How the physical environment influences social-emotional learning

Mark Hubbard
Mark Hubbard |  January 24, 2019  |  Vlog

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an educational concept based on teaching kids key elements including self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsibility to improve their emotional well-being and ability to learn. Basically, it’s teaching kids how to get along in the world with a focus on the necessary skills from an emotional perspective to become a better learner.

The concept is relatively new as a formal part of thecurriculumand has grown as an education topic because of the increased focus on the emotional health of students. Kids are stressed out right now. They are dealing with things like school shootings, their phones, the divorce rate and bigger economic divisions between students, not to mention how learning has become metrics-driven with students facing performance indicators like assessment test scores. Social-emotional learning has grown in prominence because schools recognize students’ stress level is high. Schools know they need to provide safety and the ability to understand others before learning can happen.

Does SEL work? Research from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASL), a noted SEL curriculum provider, found the academic performance of students exposed to an SEL program averaged 13% higher than non-SEL peers, and conduct issues, emotional distress and drug use was significantly lower for students who went through SEL programs.

The importance of the physical environment

The learning environment is never neutral. It will either assist or detract from the learning experience. The environment can say something to a person and speak to your senses as a human being through things like the amount of natural light that’s getting into the room and the hardness or softness of the furniture. All of these things are contributing to your emotional reaction to the world you live in whether you are at home or in a classroom.

The impact of the physical environment is what most interests me about social-emotional learning. Let’s say a school district has committed to teaching SEL. That commitment means there’s a recognition SEL is an important part of the learners’ journey, and the teachers’ journey as well.At that point, what does the learning environment say about the importance of SEL?

It can be easy to talk a big game about providing kids more emotional fortitude and better understanding of themselves and others. That sounds awesome and makes sense, but if the physical environment where they are applying these newly learned skills isn’t conducive to reinforcing those concepts, the impact of social-emotional learning is greatly hampered.

For example, collaboration is key part of relationship building and management and a key part of social-emotional learning as well. If you’re in an environment that doesn’t have furniture that allows you to easily collaborate – such as allowing you and me to sit across from each other practicing and exercising the things we’ve learned about relationship skills – that’s a problem. Ideally chairs and desks and tables should be easy to move and get into a physical orientation that facilitates collaboration.

Even the basic layout of the classroom can have an impact on SEL. A core message of social-emotional learning is that relationships matter. When we have a classroom where all the desks are aligned in perfect rows and everyone is looking forward and no one is looking at each other, does that reinforce social-emotional learning? No, that says something completely different to the students in that classroom.

Students may be under more stress and pressure than ever, but schools are using social-emotional learning to meet this challenge. Because the environment is never neutral, taking the physical space into account should be an important aspect of a social-emotional learning curriculum.


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