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The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

By Paula Brunning
The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

Students at Shekou International School practicing self-awareness (Photo source: Paula Brunning)

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is supported by research as a cornerstone of high-quality education. Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common has reported that "SEL is about developing the full range of skills and positive identity that students need for academic success, fulfilling careers, healthy relationships, and responsible citizenship."

There are five SEL skills: self-awareness, self-management, social skills, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills. Integrating all these intentionally through the curriculum supports each child's development and, at the same time, ensures that students feel connected and cared for as these SEL skills are practiced by their teachers and parents too.

At Shekou International School (SIS), SEL and inclusion are a targeted focus, aiming to support our students' current needs and future development. Intentional teaching and development of SEL skills is a companion to academic offerings. Through our own experiences, we have noticed that teaching is elevated as we raise our SEL practices through professional learning.

Across the primary school, the student support team and administration have led this initiative, which started in 2020, with all community members targeted for skill enrichment and training. Teachers have been participating in workshops that enrich their well-being and SEL skills and their ability to care for and connect with students. Students have SEL-focused lessons throughout the year, and the weekly ParentEDU program offers engaging topics for parents to learn and grow alongside their children.

Primary years program (PYP) coordinator, Alice Cheung, explains, "From the curricular perspective, we have worked over the years to map out the timing and appropriateness of [SEL] topics across grade levels. We chose Second Step as our curriculum because it brings social-emotional learning into students' everyday lives through targeted topics and engaging activities. Throughout the year, the homeroom teachers, counselors, and PSPE [personal, social, and physical education] teachers communicate about co-teaching and Unit of Inquiry integration opportunities. The Primary leadership team worked strategically to introduce Second Step across grade levels from Nursery to grade 5 in phases. And as of this year, all primary grades are using the Second Step curriculum to align expectations, strategies, language, and developmental appropriateness." In addition, the use of Second Step has now been rolled up into Grades 6-8 so that there is better continuity in student skill building.

SIS staff believe every child, grown-up, and human being matters and wants to belong and feel seen and heard. We want all students to feel safe and to develop healthy strategies to help them cope and function in the wider world. We want children to be able to interact and communicate with grown-ups and peers. We want them to build their independence, self-value, and advocacy skills to feel socially and academically accepted.  

Research underpins the choice of teaching SEL. When adults feel safe, they are free to take risks, make mistakes, and encourage the same in their students. When teachers feel supported, seen, and heard, they are more confident to share and discuss their thought processes. They will be more inclined to model healthy SEL practices to students and colleagues. The organization, Leading With SEL, captures this beautifully, "All learning is social and emotional, and all schools impact the social and emotional development of children and adults – intentionally or not. SEL must be intentional to ensure all students, especially our most vulnerable students who have often experienced inequitable learning environments, receive the instruction and support they need for success."

Leading With SEL also believes parents are SEL leaders, and at SIS, we agree. SIS will continue to promote and enrich our schooling experience by inviting our parents to develop and participate as SEL leaders. Offering specially prepared workshops for parents has been positive. Parents are learning and asking additional questions prompted by their desire to learn more. Parents have felt encouraged to take a "deeper dive" into SEL-focused learning opportunities to grow their bank of supportive practices and strategies at home. We hope parents will continue to feel confident in connecting and collaborating with all SIS community members. Their questions and comments are kept within a safe space.   

Ultimately, our students receive the added benefit of an SEL-focused school curriculum. When SEL is visible, audible, and woven into the fabric of learning, students know that it matters from a young age. We hear students using common language from the programs and guidance lessons across all school environments. This impact will be measurable throughout their lives. When presented with everyday challenges, students walk away with a bank of resources and strategies to support and guide their coping.  

Paula Brunning has worked as a counselor for over 20 years. Her career has spanned three countries and both school and private practice. She has five children of her own and is originally from Canada. Paula is the school counselor at Shekou International School Shenzhen in China.

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