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Nurturing the Whole Child

By Shyamalika Nagendra
Nurturing the Whole Child

An example of interactive displays that make SEL and wellbeing a part of classroom routines and culture. (Photo source: American School of Bombay)

Amidst the ever-changing landscape of education, we educators find ourselves not only as promoters of continuous inquiry but also as sculptors shaping character and architects crafting futures. As an educator, the allure of the Interntional Baccalaureate (IB) Primary Years Program (PYP) philosophy, for me lies in its approach, which extends far beyond textbooks and tests. At its heart lies a resolute focus on nurturing the “whole child.”

An abundance of research substantiates the imperative of targeted social and emotional learning (SEL) within classrooms. Through consistent SEL lessons, we can introduce an array of vital social, emotional, and cognitive skills. However, ensuring these skills become deeply ingrained within our students, such that it has an enhanced influence on their learning and overall wellbeing, is what we are striving to achieve. It underscores the obligation we all have as educators to integrate SEL across all facets of teaching and learning. The challenges often reside in the pragmatic continuity of these SEL practices throughout the school week.

In this endeavor, involving all stakeholders in a child's learning journey is vital. This entails partnering not just with classroom teachers but with specialist teachers and parents. Through this collaborative approach, our young learners find numerous opportunities to practice and internalize various aspects of SEL. A method that particularly resonates with me is using consistent language across different settings. When adults use the same language, it helps children cultivate a habit. We need to make a concerted effort to prioritize these teaching and learning moments.

Another effective way to achieve this is by integrating SEL into everyday routines, such as morning meetings or closing circles. But the beauty lies in its versatility; it's not restricted to specific times or settings. Educators from diverse disciplines employ unique ways to incorporate various SEL concepts naturally. Visual arts teachers frequently engage in short read-aloud sessions in their art rooms to introduce projects or units; PE teachers establish ground rules for their activities by reviewing shared expectations; STEM teachers often discuss shared resources. These instances present fertile ground to infuse age appropriate SEL concepts and authentically embody the PYP philosophy of Approaches to Learning (ATLs).

At the American School of Bombay, educators have embraced this approach to SEL with increased vigor as we address the lingering effects of the pandemic. Educators have become more attuned to their students' social and emotional needs. Our practices at the elementary school are guided by three reflection inquiries:

1. How might we leverage SEL resources in our learning spaces?
2. How might we use them in our lessons?
3. How might we use them in conversations with our students?

Many educators have carved out calming corners or peace corners on their floors to action the first reflection prompt. These corners are accessible, tranquil, and secure retreats for students, providing them with a space to manage their emotions, relax, or regain focus. Classroom agreements often include a section on the protocols for using this space.

Examples of calming corners in different grade-level spaces. (Photo source: American School of Bombay)

An exemplar of the second reflection prompt is a comprehensive class discussion that culminates in establishing a classroom essential agreement, ensuring dual benefits: student voice and student choice. Elaborating upon the classroom agreement through an anchor chart renders it visible and accentuates its significance across all learning activities. Initiating modest yet impactful measures can seamlessly infuse SEL into lessons, thereby permeating the classroom culture.

Utilizing interactive classroom displays, such as a feelings check-in board, discreetly identifies students who might benefit from personalized attention, thereby establishing a supportive and responsive learning milieu. Incorporating dedicated time for reflection or post-experience debriefing offers another powerful strategy, fostering not only students' synthesis of knowledge but also honing their metacognitive skills as they learn to analyze their emotional responses in various academic contexts. 

An example of interactive displays that make SEL and wellbeing a part of classroom routines and culture. (Photo source: American School of Bombay)

Transitions pose a particular challenge for some learners, offering a prime opportunity to employ SEL practices effectively. Creating routines that include brief grounding exercises or body-awareness activities can significantly enhance focus and concentration and effectively mitigate the oft-observed disengagement. During small group sessions, I encourage students to allocate 30 seconds for self-check-ins and use a Zones of Regulation chart to express their emotions. This practice paves the way for meaningful discussions and engagement in planned learning activities.

Playgrounds serve as hubs for SEL, serving as an ideal space to implement our third reflection prompt. Here, educators witness the fruition of their efforts in social and emotional teaching or find themselves pondering ways to guide students toward success in navigating diverse situations. Beyond visual cues, language that encourages learners to engage with their SEL toolbox holds significance. For instance, when students approach supervising teachers with issues, employing Kelso’s Choices language like "is this a small problem or a big problem?" offers a valuable cue for learners to practice discerning instances where they require assistance from moments when they can independently resolve problems. This approach empowers them to gain confidence in applying their existing knowledge.

As adults, a certain automatic response sets in when we perform tasks or react to situations. However, when a child is present, the child greatly benefits from hearing us verbalize the steps. This offers them insights into our cognitive processes, thereby exemplifying the behaviors we hope they will adopt. For instance, when we need to modify a lesson plan, we might express, “I feel disappointed that we couldn’t get to the activity I had initially planned for the class, but I am genuinely excited to try this other one in our upcoming lesson.” This approach serves a dual purpose, demonstrating that adults also navigate through their emotions and illustrating adaptable thinking as a modeled behavior. These impromptu exchanges occasionally eclipse entire lessons in impact, bearing testimony to the merit of their organic nature and unfolding.

SEL transcends the confines of designated learning spaces within the school. The responsibility lies with all of us educators to ensure we exert every effort to infuse SEL into all aspects of our work. The adage "it takes a village" rings truer than ever when we intentionally prioritize the holistic development of the “whole child.”


Shyamalika Nagendra is an elementary school counselor at the American School of Bombay in Mumbai, India.

Twitter/X: @shyamalika_n, @AmericanSchoolofBombay

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