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What is SEL and how is it used in a classroom?

While SEL can be a controversial phrase, some activities your child could do under that methodology have been around for decades.

INDIANAPOLIS — Even before the pandemic, kids were breaking down in American schools.

In 2019, almost a third of Hoosier students in grades six through 12 reported feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row. 

Once coronavirus locked down schools and students began working remotely in earnest, educators watched as distress blossomed into a mental health crisis. 

The kind of emotional distress felt among students, Butler University associate professor Dr. Lori Desautel said, is affecting students' brains on a basic level.

RELATED: Schools, parents worry how pandemic phenomenon of 'learning loss' will affect students returning to the classroom

"We are seeing right now, in a third year of pandemic in our schools across this country - we are seeing a social loss in our children. I'm not talking about an academic loss. We are seeing a social loss that's really indescribable. Our children are struggling, and we are seeing that through their behaviors. It's almost as if they've forgotten how to be with each other," she said. 

As school districts searched for ways to meet students' emotional needs in the midst of a gnawing pandemic, a framework called social-emotional learning, or SEL, made its way into the forefront of the conversation.

According to CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning out of Chicago, social-emotional learning is a methodology meant to help students make sense of their emotions. 

Credit: WTHR
One classroom at Break-O-Day Elementary School in New Whiteland was split about 50/50. Some students wore masks, others did not.

The framework is rooted in neuroscience, designed to enhance children's emotional and behavioral health by engaging the way children focus and regulate their emotions. 

"It's about teaching children about their nervous system, and how that can impact the way they feel. The way they think," Desautel said. 

RELATED: 'Right now we're in a crisis': Educators, parents concerned about school fights and outbursts

Remember those jumping jacks we sometimes did before a big final in high school? In kindergarten, did you ever sit around in a circle and share what you were feeling that day? Maybe your fifth-grade teacher played classical music during reading hours. 

These are all the kinds of things students could learn underneath an SEL framework.

Credit: pololia - stock.adobe.com
Students interacting in a classroom.

Ike Curry is chair of the Social and Emotional Learning Alliance for Indiana and said while the name SEL may be unfamiliar, the way it is implemented in classrooms is not. 

"SEL can look very different, SEL is nothing new. SEL has been the way teachers teach for the entire time that teachers have been in education. Really what it is, is building relationships with students. Creating predictable and safe spaces for students," Curry said. 

The most common framework implemented by school districts across the United States is CASEL, whose SEL framework involves five core competencies that can be applied in the classroom, at home, and in students’ communities.

Indiana's Social-Emotional Learning Competencies added two competencies to the five proposed by CASEL, mindset and sensory-motor integration. 

"We all need to be able to manage our feelings and to regulate our emotions. But, those are not realistic when we come into school feeling upset or we come into school with literally coming through a pandemic," Desautel said. 

Here's a guide to some of the most common questions surrounding SEL.

What is SEL, or Social-Emotional Learning? 

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is an educational framework based in neuroscience that is designed to increase emotional competency and behavior wellness in children across a range of ages. 

In Indiana, social emotional learning provides the framework for seven Indiana SEL competencies, a framework adopted by some school districts that gives teachers tools to engage students' brains. 

What are Indiana SEL competencies?

There are seven total social-emotional learning competencies put forth by the state of Indiana.  

They are: Sensory Motor Integration, Insight, Regulation, Collaboration, Connection, Critical-Thinking, and Mindset. 

Of those seven competencies, are any required to be taught in Indiana classrooms?  

Three of the seven SEL competencies are required to be taught, but only as part of a larger framework mandated by the state. 

In the 2019-2020 school year, the state of Indiana adopted Indiana's Employability Skills Standards

Those are a set of 18 skills that required students to work through the standards throughout grades K-12.  According to the Indiana Department of Education, those 18 standards are arranged in four key areas within the broader plan: Mindset - M, Work Ethic - WE, Learning Strategies - LS. Social and Emotional Skills, also called the SE area, are included within that broader set of 18 skills. 

