Social Emotional Learning and Latino Students
As an educational movement, social-emotional learning (SEL) is gaining momentum nationally and internationally. Considered by some to be “the missing piece” in education, SEL is a process of building emotional resiliency and relational competency as necessary skills in school, work, and life. Social-emotional learning is a process that builds self-awareness and social awareness while also providing practical skills for managing oneself effectively and interacting with others in constructive and responsible ways. In other words, social-emotional learning is “the process through which we learn to recognize and manage emotions, care about others, make good decisions, behave ethically and responsibly, develop positive relationships, and avoid negative behaviors” (Zins et al. 2004, p. 4). These skills are positively linked with range of personal, interpersonal, and academic outcomes while also being associated with a reduction in conduct problems, aggressive behavior, and emotional distress among K–12 students. SEL programming has been found to be effective for ethnic and racially diverse students within urban, suburban, and rural settings with benefits including: (1) an increase in social-emotional skills, (2) improved attitudes about self and others, (3) greater connection with school, (4) positive classroom behavior, and (5) an improvement in academic achievement (Durlak et al. 2011). There is strong evidence to suggest that social and emotional skills are the foundation for personal, relational, and academic flourishing.
Within the United States, interest in social-emotional learning is growing, especially with recent developments in affective neuroscience linking SEL with resiliency and enhanced brain functions essential for learning. Globally, interest has also spread widely. In fact, in 2003 UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) “initiated a worldwide plan to promote SEL by preparing a report delineating ten basic principles for integrating SEL based on the latest empirical research in the area… the report was sent to ministries of education in 140 countries” (Schonert-Reichl and Hymel 2007, p. 22). As a leading organization, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified five core SEL competencies: (1) self-awareness, (2) self-management, (3) relationship building, (4) social awareness, and (5) responsible decision making. While individual competencies are inherently valuable, it is especially helpful to consider how these skills are interconnected and embedded within a larger educational paradigm. What is the bigger picture of social-emotional learning, and why is it relevant for the education of Latino students in particular?
Social-emotional learning can be deeply understood within a broader perspective known as holistic education—a philosophical framework interested in human flourishing. From a holistic standpoint, social-emotional learning is more than a set of skills that can be taught in isolation.
Rather, the core SEL competencies are best thought of as being embedded within a larger, integrative, and ecological perspective guided by a vision of hope and possibility for humanity.
Holistic Education: Defining the Paradigm
Holistic education is a comprehensive and integrative approach to teaching and learning. It departs from schooling traditions that overemphasize cognitive development, individualism, and competition. Instead, principles of interconnectivity, community, and human potential serve as guiding values. As an ecological perspective, holistic education is interested in cultivating the whole person within the context of community and the natural world. Community from this perspective is understood as an interconnected network of wholes. The individual exists within the context of family, neighborhood, and school; these communal contexts are embedded within the larger context of society, which is itself embedded within the global community; and the world as a whole is embedded within the greater context of the universe. As a philosophical paradigm, holistic education seeks to integrate all aspects of the human being in the process of teaching and learning. This includes cultivating the social, emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and physical development of individuals. From this perspective, both students and teachers are seen as complex human beings in development and in need of supportive and enriching environments in which to thrive. A holistic approach to teaching and learning is at odds with policies that pressure educators to mainly focus their efforts on raising test scores.
With contemporary education’s focus on standardized testing and the cultivation of mostly logical, rational, and analytical mental abilities, other human faculties like emotional intelligence, social bonding, and the development of empathy and compassion are often neglected. The result is an unnatural fragmentation within self and between self and world, which can have profoundly negative consequences. When it comes to schooling experiences, some argue that much of traditional education promotes alienation, fragmentation, and suffering; the opposite is connection, integration, and well-being, which is what the holistic perspective advocates—and it is what social and emotional learning makes possible.
To meet the economic, political, social, and personal demand for competency, much more is required of students and adults than just cognitive proficiencies as measured by test scores. Individuals must develop interpersonal skills that enable them to relate to others in many different societal situations. They must also develop the intrapersonal skills that include good judgment and strategies for meeting their own needs in effective ways. (Levin 2012, p. 270, emphasis added)
Leading economists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators agree: it is no longer enough to only educate the brain; we must also educate the heart and develop relational competencies while becoming healthy and productive members of society.
Children are growing up in rapidly changing and challenging times. With its focus on learnable skills and constructive ways of being, social-emotional learning equips young people with key competencies to navigate the complex realities of life, inside and outside the classroom. The development of social-emotional skills benefits all children and has unique implications for Latino students in particular.
Latino Students: A Growing Population
Latinos constitute the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the nation. In States like California and Texas, Latino students make up nearly half of the public school population. The enrollment of English Language Learners (ELLs) in US public schools has increased by over 50% in the last decade. According to census data, approximately 80% of English Language Learners are Spanish speakers, and about one in four ELLs lives below the poverty line (Migration Policy Institute 2015). The question of how to support Latino students, and in particular those who are English Language Learners, is a pressing one for educators.
