Social and Emotional Learning: 7 Ways to Partner With Families

Social and Emotional Learning: 7 Ways to Partner With Families

Although schools traditionally focus on academic skills, educators also play a significant role in students’ social and emotional development. After all, students are learning crucial interpersonal skills (e.g., self-management, relationship-building, and responsible decision-making) as they work on class projects and navigate peer relationships, and research bears out the importance of guiding this social and emotional learning—or SEL—in the classroom. According to a research study headed by Joseph Durlak, teaching SEL improved student achievement, increased prosocial behaviors, improved student attitudes towards school, and decreased student depression and stress.

Of course, students begin developing social and emotional skills long before they ever walk into a classroom, and educators should be mindful of this pre-existing cultural and community context. Such mindfulness will help ensure that the skills taught in school complement the lessons students receive at home, rather than contradicting them.

“When you tell a student that there is one way to do this skill and this is the right way [but] what they do at home is different, then there’s a disequilibrium,” explained Dena Simmons, director of implementation for the Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence’s RULER program, as quoted by Greater Good Magazine. “A process of self-hatred is started because everything the school does is basically saying, ‘You’re not right.’”

How, then, can educators work in collaboration with students’ families and communities to facilitate SEL? Outreach, out-of-the-box thinking, and openness on the part of educators and school staff are a good place to start. Here are our top seven tips for partnering with families to teach social and emotional skills:

1. Practice cultural humility

As Greater Good Magazine noted, families from a more “collectivist” culture may teach their children to avoid unnecessary conflict. In contrast, schools that teach social and emotional skills through the lens of an “individualistic” culture might encourage students to express themselves or assert their opinions in a way that feels disrespectful to those who have been brought up to value harmony in their community.

Educators can proactively address such issues by talking openly about cultural values and appropriate behavior in various settings. For instance, a teacher might ask students to list four or five different settings from their everyday life—not just home and school, but after-school clubs, a favorite restaurant, a house of worship, or a friend’s house. Then, students may be asked to describe how they handle their feelings and how they are expected to behave in each setting. Chances are, they are already very aware of the different social skills required. This exercise can be a springboard for class or small-group discussions: What similarities do students see between their environments? What areas of their lives require different social and emotional skills?

2. Diversify communication

Creating a true partnership between home and school requires frequent communication, but because some families will be more able to meet in person, talk on the phone, and/or respond to written notes than others, educators should think outside the box to diversify their modes of outreach. For example, instead of relying solely on a class website or a monthly newsletter to share information, they could consider hosting monthly “office hours” to accommodate parents who would rather connect face to face and use email to keep in touch with those unable to attend school events due to work commitments.

3. Create a resource library

As many SEL curricula include books, posters, and games to guide instruction, the EdSurge article 11 Ways Schools Can—and Should—Involve Families in SEL Programming suggested creating a school resource center for families. According to EdSurge, “This designated space signals to parents that they are welcome at the school—and that the school values their role in their children’s development.”

Educators could also invite students and families to make their own contributions to the resource library. For example, parents might want to recommend a helpful parenting book or a website for teaching personal safety, while movies or novels that students found true to life could be appropriate to include as well.

4. Encourage students to take the lead

Just as students can benefit from taking an active role in identifying their own strengths and needs in academic learning, it may behoove them to set social and emotional goals as well. Before beginning a group project, a shy student might challenge themselves to collaborate with at least three people on the team, while an exceptionally talkative student could decide to work on strengthening their listening skills.

To support students’ own goals for SEL, educators may contact families to share student progress, and families can reciprocate by providing the school with updates on home and family support.

5. Celebrate multiple support networks

One of the many positive elements of home-school collaboration is that it highlights the depth of support that exists for each student. To capitalize on this, students, families, and teachers can be encouraged to independently list five to 10 resources for social and emotional support. A teacher-created resource list will likely include school guidance counselors and online SEL resources; a family-created list might point to close family friends, trusted community leaders, and helpful books; and a student may focus on a blend of close friends, family members, and teachers. Comparing the three lists will show areas of overlap and draw attention to resources that students may not have considered before.

6. Offer a check-in

School-to-home communication is often associated with negativity (for instance, an educator may reach out to report a poor grade or discuss a problematic behavior). To flip the script, Jennifer Miller, researcher and author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids, suggests educators make a positive first contact, such as calling parents to say hello and share something good about their child's progress.

After a positive connection has been established, teachers may consider offering monthly check-ins on social and emotional well-being for students and teachers. Students could schedule a time to meet with the teacher or simply write down how they're feeling as part of their classwork, while parents might appreciate a phone call or an email to outline the social and emotional topics covered in assigned classroom reading. Ultimately, educators who kick off conversations with students and families signal the school’s willingness to support students in their social and emotional development while also providing parents and students with an opportunity to raise concerns or request guidance.

7. Ask for help

As Jennifer Miller pointed out, “We tend to look at parents as receivers of our expertise. If we’re going to develop an authentic partnership, then schools have to be receivers of parental expertise as well.” After all, children have been working on social and emotional skill development with their parents for far longer than they have been enrolled in school, which makes parents and other family members the experts on each individual child’s unique needs. Moreover, family members have their own life experience with SEL that shouldn't be diminished.

Because even school-specific social and emotional skills (e.g., self-control during group work and time management when writing a paper) can benefit greatly from parental input, educators might consider asking family members to get involved in teaching high-level social and emotional skills. For instance, a parent who owns a small business might talk to the class about how to maintain a work-life balance, while an aunt, uncle, or cousin with experience collaborating on big projects at work could share how they navigate group dynamics with their co-workers.

The bottom line

When educators and families collaborate, SEL becomes an integrated effort to cultivate skills and ideas instead of a source of conflict between settings. With openness, outreach, and a little out-of-the-box thinking, educators can take the lead to create partnerships between home and school that support students through every aspect of life.

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