The Importance of SEL, an Educator (and Parent) Perspective

By Sheila Murphy
June 7, 2021

As schools look to return fully in person next year there will be many uncertainties educators will face. While, there are hundreds of questions going through the minds of teachers, there are even more going through the minds of parents as they have had to navigate the ill prepared education system over the last 14 months.  There are numerous resources to measure and prescribe curriculum to meet the academic needs of students as they return to the classroom. However, the social and emotional requirements of students have changed while the resources and training necessary have not caught up to the needs of our families, teachers and students. As parents advocate for their students, it is imperative that they have awareness of the social emotional and Executive Functioning needs of their students.  Creating informed relationships and partnerships with the educators, tutors, counselors and any other support your child is fortunate to have in their family will ensure a happy, healthy student with a bright future.

How did you become interested in/passionate about SEL growth? 

My favorite Maya Angelou quote has always been: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”  Reading this quote as a teacher stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink everything I was doing in my classroom.  As an educator in an inner-city school, I felt the pressure to ensure my students were achieving at academic levels of their uptown peers.  I didn’t want them to continue in the cycle of poverty they had come from, so I felt a personal responsibility for their future.  However, after years of district prescribed, skills-based teaching and testing, I knew there was something missing.  No one had ever asked these students what they wanted, what they needed and what they thought.  This was my first step into the realization that relationships are as important (if not more) than the lessons in any text book.  This was where my passion for social emotional learning (SEL) began.

As a parent of three sons who struggled with learning disabilities, I knew the emotional hardships learning could take on a student and their family. Schools would focus on their reading and math skills, which often left them feeling disconnected and defeated.  I knew that they learned differently and struggled constantly, but my greatest concern was that they were also not learning skills on how to be successful in life.  Although the boys were well behaved, teachers were always frustrated and impatient with them because teaching them was so difficult.  One by one they lost confidence in themselves and began to show signs of struggle in their social emotional skills and overall mental health.

What is Social-Emotional Learning and why is it important? 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social emotional learning (SEL) as, “The process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”  They remind us that SEL is an integral part of education and human development. These systems of emotional intelligence help us navigate our self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship building skills, which lead us to responsible decision making.

How do learners present when they are facing SEL challenges?

Students who struggle with gaps in their SEL might be: insensitive to other’s feelings, judgmental of others, have a hard time accepting criticism, argumentative, blame others, have emotional outbursts, exhibit bullying behavior, struggle making friends, overreact, have poor coping skills, or feel the need to always be right.

What role does Executive Functioning play in SEL? 

Along with their learning difficulties came large gaps in their Executive Functioning (EF) skills.  These are areas of learning such as adaptable thinking, planning, self-monitoring, self-control, working memory, time management, and organization, which help us to navigate the world as we focus our attention, remember instructions, multitask, set and achieve goals and control impulses.  The EF skills combined with SEL, support student success because when students have self-awareness and self-management skills they have stronger social awareness which leads to successful relationship building.

With a lack of EF skills and/or low social emotional skills there are many issues that could arise, such as socially inappropriate behavior, trouble controlling emotions or impulses, easily distracted or hard time paying attention.

For my own sons they withdrew, struggled with attention, became depressed and one even ended up with school-based anxiety.  Although this is a worse case scenario, when the needs of students SEL and EF are not met, this can become the outcome.  This is why in my own classroom, with the school I led as a principal and in my own home I have become an advocate for programs that support the whole child.

What programs or curriculum have you utilized to address said struggles?  

Many schools, including the ones I have worked in have successfully used curriculum, training and ongoing professional development from Second Step, Soul Shoppe and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).  I have found these to be powerful tools if they are used and monitored to fidelity. The schools that educate parents, teachers, school staff and students find the most success with these programs.  The entire culture of a school can be positively changed with a commitment to social emotional learning as families, teachers and students feel safer and are happier. These types of programs bring awareness to struggling students and provide resources to teachers, families and students, so that stories like my sons’ don’t have to happen to others.

Using what I had learned about SEL and EF I was able to help my boys become successful young men who are passionate in their careers, thrive emotionally, and build healthy relationships.  They went from students who lacked confidence and deemed themselves as, “dumb,” to adults who run their own business, manage others and are compassionate beyond their years.

About the Author

Dr. Sheila Murphy

Dr. Sheila Murphy is the founder of Alma Bonita Animal Rescue and an educational consultant focused on equity, diversity, social emotional learning and inclusion.  Sheila went into education specifically to advocate and address gaps in the system that failed her own three sons.  With a Doctorate Degree in Educational Leadership, a Master’s Degree in Education, a Master’s Degree in Supervision and Administration and as a Certified Life Coach, Sheila has focused her life’s work on giving to those who are most vulnerable in this world.

Learn more about Dr. Sheila Murphy on her website

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