How Does SEL Make a Community Stronger?
BY MELODIE DEL RIO, SCHOOL COUNSELOR
Thinking about our theme for the year, “we are all better together,” I have been reflecting about how we can truly embrace what it means to be a part of a community. Studies on happiness have found connection and community to be a primary factor in the happiness of people all over the world. This is consistent between cultures. When I think of what I want for our children, I want them to feel content, to be valued for their unique differences, to feel loved, and to have a sense of belonging. I am dedicated to helping children feel like they matter, that they belong.
Social emotional learning (SEL) is correlated with a student’s ability to make an impact on their community. This year, the professional community at MTS is being trained by The Institute for Social and Emotional Learning (IFSEL). IFSEL’s learning competencies are broken down into the following categories: self-awareness, self-management, social and cultural/ global awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making and compassionate action. These learning objectives help cultivate students who can begin to understand the perspectives of others, have empathy, learn to navigate relationships with others by using conflict resolution skills, and take responsibility for one’s decisions. Learning these skills ultimately helps to create good humans, ones who are responsible, caring, and productive.
Learning SEL skills takes time, actually a lifetime. When I think of personal growth, I believe it’s a lifelong process. For children, these skills take time to develop and need to be practiced consistently. Children will make mistakes along the way. Just like any skill, children learn at their own pace. Some children will have a natural ability to learn these skills while others may struggle to understand their feelings or how to navigate relationships. For example, not everyone will have natural math or spelling abilities and likewise, not everyone will be a natural at developing SEL skills.
When children struggle to figure out how to handle conflict in their relationships, this is developmentally appropriate. When children hurt one another’s feelings, it is essential that the adults in their lives help them learn how to make repairs. It is important for adults to communicate with children why a repair is necessary and help them learn the skills necessary to make repairs. Restorative practices focus on resolving conflict, repairing harm, and healing relationships. Repairs can come in many forms, and it’s helpful if children check in with one another to ask how they can make things better. A sincere apology which acknowledges the hurtful action and impact of that action on another person is the first step. An apology is best followed by an attempt to take action to help the person who was harmed. The specific action taken can vary person to person and situation to situation. For example, if a child said something unkind, that child can work on communicating positive and affirming messages to help the child who was hurt feel more supported/valued.
When a repair is attempted, the hurt child may benefit most when they are open to receiving the other person’s care/ bids for reconnection (if the hurt party maintains protective barriers, no repair can be made). It can feel scary to open oneself up and to be vulnerable. We encourage children to open up gradually and at their pace. Regaining trust takes time. A repair is successful when both parties feel heard and understood and can move forward in a way that supports the community and individual growth.
Sometimes repairs are not successful immediately (more time may be needed for a repair) and sometimes a child will repeat a mistake as they are learning how to more effectively navigate relationships. It’s a complicated process. We can all think of times when we get stuck in our own relationships (be it with a partner, a family member, or a friend). If adults find communication and conflict resolution tough at times, it can be much harder for children who have even less life experience.
Ultimately, we are looking to foster a strong community where children support each other and have the courage to make repair attempts and to be open to them. The expectation is not that every child be close friends, but that each child knows that they are an important part of a community and know that they matter. While a community may have its challenges from time to time, each person will ultimately do their best to show care for one another. By authentically growing together, we truly are “better together.”