By Nancy Parkes
September means one thing to principals and teachers: the beginning of another school year. Class lists are made, curricula is set, bulletin boards are decorated, and classrooms are filled with supplies. All we need now are our students. For many administrators and educators in Jewish private and synagogue schools, however, the political climate and rhetoric of the past two years have posed an interesting and challenging conversation around curricula. Understanding that education in any realm cannot be separated from its context, more and more discussion has centered around character and moral education and social and emotional learning. To be clear, this has always been a part of the curricula in Jewish schools. Yet, it has taken on a new urgency as administrators, educators, and parents debate how best to confront the growing need to effectively teach the values we espouse to be the core of Judaism so that they are lived. Additionally, teachers have noted how today’s political environment has negatively impacted their students’ experiences. In “Teaching and Learning in the Age of Trump: Increasing Stress and Hostility in America’s High Schools,” Rogers reports an increase in students’ stress levels and anxiety, as well as “heightened polarization.’ Whereas this research focused on education in a secular setting, it is not unreasonable to assume that the same can be said in Jewish schools. So, how can we work to lower students’ stress and anxiety, as well as get students more comfortable with participating in dialogues with others who may not have similar opinions or thoughts? One way would be to incorporate social emotional skill development and conflict resolution education. Given the political environment of today, this seems more critical than ever to do so.
If we know there is a need for this kind of education, why are so many resistant to incorporating it into their curricula? One possible explanation is the erroneous assumption that these skills do not need to be intentionally taught, as children are either born with these skills or “just learn them” through various experiences. This applies to assumptions we make about teachers and their social emotional competencies, as well. Another is that historically, Jewish education has focused on content knowledge with the understanding that the primary site of moral and character development was the home. Lastly, one can argue that there is simply not enough time to teach these skills, especially if Jewish content knowledge is the main goal of Jewish education. But is it? And does teaching one preclude the teaching of the other?
In fact, research demonstrates the benefits of incorporating social emotional learning on academic success and, so, administrators and teachers do not have to choose between the two. So, how can schools effectively make this happen? Like any skill, social emotional skills need to be intentionally taught and modeled. Additionally, students need to be reminded of their learning, and given ample opportunity to practice the skills they are learning:
Educators need to take the time to teach the particular skill and/or character trait. As with all good teaching, various modalities will help facilitate the learning and providing examples of the skill and trait in the students’ lives will make the learning relevant and meaningful. Perhaps most importantly, these skills cannot be taught as something “extra” to the curriculum; it must be valued as much as other academic subjects. In fact, according to Elias, et al (1997), “SEL programs and activities that are coordinated into the regular curriculum and life of the classroom and school are most likely to have the desired effect on students, and are also most likely to endure.” The answer then is to integrate social emotional learning into the school’s curriculum. It is important to note that scaffolding skill development is crucial. For example, we cannot ask students to engage in dialogue without first teaching them active listening and paraphrasing.
As role models for their students, teachers need to model the skills and traits their students are learning. Teachers can do so in the way they interact with their students and colleagues; sharing and thinking about a problem out loud; and being open and honest about how they are feeling in a particular situation. Children learn through imitation and so modeling serves as an important tool for teaching social emotional skills. Teachers must remember children will notice discrepancies between what a teacher says and what actions are actually taken in any given situation. A teacher’s actions must match their words. As noted by Lieber, in Kids Working It Out: Stories and Strategies For Making Peace in Our Schools, “Students get powerful messages from what we adults actually do more than what we say or teach … Kids are learning lessons about conflict all the time from how we handle it ourselves.”
This underscores the importance of professional development for teachers and administrators. Like students, we cannot assume that teachers and staff possess social emotional competencies and must, therefore, provide the time and training to teach and support the learning of these skills for all professionals in the school.
It cannot be assumed that once the skill has been taught and modeled that the student will “automatically” use it in the appropriate situation. In fact, it is quite natural for students to revert to pervious behavior when they are experiencing stress and other strong emotions. A prompt and/or cue can serve as an important reminder of the skill and when and how best to implement it in a given situation. Prompts and/or cues can be in various verbal, as well as written forms, such as posters, notes to students, and bulletin boards.
Students need multiple and various opportunities to practice the skill they are learning.
Practicing these skills in a wide range of activities and contexts will help strengthen the skill. Reinforcing the skill and/or character trait in all situations helps the student understand when and how to appropriately implement them in real life situations. This means that social emotional skills cannot be confined solely to the classroom. Social emotional learning must be part of the culture of the school and taught, modeled, and practiced throughout the day in all settings, whether that be the cafeteria, playground, or hallways. Getting all stakeholders to understand the importance of integrating social emotional learning (SEL) and skill development in all aspects of the school day (and even in the community) is crucial to the success of any SEL program.
If our goal for our children is to live what they are learning, and to be knowledgeable Jews who make informed decisions based on Jewish values, then is seems that social emotional learning will help our students achieve these goals. Education is a social process, and as such, social emotional skills are the foundation for academic success, as well as developing relationships with others, and with managing one’s own emotions. Clearly, these are important skills for a successful, meaningful, and happy life. And ultimately, isn’t that what Jewish education is about?
Nancy Parkes teaches in the William Davidson School of Education at JTS, and is an educational consultant and founder of JTeachNOW.