On Social Emotional Learning and Student Wellbeing

(And why “RUOK” might be the four most important letters in education)

On my first day of kindergarten, circa 1980, I stood in line at the East School in Natick, Massachusetts with my Star Wars lunchbox and new clothing, excited for what was to come. There was a girl who stood in front of me in line named Ann. She was a head taller than me and had long straight hair. There were two boys in front of Ann, and a girl in front of them at the head of the line. As we waited for the big green doors to open, one of the boys said to the girl at the front of the line, “Hey fatty.”

I held my breath and sucked my stomach in. Once I got home, I took my shirt off and stared at myself in my parent’s full length mirror. I wore my belt on the tightest loop possible and untucked my shirt at school for two weeks. My corduroys left marks on my skin. I was thin, but that didn’t matter. I didn’t want to be the girl at the front of the line.

Kindergarten. That’s how old our children are when they learn what “mean” really means. Some learn earlier. Every day, there are students, and perhaps even adults, in our schools who deal with the anxiety of not feeling as though they’re enough. Words change worlds. They start wars and end wars.

Kids in a circle with their hands in the middle engaged in social emotional learning

The idea that Social-Emotional well-being is important should not be a new revelation. The number of companies looking to capitalize on the SEL boom in education is actually quite encouraging. According to a study by J. L. Mahoney, J. A. Durlak, and R. P. Weissberg, “57% more students in schools with an SEL program improved their skills compared to students in schools without an SEL program, 27% more improved their academic performance, and 24% more improved their emotional well-being and social behavior.” The best educators and leaders understand that there is no substitute for fostering caring and authentic classrooms.

While the many benefits of SEL have long been proven, the act of implementing it into everyday classroom scenarios remains a question (and challenge!) for many educators. One exercise that I’ve found to be especially resonant is facilitated in conjunction with The Butterfly Circus, a 20-minute film that can be found on YouTube.

Sit between two students experiencing conflict and watch the film alongside them. Pause the film at the 3 minute, 57 second mark and ask the students to reflect upon which character they represent. Then ask them if they would like to return to class, or watch the remaining 16 minutes and 3 seconds of the film. They’ll stay. They may even cry. You’ll have little need to speak when the film is over. I call it quiet strength.

Who was your favorite educator? More importantly, why? To this day, I still think of Dr. Todd Crosset, a professor I had during my time at UMass Amherst. The best educators connect with students through passionate delivery and creative transfer of knowledge. If we conducted a survey of the masses to see what resonated most about their favorite educator, I would guess with a level of certainty that connection and love are at the root of most answers. The best educators help us find our value. They help us discover purpose. They teach us to love who we are in ways we can pay forward for eternity. They teach us to Maslow before we Bloom.

Psychologist Abraham Maslow surmised that a person cannot feel anything greater than anxiety until the four bottom tiers of a five-tier hierarchy of needs (eating, drinking, sleeping, safety, socialization) are met. It is only when these necessary pillars are satisfied that a person can excel to the top of the pyramid — growth. Educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom, on the other hand, is best recognized for creating a group of learning objectives (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation) to aid educators in framing their lessons and curriculum. While both theories are widely respected and put into practice, it is often said that humans must understand Maslow’s framework first — to feel safe, held, and understood — before Bloom’s hierarchy of objectives can even be considered.

It’s time to raise the bar. Start with love and proceed through doubt. As we challenge one another to accomplish things we never thought possible, we discover our calling. Hone your gifts and share them passionately. Our work is never done. Nothing worthwhile is easy. Proudest moments are born from seeds of doubt and defined by moments of struggle.

Ask without judging. Check in — not just with students. Check in with the people who are important to you. Check in with the people who aren’t (In a profession that certainly has no shortage of acronyms, I consider “RUOK” to be the most important four letters for us as educators to remember.). Make time for that simple question. Sometimes the question opens the door to deeper understanding. Sometimes it saves a life. The little things make the biggest difference. Everyone does the big things.

That’s how we should be flipping the classroom and shifting ownership of the learning. Create curiosity and build capacity. Help them find their purpose. Make sure the learning is relevant and meaningful. If only I had known that, as a self-conscious six-year-old with his Star Wars lunchbox.

Aaron Polansky is the Superintendent-Director of Old Colony Regional Vocational Technical High School and author of Dolphins in Trees (2018, DBC Inc.) and Beyond Us (2019, DBC Inc.) scheduled for release in summer 2019. Aaron speaks nationwide and was once referred to as The Tony Robbins of Education. Aaron will serve as the closing Keynote Speaker of the B.O.L.T. Conference hosted by the Pegasus Springs Education Collective being held at Coronado Springs Resort in Walt Disney World from June 30-July 3, 2019. Learn more at authentricityspeaks.com.

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