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Social-Emotional Learning at Burgundy and Elsewhere

Friday, October 19, 2018

It will likely not come as a surprise to many of you that when schools take good care of students’ social and emotional health, they see huge benefits in the form of higher student engagement, more intrinsic motivation, and stronger overall academic performance. But a good social-emotional learning (SEL) program needs to be intentional and thoughtfully implemented. A recent article from the The Atlantic cited a study that showed an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement for students who participated in a well-implemented SEL program versus students who didn’t.

So what is it about social-emotional learning that helps students feel more confident and attain better results? While answers vary among educators, the common understanding is that a strong SEL program lowers stress levels to allow students to be “more available for learning.” Having an open mind to learn new ideas isn’t always easy. The idea of letting our guard down and being vulnerable in front of our peers can seem daunting. Taking risks and pushing outside of our comfort zones can be downright scary. But with a strong social-emotional program, students build trust and feel safe which motivates risk-taking, creativity and learning.

Here at Burgundy, SEL takes many forms. At the most fundamental level, teachers take great care in knowing each student as an individual and work hard to form strong classroom communities. Knowing each individual on a personal level means we also know their vulnerabilities, allowing us to anticipate potential stressors and preemptively put supports in place to avoid bigger blow-ups down the road. Small class sizes, advisory and homeroom programs, coupled with an underpinning of Responsive Classroom, allow for students to form strong relationships with classmates and work through individual or social challenges in a productive and supportive way.

(Photo credit: Joseph Edwards)

Building on a foundation of community, Burgundy puts great emphasis on the arts and allocates significant time for students to explore a variety of visual and performing art options. Research abounds on the positive effects of the arts on social-emotional intelligence, including the ability to rewire the brain for greater empathy, attention, motivation, and motor control.

Athletics, like the arts, teaches a wealth of social-emotional skills. We ask our Burgundy athletes to communicate in high stress moments, to step up at the right times, to know when to let others lead, to win together, to lose together, and to support teammates when in need. Additionally, regular participation in sports in adolescent years sets up a lifetime of athletic activity, lowering stress and allowing for interpersonal connections throughout life.

Focusing on wellness is another hallmark of a strong SEL program. Beyond health ed, which is a critical component, an effective wellness program brings in healthy lifestyle habits that are preventative instead of reactive. Sleep habits, screen time and technology use, healthy food choices, mindfulness, and ways of managing stress/anxiety, are just a few of the topics that we must explicitly teach our students so that wellness remains at the foundation of our educational approach.

And finally, and perhaps most significant to social-emotional growth, is just giving kids the opportunity to be kids. Loosening the reins for unstructured play time, opening the door for outdoor experiences, and giving kids the chance to work through age-appropriate social challenges on their own, all contribute to the maturation of well-grounded, socially intelligent individuals.

Progressive schools, with Burgundy at the forefront, have always emphasized far more than just intellect and content knowledge -- and these schools wouldn’t have it any other way. And while we can celebrate our commitment to the “whole child” and take pride in the incredible citizens we graduate, the work of improving our social-emotional program never ends. In an ever-changing society, we must remain flexible to stay current and meet our students where they are -- each and every one of them, as unique individuals.