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Drinking from the Well

By: Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D., and Abby Giroux, M.A., M.S. - Program for Inclusive Education (PIE), University of Notre Dame

PIE Blog April 2022 - Drinking from the Well

In today’s Catholic classrooms, we find academic, behavioral, executive functioning, and social emotional variability. As educators, we understand that learning is a complex endeavor and we need to tend to all needs, not just the academic ones. The Program for Inclusive Education encourages you to think about the whole child as you plan and instruct. In this month’s blog, PIE focuses on social emotional learning, or SEL. Many thanks to Abby Giroux for her opening story to set the stage for interventions that focus on the whole child 

~Christie Bonfiglio, Ph.D., Director

During a recent visit with a friend and her 3-year-old daughter, we spent a few minutes at a drinking fountain, entertained by the novelty of drinking water at the push of a button. I thought nothing of it until my friend pointed out that this was the first time her daughter had been able to use a drinking fountain. Since the little girl's birth right before the beginning of the pandemic, drinking fountains have been closed for public use.

This experience led us to discuss how excited my friend was for her daughter and the new things she would experience. She will have the chance to attend summer camps and preschool in the fall. She will learn from her interactions and play with peers. Up until this point, socialization outside of the family has not been a big part of her life experiences. 

My friend and I then reflected on how our own social lives have changed the last few years. We described our excitement, but also the apprehensions we both have about the prospect of regaining more “normalcy.” 

This encounter and the consideration of what the future might hold made me ponder the very real experiences of our students, teachers, and principals. I thought about the challenges in our schools, and I reflected on the current experiences and needs in classrooms two years after the initial pivot to remote learning in March 2020. Academics, executive functioning, behavior, and social emotional learning have all been affected.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing interpersonal skills vital for school, work, and life success. These include social and self awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Given these skills impact so many critical areas in the school, intentionally addressing them is necessary.

SEL and mental health were important topics in education and gaining more and more attention prior to 2020. However, with the disruption of the pandemic, tired educators around the world are working with students who, just like the adults in their lives, have experienced traumatic events and dynamic change. Common concerns about social emotional well-being have emerged during conversations with educators across the country. Therefore, PIE intentionally turns to a focus on SEL to support student needs given the learning disruption.We offer three steps (and examples) to foster SEL in the classroom.

  1. Dedicate intentional time for SEL

Given the importance of establishing SEL skills, we must dedicate intentional time to developing them. Deficits in SEL are typically expressed behaviorally, and behavior management has always been a vital element of establishing a classroom culture. Moreover, the ongoing disruption and changes over the last two years have surfaced new behavioral concerns in many classrooms.  

Dedicating time in the school day to discuss, teach, and practice social skills that improve SEL helps students and their future success. Carve out time proactively instead of reacting to behaviors. PBIS World offers a number of strategies to help you problem solve specific behaviors at the Tiers 1, 2, and 3 levels. Most strategies have a link for more information and examples. If four to six weeks of consistent implementation of Tier 1 strategies aren’t effective, you can navigate to the Tier 2 and Tier 3 lists. You will find options for everything from anxiety to lack of motivation. 

  1. Provide explicit instruction to increase SEL skills

Consistent with any learned skill, social emotional skills need to be directly taught. We need to teach and model specific behaviors to increase student awareness, decision making, and relationship skills. Providing focused activities that introduce situations and the ability to see expectations and outcomes sets the stage for successful independent interactions.

For example, with the shift to remote learning in March 2020, the world moved to digital options in leaps and bounds. Although we have perhaps learned that some tasks can be accomplished anywhere, providing access and flexibility, increased digital reliance has some drawbacks as well. We all understand how easy it is to go down the proverbial rabbit hole with technology. If we aren’t careful, our students can also be continually distracted by all that technology and the Internet offers.

Students need to know how to self-manage and self-regulate their technology behaviors as well. Helping them to understand digital citizenship and when to unplug from technology is essential. Although the digital world has norms of its own, all one has to do is spend five minutes on Twitter or Tik Tok to know the importance of digital citizenship.

  1. Allow time for practice

In addition to explicit teaching, allowing opportunities for practice is essential. When we give students a chance to practice skills in multiple environments, we allow them to generalize behaviors.

For example, as “normal” routines return–like using drinking fountains or shared meals in the lunchroom, don't underestimate the importance of teaching and practicing expectations and routines. It has been a long time since students had these experiences. In fact, some students (depending on their ages) may have never had lunch in a school cafeteria. The new environment is filled with different sights, sounds, and smells, and these sensory stimuli might impact them differently. Teaching and practicing routines, as well as flexibly adapting the routines will provide a context and alleviate stress and potential undesired behaviors.

(For more information on social emotional learning, one site to explore is the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, or CASEL.) 

Let’s return to the drinking fountain experience and connect it to the parable of Jesus’ experience with the woman at the well. In Chapter 4 of John’s Gospel, Jesus meets a woman at Jacob’s well. Although it was not an acceptable cultural norm, Jesus speaks to the woman. He quickly moves beyond her practical biological need for water and talks with her about the relationships in her life. Jesus is able to build a connection with this woman that is so impactful that she goes into town and tells everyone about Him.

As teachers, we are certainly responsible for academics, but we also have to consider the basic needs of our students (like water), as well as their social and emotional wellbeing. When we integrate our classroom instruction with teaching social skills and behavior expectations, both academics and social behaviors improve. To do both well, we need to be intentional.

We can look to Jesus’s example of connecting with the woman at the well as our guide, and build the necessary relationships for student success. Let’s model Christ-like social and emotional norms and care for the whole student–academically, behaviorally, spiritually, and social/emotionally.

Please join us for A Little Slice of PIE on Tuesday, April 11, 2022 @ 7:00 EST as we explore specific strategies you can use to teach SEL. Come prepared to share your ideas too!

Seats for the PIE 6 cohort are still available! We will be accepting applications for rolling admission until all seats are filled. Classes begin May 16, 2022. Apply to PIE and join us as we welcome, serve, and celebrate all students in our Catholic schools!

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