As the Latino student population grows, socioeconomic and educational disparities continue. On measures of academic achievement, Latino students, on average, perform far below their peers; high school dropout rates are high, and college entrance rates are low. Latino children are less likely to have access to early childhood education, which has been found to positively impact long-term school and life outcomes. For children living in poverty, challenges faced outside of school have significant implications for what happens in school (Noguera 2003). Issues like hunger, access to health care, complex living arrangements, economic hardship, and mental-emotional stress impact a student’s ability to focus and engage in the academic demands of school. For Latino immigrant youth, these challenges are compounded through the acculturation process, which may include the experience of marginalization, social alienation, low self-esteem, low levels of school bonding, and language barriers (Castro-Olivo 2014). Integrating social and emotional learning in schools can help mitigate some of the challenges Latino students face.
Social-Emotional Learning and Latino Students
Research on social-emotional learning and Latino students is limited. However, there is evidence to suggest that while young Latino students enter school lagging behind in literacy skills, their social-emotional competencies are “on par or even excel that of their non-Latino peers” (Murphey et al. 2014, p. 4). This foundation, coupled with strong family ties and bilingualistic resources, is an asset that schools can build on. When working with Latino students – especially those living in high-poverty neighborhoods and those classified as English Language Learners – it is essential to consider the emotional experience underlying cognitive tasks as well as the role of relationship building and positive classroom culture in facilitating language and literacy development.
The cognitive demands that English Language Learners experience are substantial. For example, students whose native language is not English are working to understand conceptual information and subject-specific content knowledge while simultaneously learning the very language through which that knowledge and information is shared. Not only are the cognitive demands great, the emotional dynamics involved are equally challenging. Learning a second language or developing biliteracy is a socially and cognitively challenging process that is laden with a range of emotions, including a sense of confusion, doubt, fear, worry, anxiety, frustration, and embarrassment – all of which can impede learning. At the core of social-emotional learning is the cultivation of awareness, emotional intelligence, social bonding, and self-regulation – all of which have been found to facilitate productive engagement in school and life. Educators working to improve the quality of education for Latino students would benefit from understanding the role that emotion plays in the process of teaching and learning. Self-awareness and self-regulation are core SEL skills that help mediate the profound connection between emotion and cognition.
Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation: The Emotion-Cognition Connection
The interplay between emotions and cognition either enhance or inhibit learning.
Recent advancements in neuroscience are highlighting connections between emotion, social functioning and decision making that have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of the role of affect in education. In particular, the neurobiological evidence suggest that the aspects of cognition that we recruit most heavily in schools, namely learning, attention, memory, decision-making, and social functioning, are both profoundly affected by and subsumed within the processes of emotion. (Immordino-Yang and Demasio 2007, p. 3)
In other words, emotions and cognition are deeply interrelated. Understanding the connection between emotions and cognition is relevant for advancing the ways in which student learning and teacher development are supported. Of key consideration is the relationship between stress and critical aspects of cognition.
Under non-stressful conditions, the brain’s executive control center functions in optimal ways; under stressful conditions, it is impaired. This creates a situation where emotionally laden impulses (“fight, flight, or freeze” reactions) override higher-order thinking and decision-making abilities, resulting in behavior being more reactionary and impulsive rather than thoughtful and deliberate. The stress response is a survival mechanism essential amidst real danger. However, in the course of a regular day, having a heightened state of stress, worry, anxiety, or fear gets in the way of optimal cognitive functioning and impacts the health and well-being of an individual.
Understanding the emotion-cognition connection is especially relevant for educators working with Latino populations given that this group is identified as being high risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression. When experiencing challenging and depleting emotions, students are less able to fully engage in the cognitive demands of school. This is where social and emotional learning can help.
As a core competency in the SEL framework, cultivating self-awareness includes developing the ability to identify emotions as they arise and label feelings, which can help reduce the stress response in the moment. Connected to self-awareness is self-regulation or the ability to manage feelings as they arise; it also includes the ability to manage behavior, control impulses, and redirect attention as needed. For Latino students who live in high-poverty neighborhoods and immigrant youth who experience a range of stressors associated with learning a new language, adapting to new sociocultural norms and moving through the migration and acculturation process, having the opportunity to develop and strengthen SEL skills can support their personal and academic development (Castro-Olivo 2014).
Given the neurobiological connection between emotion and cognition, it becomes essential to help children learn how to regulate their emotions and manage their stress – developing these skills is an issue of well-being and academic achievement. At the heart of social-emotional learning is the ability to: (1) identify emotions as they arise and (2) regulate emotions and behaviors for optimal cognitive and social functioning – these are learnable skills found to enhance personal, interpersonal, and academic outcomes.
