Last week we had our Fall 2019 meeting for the Library Services for Children Journal Club. Have you heard of the LSC Journal Club? It’s a side project of mine centered on reading and discussing relevant research to the field of youth services. It’s award winning!
This round we discussed social emotional learning. What is it? What does the research say about the best way to help kids develop SEL? Let’s dive in.
The two articles we read are from the journal Educational Psychologist which featured an entire 2019 issue on social emotional learning. Social emotional learning (SEL) gained traction around 20 years ago. Since then there has been a boom in research and interest around this topic, especially with regards to early child development and school environments. So what is it exactly? In one of the articles the author defines it as “the process of integrating cognition, emotion, and behavior into teaching and learning such that adults and children build self- and social awareness skills, learn to manage their own and other’s emotions and behavior, make responsible decisions, and build positive relationships.” SEL equips us with the social skills needed to regulate ourselves and our relationships with others.
There is a strong correlation between SEL and success in school and beyond related to mental health, social status, and general well-being. Due to the abundance of research, educators, researchers, and administrators are becoming more attuned at how the behaviour of adults affects the SEL of children. Here’s a quick recap of each article and then a discussion of what this might mean for libraries.
Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl sums up the issue of the journal and gives her recommendations around the future of SEL. She sets the stage by laying out the following three observations:
- social and emotional competencies predict children’s success in school and in life
- social and emotional competencies are malleable—they can be taught and assessed
- explicit attention to context is foundational to the promotion of SEL
She starts by acknowledging that there is enough research to show that implementing school-based SEL programs are an effective way to help ” children’s positive development and mental health.” But she pushes us to go a step further: “we need to move beyond just implementing SEL programs at the classroom level and instead need to integrate SEL into the entire system of the school,including school leadership, teaching and learning, and with families.”
Her two main recommendations concern educators (teachers in this specific context). Firstly, we can have a bigger impact on student SEL by making sure we are equipping teachers with their own SEL skills. Teachers who are competent in SEL create classrooms that have a positive trickle down effect. The adverse is true too – teachers who feel burnt out, unsupported, and stressed can pass this on to their students. Secondly, to meet this goal we should be integrating teacher well-being and SEL information into teacher preparation classes. This should be a core part of their teacher training, not an add-on.
The second article by Jones, McGarrah, and Kahn gives an overview of what the research shows about SEL and provides guiding principles for future research. They explain that SEL is part of a framework called Prevention Science which seeks to prevent negative outcomes and promote positive ones. We are at a key moment – we need to translate research into action, but the action itself can become research that requires reflection and ultimately more research. It’s a loop.
Their recommendations for the future include helping researchers “go beyond the question of whether a set of practices had an effect to understanding why those practices work and how to improve implementation.” They also point out the myriad terms related to SEL and the lack of a consistently defined set of vocabulary that everyone can use to describe SEL. How can we communicate our findings and understand our findings when we might not all mean the same thing when say “social awareness”? How can we create this type of controlled vocabulary when the people doing SEL research are from a variety of fields? Definitely food for thought!
Both of these articles spoke about SEL in the school context. Where do libraries fit in? We discussed Schonert-Reichl’s call for an entire system of support when it comes to SEL. Though she didn’t explicitly name libraries, we can view ourselves as active partners in the effort to equip kids with social emotional skills. We exist as a compliment to formal learning environments such as schools, and we provide a fun space families can access for free. In B.C. we have a new Early Learning Framework that emphasizes SEL for the first time ever. If schools and early childhood educators are making this a priority, it would make sense that libraries learn about it and find ways to support it.
Taking Care of the Adults
One of the biggest take-aways for our group is the argument that in order to take care of the kids we need to take care of the adults. (Duh?) But now we have research to support it! Teachers need support in the classroom, institutional support, and the personal skills to handle the challenges of teaching. In the library context, there are three sets of adults we discussed – Parents/Caregivers, Educators (early childhood through secondary school), and Library Staff (us!). We thought about:
- What social emotional skills does each group need to be a present and engaged adult for a child?
- What types of trainings are available to them if they lack SEL skills?
- How can the library support these adults? What resources do we have?
We noted that in large organizations SEL has to start at the top. If you have a manager who is stressed and does not take care of themselves it will trickle down to other staff. This stress might then transfer from library staff to parents and kids they see during the day. So this is something that definitely needs to be rolled out to all levels of library workers. We need training and staff development on this topic so that we can continue to develop emotional intelligence. Ideally, it would be made a strategic priority for the library as a whole.
Programs and Relationship Building
So how can we support the SEL of our families and educators? We talked about how it starts with relationship building with community partners. First we have to get to know them and get to know their needs. We build relationships through our programs, by listening and responding to feedback. SEL is personal on a level that other topics aren’t, so there needs to be a baseline of trust before diving in. The library as a space offers a place where people can come together to build relationships too, such as between fellow caregivers or fellow preschool teachers. We also have resources – books, websites, and staff – to help people who want to know more about the topic or introduce it to children. We noted that relationship building takes TIME. It is a time-intensive commitment and we need to be aware of that if we want to prioritize it.
When thinking about our programs specifically we talked about how we could create a framework for SEL that we check our program outlines against as a way to bring intentionality to the planning process. How are we weaving it in? What are our defined terms and vocabulary that we use across our organization to talk about SEL? How are we measuring those indicators and is it consistent across the system?
Emotional Literacy is a concept we liked to describe the infusion of SEL and traditional literacy. The five early literacy practices happen through relationship building; they are not separate. When we sing with kids we are giving a way to express emotion and feel like a part of a group AND we are providing a way for them to hear the smaller sounds in words. The relationships themselves are what make early literacy and learning happen – feeling safe and loved turns on the brain!
Bringing inentionality to the forefront of our program planning would also help with self-reflection. After programs we can evaluate ourselves (and not just the kids) – What had an impact? Were there any moments where I struggled? Self-reflection is a way we model SEL in our work.
A great tool to use to get started when thinking about SEL is called Heart-Mind online. They identify 5 domains and provide ideas for how to integrate these skills into programs.
I would love to know your thoughts about the articles or my group’s discussion. If you have any questions about starting up your own local LSC Journal Club feel free to ask!