By G. FAITH LITTLE
Teacher training and education often does not shine a light on the importance of social-emotional growth for student academic achievement. We know our content. We have solid classroom management. Isn’t that enough? How do you find time for more? What if you feel nervous about connecting to students on a level outside of your field of study?
In their recent publication, the Utah Department of Health issued a status update on the impact of social-emotional development on health:
“Historically, building success in children has meant an emphasis on academia; good math and reading skills yields good grades, which increases the likelihood of obtaining a college degree and securing more earning power. It goes without saying that core reading and math skills are important, but research shows it’s time to focus on another set of skills to build lifelong success—those within the social and emotional realm.”
Zero to Three, an organization dedicated to the well-being of infants and toddlers, further emphasizes the importance of social-emotional connections:
“Infant-early childhood mental health, sometimes referred to as social and emotional health, is the developing capacity of the child from birth to 5 years of age to form close and secure adult and peer relationships; experience, manage, and express a full range of emotions; and explore the environment and learn—all in the context of family, community, and culture.”
We probably don’t need much convincing that children need connections with each other and with caring adults. It seems clear that the earlier their connections begin, the better the opportunity for a strong foundation upon which they can develop the necessary social-emotional skills needed to thrive.
What we do need are practical ways to connect with our students within a limited amount of time. From grade school to middle school to high school, there are effective and efficient ways to integrate these connections into our practice.
Each of your students is an original, and so are you. Express yourself in the style and manner that feels most real to you. You may connect with your students in quiet ways while your colleague across the hall conducts spotlight celebrations to connect with theirs. There is not only room for different styles, but there’s a need for them.
When students are able to experience a variety of relationships and ways of connecting with adults, it gives them more opportunities to feel seen and find a sense of belonging. That quiet student in the back may connect best with a teacher who encourages in quiet ways. The student seeking attention may feel their needs being addressed when the teacher calls out their encouragement more publicly. And, let’s face it, students are pros at recognizing when an adult is faking interest, so choose something you’re genuinely interested in as a means of connecting.
What are some interests of your own that you can share as a way of opening up a conversation? What would happen if everyone wrote down one thing they do or are curious to learn about (inside or outside of school)? These could be shared or kept between you and each student. The class could create a found poem or an original periodic table to represent the elements in your classroom community. What else comes to mind?
Grow your practice
Whether you’re simply starting out or are already a social-emotional skill-growing pro, reach for your next steps in connecting with your students. Read an article about prioritizing social-emotional competencies on your way home on the train. Or watch a TED Talk on the role of vulnerability in human connection, especially if you’re nervous about stepping outside of the comfort zone of your content area. Find a PD focused on social-emotional growth and sign yourself up!
While you’re growing your knowledge, keep pushing your experience. Write down all the ways you already connect — which would you like to see more of in your own practice? Which need to be revived, like something you did when you first began teaching but has been on the back burner for the past few years? Find new ways to connect! Here are few suggestions that may spark new ideas:
Share the intention of your plan with your students as it makes sense to you, and ask them to hold you accountable by saying something like, “If I haven’t given you a sticky note by the end of the week, remind me that I owe you one, because I intend to notice contributions each of you are making to our classroom community.”
Enjoy the experience
As you’re making connections with your students, you are nurturing the growth of a child’s sense of well-being and belonging. Take a few moments from time to time and recognize the ways this is transforming you and your students. You’re creating community, together. You’re modeling and taking the lead in finding ways to connect.
As you model ways of connecting, your students are watching. They are learning from you, and you will likely not know which acknowledgement, email, phone call, sticky note, or shout out they hold onto as they move through their days and weeks, in class and out. Connection shows them that someone cares. That someone is you. What an opportunity! What hard work and how valuable! Enjoy this process of planting seeds, trusting they will grow and bloom in gardens beyond your own.
The importance of social-emotional connections
The light is shining brighter, spotlighting the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) for students. In The Importance of Social Emotional Learning for All Students Across All Grades, the National Education Association says:
Research shows that SEL can have a positive impact on school climate and promote a host of academic, social, and emotional benefits for students. Durlak, Weissberg et al.’s recent meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of SEL in schools indicates that students receiving quality SEL instruction demonstrated:
Whether you’re nervous to step into the SEL world or already comfortable, continue to develop promising practices that support students as whole human beings and look for the positive results in yourself and in your students!