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There is a daunting list of issues which face students and educators alike. A growing number of genuinely effective educational establishments are now coming to realise that competence in socio-emotional development and academic achievement are intrinsically linked and an integrated, coordinated approach (i.e. not just teaching children how to pass exams but educating them in how to develop life skills and deal with social challenges) in each of these areas not only helps students maximise their potential in school but throughout their lives. Educational establishments are now viewed as ‘an important if not central arena for health promotion [and] primary preventionâ€¦ in addition to the education of students’ (Roeser, Eccles, & Samoroff, 2000, p. 467). This information however, is far from new. Wang et al. (1997) examined 28 learning influence categories which were based on handbook chapters, surveys of national experts and research syntheses. Of their findings they discovered that of the 11 most influential categories, 8 of them involved factors which were socio-emotional (classroom climate, peer group, social interaction, etc). In support of this work the (American) National Center for Education Statistics (2002) cited that among the predominant reasons given for children dropping out of school several involved socio-emotional factors. Generally feeling left out made up 23.2% whilst those who did not get on with peers or teachers accounted for 20.1% and 35% respectively. 12.1% of the students said they did not feel safe. These worrying figures led Wang et al. to conclude that intervention of a direct kind in the ‘psychological determinants of learning promises the most effective avenues of reform’ (p. 210) which also supports the cohesive provision of social and emotional learning throughout school-life.
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Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the ability within the student to recognise emotions and manage them effectively whilst establishing positive and healthy relationships with others around them (competencies which are inarguably essential for all pupils). Accordingly, the objectives of SEL are a combination of cognitions, behaviours and emotions. It is this process of knowledge acquisition and its effective application regarding attitudes and the development of related skills (including managing emotions, developing concern and care towards others, decision-making in a responsible manner and capably handling situations which may be challenging) (Beaty, 2008). Through positive engagement in activities within the classroom and outside the learning environment the students can learn SEL skills in a similar fashion to the manner in which they learn academic skills, then apply them and put them into practice. The increasingly complex situations which today’s children face have are better faced when these integrated and enhanced skills are applied (Elias et al., 1997).
Much of prevalent practice and methodologies on SEL has evolved largely from research conducted by Goleman (1995) and Gardner (1993), both of whom started a great interest in SEL throughout the 1990s which has continued to the present day. On-going research has increasingly shown that those schools which make efforts to employ SEL and adopt its requirements produce outcomes which are positive. Parents and educators alike are progressively recognising the relationships across socio-emotional learning and academia, in particular within the systems of support found within the context of schools (Kearns, 2010).
Within the context of safe, caring, well-managed and participatory school, classroom and extraneous learning environments, these learned skills are reinforced in the home, at school and within the community. All children benefit from instruction in social and emotional learning, although those who are already at risk, are beginning to engage in behaviour that is negative or those who may already display problems which are significant are particularly suited to SEL development. This is why early implementation of SEL programming is essential in order to allow children to develop their skills throughout their early childhood into adolescence. SEL programming focusses mainly on the universal prevention of behavioural problems and the promotion of socio-emotional competence as opposed to direct intervention. There may be smaller numbers of pupils who may require treatment which is moderate to intensive in order to develop socio-emotional competence but the intention of SEL programming is to enhance and promote growth in these areas for all children and to allow them to develop healthy behaviour structures as opposed to behaviours which may be mal-adaptive or unhealthy (Rice et al., 2006).
A comprehensive and continuous system of support services which are based on student needs is the context within which SEL should be viewed. As such a support system, SEL is a concept which unifies the integration and coordination of school-based promotion and prevention programmes which reduce marginalisation and minimises fragmentation of these efforts. The most sustained and effective approaches should involve a partnership between educators, parents, students and community members in order to continuously and effectively plan, implement and evaluate the efforts of SEL. Socio-emotional education should begin in pre-school and continue throughout formal education. It should also be intentionally entwined to academic development and is an integral element of the national curriculum (Elias et al., 1997; Talay-Ongan & Ap, 2005).
