Schooling Teachers on Social-Emotional Learning

July 9, 2013

by Roibín Ó hÉochaidh, UC Berkeley NewsCenter

BERKELEY—Mindfulness, empathy and resilience were just some of the topics unpacked at UC Berkeley last week as teachers, administrators, counselors and other pre-K-through-12th-grade professionals came together for a six-day workshop exploring social-emotional learning in the classroom.

Participants at GGSC’s Summer Institute for Educators Participants at GGSC's Summer Institute for Educators Roibín Ó hÉochaidh

Organized by the campus’s Greater Good Science Center —  which researches the neuroscience, psychology and sociology of well-being — the inaugural Summer Institute for Educators welcomed some 60 education professionals from California, across the nation and countries including Argentina, Australia, China and India. The gathering at the Clark Kerr campus included a series of seminars and workshops providing research-backed information, program resources and tools designed to educate, support and engage teachers and students.

Social-emotional-learning programs focus on developing an individual’s self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Learning to recognize, understand, manage and express emotions is seen as key to building healthy relationships and achieving academic, career and life goals.

“At the Greater Good Science Center, we believe that these core competencies are crucial to our well-being in that they can serve as the foundation for creating a meaningful and successful life,” says Vicki Zakrzewski, Greater Good’s education director.

“The goal of the institute is to equip educators with the knowledge, tools and skills they can use in their classrooms and personal lives,” she adds.

Participants explored topics such as chronic stress and burnout in the workplace, including signs of distress and strategies for coping. Sessions also delved into the theory and practice of self-compassion, gratitude and empathy, strategies for achieving and maintaining positive emotions, and the importance of physical wellness and healthy living.

Experts, including neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, author of the best-selling book Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, and research psychologist Marc Brackett, who developed RULER, a well-regarded approach to fostering emotional literacy in schools, outlined the science supporting the benefits of social-emotional learning in the classroom.

“Scientific research is starting to show that there is a very strong relationship between social-emotional learning and cognitive development and performance,” Zakrzewski says.

Social-emotional learning programs focus on developing an individual’s competency across five core areas. Social-emotional learning programs focus on developing an individual’s competency across five core areas. Courtesy of CASEL

Backed by a growing body of evidence documenting improved outcomes across areas from academic achievement to teacher burnout to problem behaviors, such as bullying and drug use, a social-learning movement is gathering momentum and interest from coast to coast. The Chicago-based nonprofit Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is at the vanguard.

A handful of states, such as Illinois, Michigan, Florida and Alaska, have taken the lead in mandating the integration of social-emotional learning programs into traditional curricula. At the federal level, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) re-introduced a bipartisan bill in May that aims to expand support for social-emotional learning in schools throughout the country.

In the Bay Area, the Oakland Unified School District is part of an eight-district consortium exploring social-emotional learning programs in partnership with CASEL. As part of a five-year plan to move the district toward a culture of “care for the whole child,” Oakland officials are piloting several programs across 20 schools that focus on developing students’ self-awareness and sense of community connectedness.

One program, called Roots of Empathy, is designed to help students better identify and manage their emotions, establish respectful caring relationships and resolve conflicts using nonviolent means.

“Children as young as 18 months exhibit compassion, empathy, altruism, so these characteristics are part of who we are,” Zakrzewski says. “But, at the same time, these skills have to be cultivated, because the environment can inhibit their development.”

School administrator Robyn Gaddy traveled to the institute from Missoula, Mont., where she has been overseeing a social-emotional-learning pilot at her K-8 school.

“Practicing mindfulness, emotional regulation and other relational skills is important because these are the pro-social behaviors that will help you become more engaged, get along with others and succeed in the world,” says Gaddy.

“We’re working to incorporate coaching into everything we do and I wanted to learn more about developing a common language that could help us communicate with our staff and kids in more meaningful ways about the hows and whys.”

Lauren Ramos, who teaches mathematics at a private K-12 school in Los Angeles County, was eager to learn more about incorporating mindfulness strategies into her class time as a means of reducing students’ fear of failure.

“I can understand that when students have had difficulty with math in the past, they can develop a lot of anxiety, which turns them off and really impacts their ability to learn and work through challenges,” says Ramos. “I’m exploring how helping students to be more positive in their thinking can impact their emotions and behaviors in ways that determine how successful they’ll be handling those challenges.”

By day three of the institute, Ramos was discovering practical ways to showcase the history, mystery and relevance of math as a means of igniting in her students the same sense of awe that drives her passion and curiosity for the subject.

“Mathematics is the universal language we use to understand the world. Its beautiful patterns are all around us in nature, science, architecture, art,” she says.

Taking advantage of numerous brainstorming sessions, Zakrzewski and other Greater Good staff worked closely with educators eager to flesh out practical strategies they could use to build understanding and support in their schools and communities.

“When it comes to social-emotional programs, implementation is extremely important for successful outcomes and real, lasting change in school culture,” Zakrzewski says. “You have to have buy-in from administrators and the support of parents, teachers have to practice the skills and the students have to understand what they’re doing and why in ways that make sense to them.”

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