What is Social Emotional Learning?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as “The process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Within the context of schools, SEL can be easily understood as the study of soft skills. SEL is where students learn how to treat others and how to treat themselves in a responsible, caring, and compassionate way.

Why do Social Workers Work as SEL Coordinators?

Oftentimes, schools rely heavily on teachers to provide SEL instruction and planning. While many teachers deeply value SEL learning, sometimes the pressure for students to perform well academically leads teachers to prioritize content lessons over life skills. When schools hire a specific person to coordinate and teach SEL, it sets aside time specifically for SEL and creates accountability for SEL practices within the school. Social workers are the right person for this job for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, social workers are highly qualified to teach the content. The core values of social work align perfectly with the learning goals of SEL. The social work profession is grounded in the values of social justice, the importance of human relationships, competence, integrity, service, and the dignity and worth of the person.

These values are aligned with the five competencies of social and emotional learning: self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and self-management. For instance, social workers value relationships and learn explicitly in school how to develop authentic relationships with clients. Therefore, social workers are equipped to break down and model what it looks like to have relationship skills. Further, CASEL teaches that effective SEL programming is SAFE: sequenced, active, focused, and explicit.

Social workers have training in explicitly teaching social skills through explicit and focused role-plays. This skill can be easily modified and applied to the whole-class setting, seamlessly integrating social work therapeutic techniques with direct instruction. Additionally, social workers know how to respond in the moment. Due to the reflective and process-oriented nature of SEL lessons, students may sometimes disclose personal information, such as experiencing abuse, death in the family, thoughts of suicide, bullying, and more.

Not only do school social workers know the correct protocols for handling high-risk situations, such as suicide ideation or abuse, but social workers can provide therapeutic services in the school or refer students to effective mental health providers in the community. Social workers have training in both responding in the moment with empathy and also caring for themselves as practitioners later through explicit self-care to prevent burn-out. Teachers may not always feel comfortable and prepared to respond to difficult disclosures such as these.

Benefits to the Mental Health Staff

The social worker providing direct SEL instruction builds a reciprocal nature, benefiting all mental health staff at the school. With effective SEL services, the number of students needing more intensive services may decrease as students learn adaptive coping skills, healthy relationships, and effective conflict resolution within the classroom setting. When students are equipped with these proactive skills for addressing common problems which emerge in school, maladaptive responses that require the assistance of mental health professionals become less common.

Further, students who do need additional social work services benefit from a renewed sense of anonymity and decreased shame. When all students in the school are accustomed to interacting weekly with the school social worker, it becomes less obvious which students are receiving intensive services. Young students do not assume when a social worker walks into a classroom they are there for one specific student and therefore, privacy is restored.

Additionally, by offering ways for all students to see the social worker through self-referrals and lunch bunch services, almost all students trickle in and out of the social work office at one point or another. With this volume of foot traffic, students are much less likely to be concerned a peer may notice them coming or going from the office. Talking to the social worker about problems and issues becomes the norm, effectively alleviating mental health stigmas which often permeate through schools and the larger community.

Lastly, when the social worker takes such an active role in the classroom setting, they are better equipped to effectively respond to students with high needs when crises happen. Oftentimes in large school settings, student to social worker ratios can be extremely high. This presents challenges to building authentic relationships with all students at the school as social workers may be meeting students for the first time during a crisis. When the social worker provides direct SEL instruction, it is almost guaranteed the student and social worker have interacted positively during class previous to the incident. A level of trust is built faster and with more authenticity during the most difficult situations.

How the SEL Coordinator Position Works

Social workers are ideal providers of SEL instruction and support in schools. The social work mission requires practitioners to enhance well-being and empower those who are most vulnerable (NASW, 2008). By supporting students with SEL development in school, social workers equip students with valuable life skills that not only enhance their well-being, but may in the long-term serve as a protective factor for many inequitable outcomes.

Presently, I work in partnership with our school counselor in a school of approximately 600 students pre-kindergarten through fifth grade to provide wellness services. Our school counselor provides tier two and three services while I primarily provide tier one and two. This arrangement allows me to be available for predictable and scheduled classes in a way school social workers are typically not, as I am not pulled out for crisis response. I provide SEL lessons through direct instruction in all 19 of our elementary homerooms bi-weekly.