With so many situations that can have negative effects on both the socio-emotional and the academic development of children, ultimately affecting their happiness in their lives, it is crucial that children are given SEL from an early age. An increased and generalised sense of fear and insecurity is purveyed throughout the media, from fanatical terrorism and government fear propaganda to adverts and unattainable levels of exquisiteness in teen magazines and music television. This is compounded by a continually increasing level of inequity between the rich and the poor (Wollman et al., 2003). The media constantly bombards the unprepared public with lurid stories of sleaze and corruption, spanning across all walks of previously respected life. Politicians, businessmen, people in positions of esteem, sports icons and popular culture figures (to name but a few) are all regularly featured in relentless stories and reports of unethical conduct and questionable behaviour. This was not a concern for generations gone by when the media was less forthright about the delivery of messages which encouraged unhealthy behaviour, nor was the threat of online danger via internet chat rooms and violent video games so prevalent. With so many role models with publicly tarnished reputations, and unethical behaviour increasingly commonplace, more and more students are finding a feeling of uncertainly with their lives and their futures. This disenfranchisement, insecurity, disillusionment, and in many cases, fear, provides a palpable case for stating that perhaps SEL is now more than ever an essential element of educational reform (Zins, et al., 2004).
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Many SEL initiatives which currently exist are fragmented in methodology and approach which detracts from their collective effectiveness. Extreme action such as the introduction of metal detectors, searching pupils upon entrance to school property, alongside school change management, recreational activities, school architecture and information materials (brochures, posters, etc.) can help prevent problem behaviours whilst promoting a safe environment but are far from the provision of a coordinated and cohesive programme. Rather the outcome is the loss of opportunities to reinforce skills across activities and initiatives along with a seemingly inevitable competition for resources. By using SEL as the organisational framework for such initiatives it can serve a broad array of positive promotional efforts whilst delivering effective prevention of negative behaviours (Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 2001).
There are several key competencies that are regarded as essential to be reinforced in SEL programming. They consist of: Self-awareness (the identification and effective regard for one’s own emotions, a recognition of strength in both one’s self and in others and a sense of self-confidence), a social awareness (which involves a sense of empathy and respect for others), responsible decision making (evaluating and reflecting upon personal, ethical responsibilities), self-management (controlling one’s impulses, managing stress, developing persistence, setting goals and developing self-motivation) and relationship skills (learning cooperation, seeking and providing help and developing effective communication) (Bear, 2005). As previously noted, it is when they are taught and developed in a caring, well-managed and supportive learning environment that these competencies are they delivered most effectively. Autonomic development, ethical advancement and self-discipline are all more effectively furthered in environments whereby care, consideration, mutual respect, cooperation and decision making are normal conduct. These contexts find themselves structured in such a way that they encourage exploration among students to try new or innovative learning activities. They can also provide accessible opportunities in order to address personal problems or requirements and allow support with the establishment of positive peer and adult relationships. The result is that students feel a sense of safety and security, and are not fearful of making mistakes. A reciprocal relationship should exist in the classroom between SEL and the climate of the school. The school environment which is positive and promotes SEL effectively is affected positively by the development of SEL in its students. This synergistic process exists due to the interdependent nature of social, emotional and academic growth (Dolby, 2007).
Given the continuing positive outcomes of research conducted on SEL it seems clear that the responsibility to deliver effective programmes is evident. This means that educators should not only teach and assess SEL for all students within their care but should also be responsible for the conduction of reliable assessment of socio-emotional, health related and academic outcomes in tandem with acknowledgement and development of the school climate. All of this should be based on input gained from a range of constituencies, including, but not limited to, the students themselves, parents, community members and teachers. The assessment of SEL is an area which is still in need of further development and may soon become an area of particular interest to school psychologists. For acceptability and accountability purposes, a determination needs to be made regarding the value-assessable outcomes of SEL with regards to student learning and socio-emotional development, and to enable adequate developmental strategies in order to effectively review and improve the instruction delivered (Stormont, 2007).
It is essential for today’s students to be prepared not only to pass academic exams but pass tests that they will encounter in day to day life. Socio-emotional competence is closely related to academic achievement and to remain effective, educators should focus efforts on coordinated and integrated instruction on each area thoroughly in order to maintain the greatest potential among pupils to succeed both in academia and throughout their lives. Growing research concludes that SEL intervention of an evidence-based nature is increasingly becoming associated with health, academic achievement and ethical conduct. This creates the constant challenge of how to implement SEL as a core element of the national curriculum and perhaps more importantly how to develop relevant programming which is sustainable and effective.
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