SELblog.jpgThe concept of social and emotional learning (SEL) in education has steadily gained traction in recent years. SEL both supports and enhances core academic study by teaching concepts like critical thinking, empathy and emotional intelligence. It provides the type of "soft skills" that are necessary not just in academic learning and achievement, but also in the professional world and interpersonal relationships later in life.

At GEMS World Academy Chicago, a premier independent private school, SEL is embedded in the school's rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum. The IB Learner Profile, a list of attributes that each student strives to exhibit, includes such SEL-centric skills as risk-taking, reflection, open-mindedness and curiosity.

SEL.jpgGEMS leaders say the skills developed through SEL are key to future success as global innovators and problem-solvers.

"The educators at GEMS set out to inspire young learners to become morally responsible citizens who are engaged and connected in our ever-changing world," GEMS counselor Ann Tolley Jones said. "In order to be self-aware, self-managed, proactive, empathetic and connected people, students must learn the 'soft skills' that set them apart from others, that push them towards a different kinds of working relationships with people from all over the world."

What is 'social and emotional learning'?

Schools often tailor their social and emotional learning programs to the specific communities they serve. Generally speaking, SEL is designed around five core competencies:

  • Self awareness
  • Self management
  • Responsible decision making
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills

The goal of social and emotional learning is to offer students a range of emotional and behavioral coping mechanisms and tools, such as:

  • Managing emotions
  • Proactive goal setting and achieving
  • Empathy
  • Positive decision making
  • Positive social interactions
  • Positive attitudes and perspectives

Researchers are currently studying the effects of social and emotional learning on academic performance and achievement. Data from a number of studies over the last few years state that participants in social and emotional learning programs were found to perform approximately 13 percentage points higher on academic subjects and standardized tests than their non-SEL counterparts.

Benefits of SEL

While the focus in childhood education focuses heavily on academic achievement and knowledge acquisition, learning the soft skills that institutions of higher education and future employers will look for gives young students a special advantage in those arenas. SEL skills also provide personal benefits to the student, their classmates and families.

Some of the most essential soft skills necessary to succeed in school, career and life include:

  • Self motivation
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Problem solving
  • Flexibility
  • Time management
  • Ability to successfully manage stress and work well under pressure
  • Negotiation and conflict resolution skills

The most recent skills report compiled annually by Bloomberg cited the need in the business world of several skills developed through SEL — an important indicator of just how important soft skills are to future success. 

How to implement

There are a number of approaches designed to guide teachers in the implementation and practice of SEL skills building. At GEMS World Academy Chicago, SEL is threaded throughout the curriculum. 

Unlike academic subjects like science and math and standardized testing of generalized knowledge, the skills taught through SEL are not quantifiable with grades. To measure the effectiveness of SEL strategies, which are implemented in the classroom through exercises like role playing, cooperative and project-based learning and free-standing lessons, SEL skills are evaluated through how well the students adapt and are known to incorporate the tools of the program.

"We interweave SEL practices into the daily life of our studies through projects, conversations, reflections, Field Studies, and time spent processing life, allowing students to develop grit and self-acceptance," Ann Tolley Jones, the GEMS counselor, said. "Our Advisory program and Peer Leadership classes in the Upper School are centered on mindfulness and resolution-focused practices that will allow our students to continue growing by engaging in their school community and the greater world. In our Lower School, teachers structure their academic work to embody the SEL core principles through the language used, the process of inquiry and the time spent reflecting on how the learning process relates to the emotional development process. They go hand in hand, and our GEMS faculty is equipped and ready to lead students down the SEL path towards a more successful future."

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