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Relationships and resilience: the need for social and emotional learning right now in UK education

You can’t open a newspaper or watch TV these days without hearing about how children’s mental health has taken a hit in lockdown along with concerns about how they might be missing out on education.

We need to join the dots and talk about what, in education, children might actually need for their wellbeing – especially in these extraordinary times.

What do children need for mental health and wellbeing?

A sense of belonging, connection with others and feeling that you matter is now recognised as fundamental for resilience. There is a wealth of evidence about how much lonelier children are feeling but it appears that little is happening to connect kids on-line within education. All platforms have break out rooms for group discussion, but home learning appears to be focused almost entirely on individual academic assignments.   

Agency, having a voice and being heard also matters for wellbeing yet student voice seems absent in education. There are few, if any opportunities for pupils to talk together about issues that concern them and their future. 

Having someone believe in the best of us facilitates a sense of self-worth.  Some families are doing a great job of affirming their children’s strengths but many parents are stretched to the limit and it might be difficult to provide much in the way of positive affirmation. Where else are pupils going to get this? 

Another basic pillar of wellbeing is having a sense of purpose and meaning, something beyond immediate self-interest. For many this is an idealistic concern to change the world for the better, but not for all. The rise in racism, conspiracy theories and right-wing ideology needs to be tackled in education – not by telling students what to think but by giving them opportunities to talk together about relationships, resilience, values and perhaps our shared humanity.  This is one purpose of social and emotional learning. 

International support for Social and Emotional Learning

In July last year UNESCO/MGIEP published Re-thinking Education: A Review of Social and Emotional Learning for Education Systems, a document I was pleased to contribute to. This defines social and emotional learning (SEL) as learning that “allows all learners to identify and navigate emotions, practice mindful engagement and exhibit pro-social behavior for human flourishing towards a peaceful and sustainable planet.

The OECD Learning Compass 2030 reinforces the importance of “learning to be” and “learning to live together” stating that “social and emotional skills are increasingly recognised as essential”  These include empathy, self-efficacy, responsibility and collaboration. 

Prevention is better and cheaper than cure

Much of the conversation about children’s mental health is about adult intervention after things have become critical. Clearly some individuals will need that and there isn’t enough of it. Shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted however, is both more difficult to deal with and much more expensive.

We need pro-active preventative work with young people – of all ages – now.

Learning from the past

The SEAL programme, (Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning) was introduced by the last Labour government but then not supported by the current one. They said there was insufficient evidence of its effectiveness and some commentators were concerned that talking about feelings in school would open Pandora’s box for teachers who were untrained to deal with such disclosures. The ASPIRE principles that I have developed aim to address this. This stands for:

  • Agency: pupils given activities in which they come to their own conclusions
  • Safety – discussing issues, never incidents and from an impersonal perspective   
  • Positivity – strengths and solution focused activities, often presented as games 
  • Inclusion – students being mixed up out of their own social circles to work with and learn more about others; all activities are interactive 
  • Respect – listening to each other and not jumping to judgement 
  • Equity – flexibility and fairness – but also the teacher joining in with all the activities themselves. 

Simple strategies to promote social and emotional learning

Pupils who do have access to technology can work in groups on-line. There are hundreds of resources available for all ages, and where technology is limited worksheets can useful.

Examples of activities could include the following:

  • Giving pupils strengths words and asking them to discuss how they would know someone has this strength and how it would help in difficult situations
  • Listing together what might lift someone up when they are feeling low
  • Sharing pieces of music they have found helpful in lockdown and why
  • Discussing what has made them laugh the most recently
  • Design their ideal school/community/city
  • Learning the biology of emotion and how feelings are manifested in the body and what they can do to regulate these. Senior students might go on to talk about the neurotransmitters that impact on mood and how to use this knowledge to take action to stay mentally healthy
  • Learning the difference between sadness and depression
  • Using YouTube clips as a basis for structured discussions on wide-ranging issues such as racism, refugees, kindness, gratitude, fairness, online-safety or sleep

This learning is critical for supporting young people now but also in the future.

Circle Solutions for Student Wellbeing 3rd edition (2020) has many activities and a chapter on ASPIRE.  

Other information can be found at Growing Great Schools Worldwide

Twitter: @sueroffey

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