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Teaching Social Emotional Regulation in Schools

09/26/2021 6:00 PM | MSET Webmaster (Administrator)


Although I have been a child psychologist for over a decade, I recently found an unusual source for my “continuing education,” my puppy trainer. As I have been raising my puppy, I realized the overlap between puppy training and teaching social-emotional regulation. So here are a few puppy ideas to consider that translate into the child world.

  1. What you allow will continue-- Just as with puppies chewing our shoes, unless we take steps to correct, it is likely that the behavior will continue. We frequently underestimate the power of behavioral scaffolding and correction when addressing social and emotional issues. Unkind words among peers, anxiety-driven work avoidance, and chronic disorganization don’t magically disappear. If we are allowing unhealthy behaviors in our class, most likely, those behaviors will not only persist but may even mushroom into more significant, persistent, and pervasive patterns.
  2. Tolerance is the goal-- As we have been trying to “sell” school as a place of excitement and games, the implicit message being sent is that school should be fun all the time. Not true. Just as with life, there are many things that we don’t like, but that we tolerate (does anybody love going to the dentist?). The same applies to our social-emotional world. The expectation is not that the child should like everyone but that the child can tolerate everyone while being kind and respectful. That tolerance can gradually morph into actual enjoyment of the peer. The child doesn’t have to like math, spelling, or science, but the child needs to tolerate the growing tension, frustration, and developmental confusion associated with learning new concepts. The same applies to feelings. The goal is not that we enjoy being sad or angry but that we tolerate being in those emotional states. The development of that capacity for tolerance is one of the greatest weapons against chronic anxiety. In the world of SEL, we have been putting much emphasis on feelings recognition and identification. While self-knowledge and self-awareness are crucial, they are not sufficient in producing more optimal functioning. We know from Cognitive Behavioral Theory that we have the most control over our behavior, secondly our thoughts, and least control over our feelings. When helping students become more emotionally healthy, our emphasis should primarily focus on action and behavior while recognizing the emotional component. Address the behavior first by asking, “While you are feeling anxious, what can you do that would make you feel better? Addressing cognition next, ask, “While feeling anxious, what can you tell yourself  to make yourself feel better?” Naturally, healthy action will result in healthier, more adaptive thinking and subsequently more enjoyable feelings. As the saying goes, “feelings are indicators, not dictators.” 
  3. Let them figure it out-- When we see our students struggle, especially socially or emotionally, naturally, our first instinct is to helicopter in, rescue the child, and fix the problem. It is difficult to tolerate our own discomfort when seeing our students in emotional pain. But that type of pain is a wonderful motivator and teacher, helping our students learn how to make good choices through learning about the related consequences of those choices. Our students often don’t figure things out until there is an emotional incentive for problem-solving. Sitting with them in their distress and focusing more on our companionship can be more productive and ultimately instructive than offering leading guidance. Children put a higher value on life lessons when they have been able to successfully problem-solve on their own rather than having to rely on “spoon-fed wisdom” from adults. Children’s self-esteem and confidence grow as they master new situations and skills, which involves making choices and experiencing corresponding consequences, helping them determine what to do or what not to do next time. We are tempted to shortcut this learning process by trying too hard to turn everything into a “teachable moment.” As we know, each child is on their own learning timetable, which cannot be rushed. 

As we are starting the new school year teaching our students SEL skills, let’s remember the entire Cognitive-Behavioral triad (behavior, feelings, thoughts) and emphasize each component equally. Action towards the right direction produces healthier inner dialogue and self-concept, which always makes us feel better. 

Lucie Pentz is the child psychologist at St. James Academy in Monkton, Maryland. 

Join MSET for its Tech Development Session on Wednesday, September 30th at 8pm EST as it has University of Maryland Global Campus faculty member Erica Ellsworth showcase how one can utilize technology to support Social Emotional Learning! Register for the event here.

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