conquer their wildest goals, and to teach them that their recipe for success is making responsible decisions, managing themselves and their mindsets, and embracing persistence in the face of setbacks. When trauma occurs, it is absolutely our responsibility to respond with swift and meaningful support. But we’ll be on a faster road to recovery if the foundation of social-emotional learning has already been laid.

Not only will we be helping young people to be resilient human beings — we’ll probably learn to better ourselves along the way, too.

This story about social-emotional learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Christina Pirzada is the program manager for social-emotional learning at Newsela. She previously taught middle school literacy and produced network-wide curriculum and professional development at Alpha Public Schools in San Jose, California, and RePublic Charter Schools in Nashville, Tennessee.

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