Social Emotional Learning

“My sculpture represents a timeline—the wires are braided into each other to represent our family, entangled in each other on a lazy Sunday morning,” says Melissa Bertling during a parent workshop on social emotional learning (SEL).

Holding up her sculpture made out of red, black and white electrical wires she explains, “We decided to adventure out to Kamakura, which got us excited and then of course, there were highs and lows of our trip.” She points out the peaks and troughs in her design that illustrate the train ride there and finding the giant Buddha, the late summer heat and their trip to the beach. “Then my son hurt his foot on a shell, which was a real low but then we found the most amazingly peaceful outdoor spot for dinner which was a high,” she says. “From there we headed home and spiraled down into our bedtime routine, before we woke up again this morning, entangled in each other once again.”

“The purpose of the wire activity is to explore a creative experience for checking in with ourselves and sharing that with others,” explains Nick Haisman-Smith, director and co-founder of the Institute for Social Emotional Learning (IFSEL). “During the experience, the idea is to check in with ourselves and use the wire to sculpt, relay and represent those feelings. These can then be shared or kept to oneself.” This simple exercise was a common thread through a number of workshops for parents and faculty facilitated by IFSEL during their visits to ASIJ. “The benefits of this kind of check in exercise are increased self awareness, increased social awareness and increased empathy,” adds Janice Tobin, managing director and co-founder of IFSEL. “This leads to better decision-making, stronger relationships with students and between students.”

Nick Haisman-Smith from IFSEL during a faculty presentation

Founded in 2009, IFSEL works with educators around the world to develop social emotional learning and train teachers and parents on how to incorporate SEL techniques into family life, classrooms and the curriculum. ASIJ is the first school in Japan to engage IFSEL, having identified SEL as one of its Strategic Priorities last year, and one of a handful of international schools worldwide focused on implementing SEL at a high level. “When SEL is alive in a classroom experience students are interacting with each other differently, they are able to understand themselves better, their own anxieties and worries can be quelled by some of these skills, they can use relaxation techniques before experiences that are stressful,” Tobin says. “Students have a vocabulary among them that can help negotiate friendships and in building relationships,” she adds.

“Schools like ASIJ have been doing work around SEL since their foundation. It’s the underpinning of all good pedagogical practices,” Haisman-Smith says. “What the work with IFSEL has brought is a real deepening of the school’s focus on academic excellence but also a strong sense of community and sense of connection between students, faculty and parents. When we look at the reasons why great schools are interested in this, it's because SEL and student emotional well-being are the on- ramp to all learning and not a detour in their development,” he says. “We also know that it has a profound effect on the whole community and teacher well-being.”

Middle school principal Pip Curtis engaged in discussion during SEL training

In 2017, ASIJ developed a new Strategic DesignFramework (SDF), which identified social emotional learning as a priority for the school. “Our Strategic Design Framework includes four key elements: our commitment, mission, core values and vision of learning,” explains head of school Dr Jim Hardin. “After we developed our SDF, we analyzed lots of data and asked questions about our existing strengths and weaknesses. Those discussions quickly surfaced a belief that SEL was one of ASIJ's greatest areas for improvement,” he says. “Not everyone called it SEL, of course, but everyone— faculty, students, and parents alike—agreed that ASIJ needed to better support students as they learned to recognize and manage emotions, develop empathy, learn to act ethically and responsibly, and to form healthy relationships,” he adds.

“What we know from recent longitudinal studies is that the most powerful childhood predictor of adult life-satisfaction is a child's emotional health at when they are 16,” Haisman- Smith explains. “The least powerful predictor is the child's intellectual development.” He is quick to point out that academics are obviously still important, but that SEL provides students with tools and competencies that actually help them perform better overall. In fact, a research study by Taylor demonstrated that SEL participants demonstrated improved academic performance, reflected in an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement compared to a control group.

A first-grader uses the wall of emotion words for inspiration

One of ASIJ’s six Strategic Priorities, “SEL provides an essential foundation for the other five priorities. Learning is deeper and more durable when we practice metacognitive strategies that consolidate new knowledge,” Hardin says. He goes on to add that he thinks SEL provides the basis for one of the more novel elements of our SDF, which is our Vision of Learning. This states that: “Learning is a personal, lifelong process that leads to change, including the ability and willingness to adapt. It is driven by curiosity and motivation, occurring in a supportive environment rich in engagement, social interaction and feedback. Learning is constructed in authentic contexts and results in the development of new understandings and skills for all.” Hardin adds that, “the importance of SEL resonates loudly in that vision.”

“I want our students to be known, valued and cared for, first and foremost,” says Hardin.“I want our students to have strong, unapologetic senses of themselves. I want our students to develop uncommon self-efficacy, but to temper that with humility and a willingness to learn. I want our students to feel they belong at ASIJ.”

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