On the weeks I do not provide direct instruction, I prepare lesson plans and materials for homeroom teachers to implement the lessons on their own. To support the SEL curriculum, I also provide ongoing training to staff and family roundtables for parents/guardians. Additionally, I provide social skills and therapeutic services for students through individual and group services outside of regularly scheduled lessons.

All students are given the opportunity to meet with me through lunch bunches, where students sign up to eat lunch in my office. Through self-referral services, students request to discuss mental health-related concerns with a member of the wellness team. Overall, my week is split halfway between direct instruction in the classroom and more typical school social work services.

Closing Thoughts

When I enter the school building, I hear echoes of “Good morning Ms. Knipp!” as I make my way to my office. One elementary student holds up two fingers when he sees me, to indicate he has put two drops in classmate’s buckets (our way of measuring kind acts) so far this week. When I arrive at my office and open my calendar, I see today I have four lessons, a lunch session, two therapeutic groups, and a parent learning event after school.

I have the best job in the world. I am a social worker, but my official job title is “Social and Emotional Learning Coordinator.” My main responsibility is proactive, preventive work through direct instruction of social and emotional learning.

Empowering students with tools for SEL development at a young age promotes social justice in the long run. Social workers have the training and values necessary to implement these lessons in schools now. SEL instruction implemented by social workers not only improves the school, but it also improves social work practices within educational environments.

Cry Like a Girl

I don’t recall when I first heard the words, “Don’t cry like a girl! Be a man!” They simply were an accepted part of daily life. Despite the wide spread use and acceptance, I was always bothered by those and similar phrases. Primarily because they seemed to be more of an insult to females rather than a motivational phrase to males. The insinuated message was that crying is weak just like females are weak and that is bad. It took me years to realize it was also an insult to males.

Phrases such as these are being challenged more frequently by both females and males but the challenge comes from a female perspective. There are many current campaigns to eliminate the screwed up myth that existing as a female is in and of itself insulting. While I of course fully agree that this elimination is necessary, there is another side that is mostly ignored, yet equally important if we want equality and harmony between the sexes. The flip side to empowering females to be strong and independent is to also empower males to embrace and express emotions in healthy ways.

As a psychiatric social worker who largely provides psychotherapy to males I’ve come to understand exactly how damaging phrases such as, “Don’t cry like a girl” are to them as well. The message that emotions are bad and should be avoided has left us with an emotionally stunted population. Not only are males discouraged from feeling and expressing emotions in healthy ways but many females also struggle with emotions as a result of a society driven by “masculine” stereotypes.

Due to this struggle, many social issues are linked to anger which appears to be the only emotion that is generally acceptable for males to exhibit. There is little awareness that anger and other so-called “negative” emotions are actually derivatives of fear. These “negative” emotions can be informative and expressed in helpful ways that can move us forward out of fear rather than leave us stuck in the thick of it.

In an ideal world we would all come from families that innately model healthy expression of emotions and effective communication but, well, we don’t. Therefore, if we want a higher level of emotional intelligence in our society, which is important not only for success as a society but ultimately survival, emotional education is necessary. This is obviously a major component of psychotherapy but many people would never seek therapy or even recognize that they’re emotionally stunted.

Therefore, including emotional education in a more acceptable learning environment, such as schools would be the most far-reaching. The overall belief behind education for children is to provide an environment where they can learn and grow as a result of being exposed to new and different ideas. Schools could also provide opportunities for adults to learn the same skills in conjunction with their children, addressing more than one generation at a time.

Some schools are already leading this charge. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) skills (which emphasize mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal communication) are already being utilized in schools in place of traditional classroom management. There are also other schools that utilize Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and non-violent communication, which emphasize many of the same concepts as DBT and other unmentioned programs.

Through such efforts to encourage emotional intelligence alongside other more traditionally accepted forms of intelligence, these skills will eventually become more of the norm than not. And phrases such as “Cry like a girl” will progress beyond even that of a positive battle cry. They will eventually cease to exist because emotional expression will no longer be associated with a particular gender and instead will be the standard for communication.

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