Social Emotional Learning Coming to Atlanta Schools

Guess what I’ve been up to this summer?  I’ve been in school….where I just finished the summer semester teaching Educators in Thomas University’s Master’s Program. The course I teach is called Cultivating Collaborative Classrooms through Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and it is akin to the skills I teach parents to develop self-awareness, regulate emotions, and collaboratively problem-solve in their families.Along with my passion to support children (and parents) in their home environment, this is a dream come true to impact the lives of children in their school environment. It seems that research is finally validating what I’ve known for a long time–that children’s social and emotional development is important to their academic success in school.

Research shows that SEL has a positive effect on school climate with students showing better classroom behavior, more motivation to learn, and a deeper commitment to school. Of course, what finally got Education Administrators’ attention was research that showed students who received SEL instruction had achievement scores an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive SEL instruction. Schools that implemented SEL into their curriculum also haddecreased disruptive classroom behavior, noncompliance, aggression, delinquent acts and disciplinarian referrals.  And they also reported fewer incidences of student depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.
The pendulum is swinging the other way as we are beginning to realize the negative outcomes of the “zero tolerance” policies of the last decade.  Instead of suspending or expelling students for negative behavior, we need to teach them skills to deal with their anger and conflicts.
An article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week said that Atlanta Public Schools will spend more than $1 million over the next year specifically to teach students how to become self-aware, responsible, caring adults through social emotional learning instruction.  And earlier this year, three bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress which earmark a portion of the national Education budget to SEL programs in schools nationwide.
Developing students’ ‘social-emotional learning skills’ will help improve their academic performance and behavior and have other benefits, Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said.  “Research shows our students can master these SEL skills and develop their hearts, along with their smarts, to become better people than we could ever be,” she said in a written statement.
I’m so excited to be part of this movement toward teaching children valuable life skills that go way beyond their school years! 

Amazing fireworks inside the house!

fireworksFor some of us, fireworks don’t just happen on the 4th of July.  You parents of young children know what I’m talking about!  I’m talking about the fireworks that happen when our children have their meltdowns, tantrums, upsets, you-name-it….especially in a public place!  When it seems like the screaming and flailing about is just as loud and spectacular as any fireworks show you’ve seen.
[BTW…I saw a spectacular fireworks show last night featuring my 17-year-old and a broken cellphone!]
These are the times that test our fortitude as parents and test our ability to dance in the gap of (1) our vision of how we want to parent and (2) how we actually do it during the daily grind.  Hopefully, these 3 tips will help you bridge that gap in the midst of the familial pyrotechnics:
1.  Stay calm

THE MOST HELPFUL thing you can do when your child is losing it is to stay calm yourself.  If you lose it too then all hope is lost.  Your child needs you to guide her through the emotional storm.  That’s hard to do if you’re lost in the storm yourself.  So breathe and repeat a mantra to yourself that will help you stay calm…such as “I can do this in a calm loving way” or “This too shall pass.”

(You may have to come back to this mantra over and over again).
2.  Get down close to your writhing child*
Yes, you read that correctly.  Squat down, or even sit or lie down on the floor with your child (depending on where you are).  Perhaps you just wouldn’t be comfortable lying in the grocery store aisle; but if you’re at home or the home of a friend, go for it!
Instead of isolating your child or letting the emotional tempest keep you at bay… go in, get close.  As we say in the conflict resolution field:  lean into the conflict. This will get easier the more you do it, and your calm close presence is likely to have a calming influence on your child when he starts to trust that you can be a safe container for his big emotions.  With repetition, you may find this strategy alone lessens the intensity and decreases the time of a tantrum.
3.  Offer understanding and empathy to your child
Your child is too young developmentally to be able to reason out of her intense emotions.  That’s why all the perfect reasoning and logic in the world won’t help in those moments.  Plus, we tend to use way too many words when our child is upset.  (To be honest, when you are having intense emotions, do you want someone to give you reasons why you shouldn’t be feeling that way? Or do you want someone to hear you and to understand the pain you’re in?)
Instead, offer your child two precious gifts:  understanding and empathy.
Here are some phrases to try:

* I know it’s hard when you really really want that cookie right now. 

* It’s hard to want something really bad and not be able to have it. 

* I know…sometimes I want things too that I just can’t have.* It’s okay to cry.  I know it hurts.  I’m here with you.

* You want to sit on my lap?* You want me to hold you while you cry?

Comments such as these give your child the message:  “I know.  I understand. There’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way.  I’m here to help you through it.”
Understanding and empathy are not permissive parenting.  You can set boundaries and limits and still be loving and supportive when they trigger intense emotions in your child.  Just as you support your child with physical hurts, it’s just as important to support the emotional hurts.
Your capacity to stay loving and supportive during an upset helps your child to build resiliency and capacity to behave better in the future.  Studies have shown that emotional responsiveness strengthens the integrative connections in the brain, helping to bring the prefrontal cortex (the thinking brain) back on-line quicker.  As the brain integrates more and more over time, this allows your child to make better choices and to better control her body and emotions.
So there you have it.  3 tips to help you and your child get through the “other” kind of fireworks show.  I invite you to start seeing every tantrum as an opportunity to instill this message in your child:

You are loved even when you’re at your worst. 
(Don’t we all want that?!) 
We’re a team and I’ve got your back! 
*Special Note:  Some children will not let you get near them when they are upset.  (My son is this way; he really needs his space when he’s upset.)  You can sit further away or in the doorway and keep letting him know you are there for him, at a distance, until he is ready to be comforted or to re-engage.