The Social Emotional Learning of Children is at Stake

And here is one way we can change that


Ian McDermod

3 years ago | 4 min read

With a dearth of stimulating activities and resources for children during the coronavirus pandemic, there is one tool that threatens to grow dull in the toolbox of child development. That tool is the social and emotional learning (SEL) of our children.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) SEL is defined as how children and adults use their knowledge and skills to manage emotions, set goals, develop and maintain relationships, take accountability, and show empathy.

These types of skills are of great significance for educators. According to a CASEL meta-analysis, SEL programs have been linked to higher academic performance, stronger graduation rates, and the potential of higher earnings later on in life.

There are many ways in which SEL programs and educators across the world have come to recently incorporate some of the competencies of positive SEL.

SEL competencies provided by CASEL

How SEL has been implemented in school and the classroom includes community-building activities, interactive pedagogy, student-centered behavior management, and many more.

However, with many classrooms recently being taken virtual, and many schools looking to implement partial or full virtual learning programs, the SEL of children needs to be taken into account. After all, school isn’t about just learning the subject matter — social growth and emotional intelligence also play a crucial role.

Sitting in front of a screen

There are arguably many advantages to the recent trend in online learning. The predominant advantage is that it is keeping children and educators safe from illness. Students and teachers with health complications or compromised immune systems will need to rely on virtual learning content at least for the time being.

Other advantages of online schooling include its portability, ease to update and deliver content, and the ability for learning to be accessed from anywhere there is an internet connection.

Even with its ease and advantages, it’s difficult to completely rely entirely on virtual learning experiences. There are many aspects of traditional schooling that children miss out on that can inhibit SEL and developing critical peer relationships.

In her book Unschooling To University: Relationships matter most in a world crammed with content child development specialist Judy Arnall discusses some of the many drawbacks that online learning programs face.

Face-to-face relationships are difficult to foster in the digital world, but are critically needed in the teaching-learning dynamic.

In an excerpt from her book, Arnall recently published a blog post on “16 Problems with Online/Virtual learning.”

Some of the challenges that virtual learning faces include the difficulty for students to maintain relationships, lack of motivation from students, and the inability of virtual learning to provide physical activity and engage all of the senses. Arnall acknowledges that there are advantages, but online learning is not going to be for everyone.

There are ways in which SEL can be incorporated into virtual learning through small group interaction, reflection, and connection. These teaching methods are valuable, but likely do not feed students all the same SEL competencies that in-person classes and activities foster.

Bringing the classroom outside

The answer to how SEL can be maintained in the new normal for education will be nuanced. It will require the synergy of educators across a diverse spectrum. One way in which schools and teachers can safely educate in-person while providing opportunities for SEL is to bring the classroom outside.

Outdoor education provides a hands-on, interactive, and reflective learning experience. Students learn through experiences in the outdoors and better understand their relationship between the environment and people.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

It not only reinforces science and social science concepts but also promotes a plethora of emotional and social learning opportunities.

Interpersonal relationships are strengthened by engaging in outdoor activities that require teamwork, communication, and social interaction. All of this can be accomplished even at an acceptable social distance, in a safe clean-air environment.

Intrapersonal relationships or how students get along with themselves are also strengthened. Many activities in outdoor education require high levels of independence, responsible decision-making, and self-management.

Many studies point towards the benefits of educating outside. One study conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles found that a 5-day outdoor education camp experience that was away from digital technology improved preteen’s ability to recognize nonverbal emotional cues.

Implications are that the short-term effects of increased opportunities for social interaction, combined with time away from screen-based media and digital communication tools, improves a preteen’s understanding of nonverbal emotional cues…

Our findings are in line with developmental research pointing to the importance of in-person peer interaction as a learning process that leads to skill in understanding the emotions of others (Bosacki & Astington, 1999).

Outdoor education provides much needed time away from screens in an environment that is safer and encourages high levels of SEL.

Education has been met with unprecedented circumstances, but this does not mean we have to throw our newly developed teaching models and research out the window.

Adaptation and flexibility are needed now more than ever so that the pivotal work in SEL for child development can continue. The outdoor classroom is just one way that learning can be adapted to fit the social needs of children.

Educators across domains should continue to come together, discuss, and then disseminate the appropriate changes and blended learning models the education system needs. It’s not something we need to do just for ourselves, but for our students.

Originally published on medium


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Ian McDermod







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