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Uniting technology and SEL to teach the whole child

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Social-emotional learning is seeing a surge in mentions in the educational landscape. Most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic clearly illuminated the fact that academic growth and social and emotional wellness are interdependent and that educators must take into account the social and emotional aspects of a student’s reality as they consider academic development.

I know firsthand the power of SEL, both as a teacher and as a former student. I was born and raised in the rural mountains of North Carolina and was greatly influenced by a teacher who led with compassion. This educator forever changed my life because she saw "the whole child" -- she recognized me as more than my abilities in reading and math. She saw me as a hurt child from a broken home, although it was the only home I knew, and knew she could help me reach my potential by engaging me on a social and emotional level.

I have been an educator for 18 years and currently teach fourth-grade students. The students I teach come from similar, and even harsher, backgrounds where parents are incarcerated, deceased, or just not involved in their child's life. This creates a potential deficit in learning and may impede the student's ability to learn.

As we look to the 2021-2022 school year, it’s imperative that educators continue to factor social and emotional wellness into student growth. A key aspect to supporting students is meeting them where they are, which is so often on a digital device.

So, here’s how to leverage technology to improve social and emotional health and support greater academic achievement:

Develop the whole teacher to empower the whole child

Be an advocate for student social emotional learning and wellness by centering wellness in your own life. Not sure where to start? Start with yourself as the educator. Do you know what SEL means? What about how SEL fits into different grade bands? Or how can SEL connect students? Discover your teaching style by practicing reflection fueled by guided virtual professional learning.

I recommend the CASEL-aligned professional learning series from the Social-Emotional Learning Coalition. A partnership between Discovery Education and leaders across the public, private, and philanthropic sectors, the Social-Emotional Learning Coalition is ensuring the integration of SEL and wellness into lessons and school culture to support whole student development through personal and collective empowerment. You’ll find on the Coalition’s website a no-cost professional learning series designed to help you center SEL in your students’ teaching and learning experience.

Build soft skills with assignments centering technology

Even before the COVID year, kids deftly navigated the interpersonal world of in-person and virtual every single day on social media and gaming systems. What students see there can either help or hinder their development, but either way, they need to build emotional resilience. Recent research from Common Sense found that teens frequently encounter hate speech on social media platforms, a statistic that’s grown from 12% to 23% in the past two years alone.

Give students the tools to harness their own curiosity by exploring the technology tools already familiar to them. Social media can be both a lifeline and a social challenge for students. Integrating social media as a tool to support social-emotional learning not only makes lessons more relevant, but it also makes them necessary. Ask students to put together an audio or video assignment, like making a TikTok video or YouTube Short, explaining what happiness means or how to deal with stress in healthy ways. Centering technology as a tool to highlight and teach SEL practices helps instill a responsible use of technology to imagine, create, and connect.

Connect STEM and SEL

Bridge hard and soft skills by taking moments to practice mindfulness in STEM lessons. One of my favorite examples is from a former educator who used to do a meditation exercise during particularly challenging science lessons. With Bunsen burners hot and the periodic table looming, emotions can often run high for students. Help students transform what could be a stressful situation into a positive learning experience by taking a step back to analyze emotions and reassess the situation. Ask students to voice what emotions they are feeling as they are working through formulas or building materials. Are they able to articulate their emotional state? What about sharing how that is impacting their learning? 

Communication is key to all success so by building SEL into the ever-important STEM lessons, you’re empowering students to be successful now and into the future.

No matter the discipline you teach, create a culture of wellness wherever learning takes place by using technology to support SEL. Simple switches – like moving from pen and paper assignments to social media-influenced assignments and connecting emotions in STEM lessons – challenge students to think outside the box and connect the dots between their health and what they’re learning. 

Rodney G. Crouse, M. Ed., is a fourth-grade teacher at Reedy Fork Elementary School in North Carolina.

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