Durriyyah Kemp, a community health educator with the University of Illinois Extension, provides leadership for schools, children, families and organizations in Cook County, Illinois, on implementing social and emotional learning initiatives.
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Proponents of social and emotional learning - SEL - believe these curricula teach young people skills that could help the U.S. prevent or stem the rising tide of school violence. Durriyyah Kemp, a community health educator with University of Illinois Extension, provides leadership for schools, children, families and organizations in Cook County, Illinois, on implementing SEL initiatives. Kemp also is a past chair of the statewide SEL committee. Kemp spoke recently with News Bureau education editor Sharita Forrest about SEL initiatives and how they might benefit schools.
What are SEL curricula, and how do they differ from other programs that schools may already use, such as character education or antibullying programs?
SEL is about teaching skills. How do you go through the various emotions that you experience, such as anger or happiness? How do you develop appropriate and supportive relationships? How are you able to control yourself if someone steps on your foot without saying, "excuse me"? Or if classmates are passing notes about you?
Most character education programs are about teaching values. SEL is about equipping students with the skills to effectively manage whatever it is life is throwing at them. It's more than just saying, "you should be fair" or, "you need to be responsible."
When it's done well, test scores increase, truancy decreases and critical thinking skills abound.
SEL is not a program; it's the learning environment that is created. It's the opportunities that students have to voice their opinion, work collaboratively and feel that they have a place within the learning community.
What are some specific examples of how teachers use SEL? And what kind of feedback do you get from teachers once they begin using it?
SEL may take on many forms. Most often, I hear about the ease with which teachers are able to implement it. Many of them discover that they're already doing SEL - they just didn't have a name for it.
They may call it "circle time," the time where they encourage discussion of current events and students' feelings about those events.
SEL is also discussing how students feel about the things that they read. SEL is an intricate part of literacy.
For school administrators, SEL may be in the form of taking the time to learn the students' names. It helps the students feel like they're part of the learning community and not just another student. It's quite meaningful.
SEL also can be something as simple as teachers inviting a student to have lunch with them and talk because they've noticed some behavioral changes in the child. And inviting the child to talk about whatever's on his mind or to just sit quietly together, as long as the child knows that the teacher is making himself/herself available to listen.
What does the research tell us about the benefits of SEL on individual students and the school environment?
When SEL is implemented, test scores go up by at least 11 percent - and sometimes much more. Students are less likely to be absent. Parents are more engaged and show up to support their children and the learning that takes place.
When something negative is happening, children know there's someone they can go to.
Roughly four decades of research indicates that it's just good practice. Schools that implement SEL schoolwide tend to not have a lot of problems with violence, low test scores and large racial achievement gaps.
Teachers already have so many mandates and so little time. How do they react when you and their administrators approach them about using SEL in their classrooms?
Integrating SEL into the academic curriculum is key. I do a lot of work in that area so teachers won't feel overwhelmed. I give them ideas for how to integrate SEL into whatever it is that they're teaching - history, health, science or math. It can easily be embedded into whatever lesson plans they already have.
There's a lot of good, scripted curricula out there, but I emphasize to teachers that they don't need to purchase a curriculum. It's really just teaching in a different way - making sure that teaching and learning is a dialogue, not a monologue, and utilizing cooperative learning experiences.
If you do SEL right, and implement it schoolwide, schools don't need separate, fragmented programs - for substance abuse, teen pregnancy, bullying or character education. The skills overlap.
Illinois was the first state in the country to have learning standards for SEL in kindergarten-12th grade education when it passed the Children's Mental Health Act in 2004. Every school district is required to submit a plan every two years that indicates how they are going to address the social and emotional needs of students.
But one of the bigger challenges that we're having is accountability. Typically, it's the administrators who are submitting these plans to Springfield. Many teachers are unaware that we even have learning standards for SEL.
Several other states are following Illinois' lead. There are several bills on the federal level, and Congress is looking to make SEL more of a national priority, similar to the Common Core standards for math, science and literacy.
With so many of our nation's schools struggling and falling behind, what do you say to skeptics who think that SEL just takes up time that could be better spent on "real" academics, such as math, language arts or science?
Education is about educating the whole person.
School is the most social environment our kids will ever be in. If we're not teaching them how to get along, develop healthy relationships, manage their emotions, weigh options and make healthy choices, and how to empathize, many of the problems that we're seeing are certainly going to continue.
A lot of the school violence and problems are arising from social difficulties or conflict.
We have to make SEL a priority and do it the same way that we're thinking about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. SEL is just as important. It should be part of every child's K-12 experience. It's also a lifelong process.
Early childhood teachers do a great job of implementing SEL, but it starts to taper off in elementary school, when teachers become more concerned about academic test scores.
To ensure that we are preparing our students for the real world and to be successful in a global society, we have to be willing to put forth the effort behind SEL and make sure that these skills are being taught.