Defining Social- Emotional Learning for Students and Teachers
When I taught high school there was a student of mine, Roger, who couldn’t concentrate on my oh-so-fabulous poetry lesson because his basic needs were not meet. I didn’t see that. I saw a student that was disrupting my lesson by fidgeting and talking to the students next to him. I strongly disciplined him, as I did the next day and the day after that when the behavior continued. Sharing his behavior that week with my colleagues over lunch (admittedly in a less-than-compassionate “I don’t know what is wrong with Roger this week” type way), I discovered that his younger sister, Brandy, had been reprimanded for sneaking food out of the school cafeteria. Putting all the pieces together, we figured out that Roger was hungry. His younger siblings were hungry. His mom, who had a problem with heroin and had gone on “benders” before, had deserted them and Roger didn’t know where she was or where their next meal was coming from. Of course, my fabulous poetry lesson didn’t matter to him! He was stuck in the panic of meeting the basic needs for himself and his siblings with zero resources or support. This was coupled with concern for his mother’s well-being along with hiding the truth from the school and his siblings so that they would not end up in foster care, again. Examining the climate and culture of my classroom at the time, I found that there was no mechanism for him to meet his emotional or physical needs. I naively thought that my dynamic lesson was enough to engage him in learning, regardless of what was happening outside of the schoolhouse doors. For teachers to be effective, students must feel comfortable stepping into vulnerability. The classroom environment must honor students’
physical, mental, and emotional needs without judgment, so that they can move out of “survival mode” (fight, flight, or freeze) and be Ready to Learn. Given the politics and legal restrictions of schools, a situation like Roger’s is complex on many levels. But, at the end of the day, the lesson is a good one. If our students’ basic needs are not met, they cannot be present and Ready to Learn. Practicing SEL, mindfulness, or yoga could not have put food in Roger’s stomach, but it could have helped him deal with the crippling anxiety of the unknown. This book fuses the traditional practices of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), mindfulness, yoga, and physical movement into one comprehensive approach we call Mindful Practices (see Figure 1.1). Mindful Practices are those practices that help cultivate awareness of body and mind in both personal and interpersonal situations so that one can operate with compassion for self and others. While SEL or mindfulness on their own do not traditionally include yoga, movement, or student wellness, Mindful Practices looks at the needs of the whole child: emotional, physical, and mental; when these three are in balance, a student is able to be present and Ready to Learn. Mindfulness is an important part of these practices as its inclusion into the classroom setting creates “present learners,” or students and teachers that are empowered to move through activation so they are able to focus on the task at hand. The Mindful Practices approach moves beyond a program that teachers merely implement, into a method of crafting a classroom that meets the competing needs of the whole child. Looking at everything from a student’s overall wellness (Is lack of sleep keeping a student from being present? Is a student’s physical need to move his body keeping him from being able to focus?) to what drives student interactions (Is there a conflict with a peer that keeps a student’s mind focused on “survival” instead of being present in the classroom?), and, most importantly, how does the energy of the classroom need to shift so that the students are present, focused, and Ready to Learn? When we frame the implementation of Mindful Practices around creating a classroom of students that are present and Ready to Learn, we are empowered to address the roadblocks that often keep us from teaching to our full potential. This book provides the tools needed for a successful program implementation, namely the creation of a classroom climate and culture that bring practitioner and student into a compassionate and safe connection. We’ll explore the tenet that the goals of SEL, such as the ability to handle stress effectively and the ability to regulate emotions, are commonalities shared across class, gender, and culture for both educator and student.