The cognitive, social, and emotional dynamics experienced by students in school are mediated by the quality of the learning environment and the nature of relationships with teachers and peers. Social-emotional learning can help build positive relationships while cultivating nurturing environments conducive to learning – these elements are particularly relevant for literacy and language development among Latino students.
Social Awareness and Relationship Building: The Social: Cognitive Connection
Human beings are a social and emotional species. As such, our emotional state is influenced by our moment-to-moment experiences within the multiple social contexts in which we find ourselves. Positive relationships among peers and between teachers and students help create enriching learning environments that optimize learning. When considering the needs of Latino English Language Learners in particular, educators must acknowledge the role that social interaction plays in language and literacy development.
Given that human development occurs within multiple social contexts (i.e., family, peers, school, media, community, etc.), learning is continuously taking place between and within individuals. From a sociocultural perspective, learning takes place on the social plane (interpersonally) and is internalized in the mental plane (intrapersonally). Cultivating learning environments and developing positive student-teacher relationships support English Language Learners in feeling safe as they navigate the complexity of school while learning a second language. In addition to creating a sense of safety and belonging, relationships in school become critical scaffolds that facilitate language and literacy development.
From the sociocultural perspective, human development is a socially mediated process, which means that relationships and social interaction are key to learning. One important issue for teachers working with Latino students, especially those who are considered to be English Language Learners, is finding ways of meeting their linguistic needs while supporting their academic development in the process. When it comes to supporting English Language Learners, research suggests that second language acquisition is best achieved by building on the primary language. This necessarily requires a deep valuing of a child’s home language and sociocultural resources which can radically help bridge the cultural and linguistic disconnect that often happens between home and school. Building bridges necessarily requires cultivating and sustaining trusting and caring relationships between teachers, students, and families, which is a process greatly supported by social-emotional learning for students and for teachers.
Given the range of personal, interpersonal, and academic benefits of SEL, research in K–12 continues to grow. However, the preparation of teachers to facilitate social-emotional learning is surprisingly limited: “Teachers rarely receive and are not required to take courses on social and emotional development in childhood as part of their teacher training… To our knowledge, there are no pre-service or in-service training programs that focus on improving teachers’ knowledge and skills regarding students’ social and emotional development…” (Jennings and Greenberg 2009, p. 512, emphasis added). Knowing that social-emotional skills are foundational for a variety of school and life outcomes, it is increasingly necessary to prepare and support teachers in cultivating social-emotional competencies themselves. By integrating SEL into teacher preparation and ongoing professional development – and by modeling social-emotional competencies in the classroom – teachers can be better equipped to facilitate these skills among their students while experiencing the benefits of developing SEL competencies themselves.
There is a depth and vastness to social-emotional learning that is worth noting. Within each of the five core competencies are a range of learnable skills as outlined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). For example, the domain of self-awareness includes the ability to recognize and manage emotions; discern the interrelation between feelings, thoughts, and behavior; and accurately assess personal strengths and weaknesses. Social awareness includes the ability to consider the perspectives of others, read social and emotional cues, and cultivate empathy and compassion. The domain of self-management includes the ability to regulate emotions, manage stress, control impulses, and set goals. Relationship building includes the ability to relate well with others, resolve conflicts in constructive ways, collaborate, and develop clear communication skills (Zins et al. 2004, p. 195). Finally, responsible decision making, which underlies all of the above, calls for recognition that every individual matters, that every word and action have an impact, and that impact is either constructive or destructive. Considering the well-being of self and others while making moment-to-moment choices requires self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and relational competency – all of which form an integrative intelligence.
Social-emotional learning is essential in educating the whole person; it highlights the power of the individual while acknowledging the fragile yet solid interconnected web of life. As interrelated skills, social-emotional competencies support individuals in taking personal responsibility for themselves while recognizing their ethical responsibility to the greater whole. As an educational movement, SEL encourages individuals to move in the world carefully, thoughtfully, and constructively while making an effort to consciously reduce any intentional or unintentional harm that may be caused along the way. The value and promise of social-emotional learning lie in its focus on practical tools, learnable skills, and core competencies that enhance traditional school outcomes while facilitating personal and interpersonal well-being in the process.
In considering the education of Latino students, social-emotional learning is highly relevant. For English Language Learners, SEL skills can help facilitate the process of language and literacy development while also supporting the mental-emotional well-being of children from high-poverty neighborhoods – all of which have implications for school, work, and life. These critical skills are best thought of as being interrelated and embedded within a larger ecological perspective. As a theoretical framework, the holistic educational paradigm outlines a hopeful vision for humanity, while the practical application of social-emotional skills brings to life that vision and fosters a more just, compassionate, and humane society – starting within the walls of a teacher’s classroom and rippling out from there.
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