Why Continued Adult SEL is Needed

Kate Malone
Kate Malone
Middle school principal; Ed.S. in School Leadership

Why is Continued Social-Emotional Learning for Adults Needed?

Schools are microcosms of the world at large. The greatest challenges facing our schools (and our society) are social-emotional challenges, so some of the most impactful learning occurring in our schools is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).

Adults who are self-aware, emotionally literate, practice emotional self-regulation, and model pro-social behaviors for students have the emotional intelligence to lead students through their own growth in SEL and academics. Adults who possess these skills also collaborate more effectively with their colleagues.

Addressing students’ emotional needs is difficult work. By establishing adult SEL as a priority, school leaders cultivate the capacity to deal with stress through self-care and build resilience, which can lead to improved job satisfaction, teacher retention, and improved outcomes for students. School cultures that are grounded in SEL also focus on social justice through ethical decision making, rather than emotional decisions that can be rooted in individuals’ emotional needs and personal biases.

How is Adult Social-Emotional Learning Different from SEL for Children?

SEL for adults must include not only opportunities for learning and practice, but also for collaboration and modeling SEL strategies. SEL for students focuses on the individual’s acquisition and application of skills and dispositions related to their own emotional world. For staff, their social-emotional development must include the necessary skills to lead children in the same pursuits and to work as a team with other adults in the building to support students.

Social-Emotional Learning Activities for Adults

SEL is a habit, so it is important to find ways to weave SEL experiences into all aspects of school culture to create an inclusive culture and encourage adults to identify and deal with their emotions. Greet people with a handshake and a smile. Use their name and engage them in a conversation. Creating a sense of belonging among adults is paramount in making school an emotionally safe place for all, and it gives leaders the opportunity to identify changes in staff members’ affect or the presence of stressors. Support may then be provided before the issue manifests with students.

Establish group norms that go beyond staying within the allotted times or agendas. Instead, consider addressing the question: How do we agree to treat one another? And then, go a step further and establish how the adults will hold each other accountable. At the start of any meeting, consider taking a moment to ask everyone present if there are any good things happening in their lives that they’d like to share, and ask follow up questions. By modeling vulnerability, leaders encourage others to be open with one another.

In order for a habit to last, it must be sustainable. If the SEL “ask” is too great, it won’t be sustainable in the face of other school priorities. The best SEL activities are simple and easy to execute. Some ideas are listed below:

What’s filling your bucket and what’s draining it?

At certain times throughout the year, an entire staff can feel “off.” There’s just a pervasive feeling of being tired or stressed or maybe even sad. When this happens, as a leader, it’s important to identify what issues are impacting the adults in the building. Set up two buckets (this can also be done virtually on an interactive slide platform such as PearDeck). People write (anonymously) things that are draining them emotionally and place them in one bucket and things that are filling them up emotionally and place them in the other.

When everyone has had a chance to contribute, read the items aloud and talk about them. The act of naming a stressor can be very powerful dealing with it. By identifying positives, adults are able to overcome the natural tendency to focus on what is out of place or going wrong.

How are you feeling about this?

Sometimes school leaders contribute to the stress of the staff by sharing something to which they will likely have an emotional reaction. When that happens, take a moment to take the emotional temperature of the staff. On chart paper or an interactive slide, display a continuum (i.e. from “Totally Calm” to “Freaking out”) and ask individuals to place a marker on the continuum to identify how they are feeling.

If the staff feels emotionally safe enough to talk about it, even better! If not, it’s important that the school leader find ways to identify staff members who need support and reach out to them. Provide staff with a feelings wheel that gives them names for specific emotions. Naming emotions leads to empowerment and understanding that allows people to move beyond the emotion and deal with the underlying causes.

1-2-3 Clap

This is a simple game that creates a supportive culture accepting of mistakes. To play the game, adults partner up and are given a pattern (such as clap, stomp, clap, stomp). They are asked to alternate each element in the pattern with their partner and at the end of the round to talk about how difficult it was to complete the task. As the rounds go on, additional elements are added and some are replaced by a “skip” (so the pattern might be clap, skip, stomp, snap…). In the later rounds, if they make a mistake, individuals are asked to throw both hands above their heads and yell “Woohoo!” Eventually, their partners will be asked to celebrate with them. Games like this increase our willingness to hold one another accountable, celebrate mistakes, and take risks.

Challenging Your Thoughts and Beliefs & Examining Your Biases

All people hold biases that can subconsciously influence the decisions they make. Giving adults an opportunity to challenge their thought processes and beliefs by examining their biases is an essential piece of creating a culture that makes ethical decisions. Project Implicit has a series of tasks that use reactions to visual prompts to quantify bias in many different areas from age to ethnicity to gender. The information from these tasks can identify personal biases and school leaders can provide opportunities that educate adults beyond those biases.

Conflict Resolution Tools

Adults who can effectively resolve conflict are rare. Empower staff to be better partners for all stakeholders by building their capacity to self-regulate; check their expectations of others; evaluate their emotional aptitude (and that of other adults) before engaging in a conflict; reflect on their own contributions to the conflict; let things go; celebrate differences; take the first step toward resolution (no matter who was at fault); and identify healthy sounding boards.

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