Those competencies are regulation, collaboration, and connection. 

Aside from Indiana's Employability Skills Standards, the other set of standards required for graduation are The Indiana Academic Standards. 

SEL competencies are not included in the Indiana Academic Standards. 

So, is SEL required by law to be taught in Indiana classrooms?

Those three standards, regulation, collaboration and connection are, but only because they are included within Indiana's Employability Skills Standards. 

The Indiana Academic Standards and the Indiana Employability Skills Standards are the only standards required by Indiana for high school graduation. 

Per IC 20-26-3 and 511 IAC 6-7.1-2(1), local school boards may approve additional requirements for their students.

What do these required competencies actually look like within a classroom? What is my child learning under SEL? 

In 2018, the Indiana Department of Education and Butler's College of Education published a toolkit for educators and districts. 

Within that toolkit, there were sample activities and resources for educators on how to coalesce the Indiana SEL competencies into daily classroom activities. 

We've broken down each SEL competency and highlighted what activities children could be doing within the classroom. 

  • Sensory Motor Integration 

The sensory-motor integration competency is the ability for students to have body awareness and recognize sensations in the body. 

Within these lessons, students are encouraged to recognize sensations in the body in a way that further prepares them for managing transitions, routines, and improve emotional regulation by feeling how emotions feel in the body. 

Possible activities to enhance sensory-motor integration include animal walks, where students complete exercises in the animals they are named for. It was an activity suggested for students who may be fidgety or experiencing a meltdown. 

Activities like finger panting, working with playdough and meditation were also mentioned.

  • Insight  

The SEL competency of insight highlights a students' ability to understand how emotions affect thoughts and actions. 

These lessons are utilized in the classroom to enhance self-esteem, self confidence, and empathy.

Suggested activities include creating a personal collage to identify personal assets or values, taking a free strengths test, or journaling. 

  • Regulation

Regulation is the ability to recognize and manage one's emotions. Classroom activities designed around regulation encourage students to build positive self-control, positive self-discipline and impulse control. 

Possible regulation activities include creating an emotional planner by mapping out a day's task then assigning a particular emotion to that task. This lets students analyze potential stressors throughout their day. 

Playground games like Red Light, Green Light, Simon Says, and Freeze Dance can also be implemented to encourage emotional or impulse regulation in students. 

  • Collaboration

This is the ability to work well with others in a group or team environment. Key skills within this competency include building positive communication and developing conflict resolution skills. 

A teacher could create a scenario where students need to work together and solve a problem to succeed, like being stranded on a deserted island or getting lost at sea.  

Students could also do partner activities where one person tells a story, then the second asks a clarifying question. 

  • Connection

This is defined as the ability to have strong social awareness. 

The activities within the toolkit are created to give students an ability to take the perspectives of others, while also empathizing with people of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

The toolkit highlights activities that ask students to place themselves within the broader context of their community. 

These include creating an empathy map, discussions where students reflect on who is inside or outside their close circle of friends and discuss barriers to empathy

  • Critical Thinking

This is the ability to make constructive choices, and build decision-making and critical inquiry skills.

Sample activities in this section include creating cause and effect diagrams, pros and cons grids, taking part in advocacy programs in their community and partaking in other critical thinking skills. 

  • Mindset

This competency is defined as the ability to demonstrate cognitive flexibility and a willingness to learn.

In the classroom, students don't just reflect on what they learn. They reflect on how they learned it. Questions like, What strategies did I find most effective in learning? What could I do differently next time?, are highlighted within activities related to this competency. 

Students and teachers are also encouraged to develop a growth mindset when it comes to academic success. Instead of processing potential struggles as a failure, students are encouraged to embrace the process and analyze what went wrong leading up to a failure. 

Teachers are encouraged to be honest with students. Instead of saying "good job" when students performed poorly, they are encouraged to help the students implement strategies for how they can be successful in the future. 

Are SEL and Critical Race Theory the same thing? 

No. Critical Race Theory was also not included in any of Indiana's SEL documents observed by 13News. 


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