SEL-ebrate the Other Side of the Curriculum
Darren Jones

There are countless definitions for social-emotional learning (SEL), but the most well accepted and commonly referred to comes from an organization called Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL): It is through SEL (sometimes referred to as the soft skills side of the curriculum) that we prepare our students for a fulfilling life beyond our walls. Course content and curricular competencies are important. They always have been, and they will continue to be. But what educational researchers are suggesting with more frequency is that students need help with the SEL side of things now more than ever. Learning to understand the importance of healthy, functional relationships with peers, with teachers, with employers, etc. is at the core of strong social-emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize, self-regulate, set goals, and make responsible decisions will be key contributors to the success of our children.

So how do we do social-emotional learning at Southridge?

Well, that all depends. For starters, all of our teachers are SEL experts in one way or another. Teaching kids to be responsible, ethical, organized, regulated, and empathetic is what people in our line of work do daily. But there are more formal approaches that we take too. For example, Ms. Jo-Ann Murchie teaches SEL using a program called Second Step with our PYP students in the Junior School. I won’t wade too deep into the nuts and bolts of it all - Ms. Murchie and her team are the experts - but I will say that they have been successful with their SEL curriculum. On more than one occasion my son has come home from kindergarten this year and told me that I should, “use my breathing to calm myself,” or that I am, “taking up too much space in his personal bubble.” If you are a Junior School parent you have likely seen the updates that Ms. Murchie sends home to families once a Second Step lesson has been completed. Wonderful stuff if you follow along!

The Senior School takes a bit of a different approach. While our students are exposed to unstructured SEL in all of their classes and advisory, simply through day-to-day interactions with their teachers and advisors, we are also intentional about how we develop SEL skills in our students. Unlike the Junior School, we do not use a packaged curriculum like Second Step. The literature around SEL suggests that teenagers are less responsive to packaged SEL programs like this. However, it does not mean that they don’t require direct SEL focus - it just looks different.

For example, the current literature around SEL shows that participation in ongoing, multi-age, group membership is important for teens. It builds confidence, leadership, empathy, and relationship skills. Our Senior School advisory program accomplishes just this! Every morning, students in Grades 8-12 meet in their advisory groups to start the day. Over five years in the Senior School, students grow from the youngest Grade 8 members, into the wise, mature, Grade 12 leaders of the group. This mixing of ages is incredibly important for soft skill development, and I am happy to report that we do it well!

Our robust co-curricular program does the same. Students can commit to clubs, teams, and trips that place them in multi-age groups with their peers, all set on a common goal or shared experience that will help grow their interpersonal skills, their decision making skills, and their ability to regulate and communicate their emotions. In co-curricular settings like these, or during experiential opportunities like Leadership Experience Week, students are pushed out of their comfort zones and are challenged to grow personally, socially, and creatively.

Sometimes our SEL program relies on guests and experts from other fields. To support SEL development, we bring in speakers from organizations like Safe Teen, and Out in Schools. In fact, over the past two years, our Senior School Athletic Director Mr. Gord Smith has arranged for Canadian Olympians to help coach and mentor our student athletes. It’s been a valuable way for our athletes and coaches to not only develop their technical skills, but to bond, grow as teammates, and to develop their SEL skills outside of the classroom.

Though it may not be automatically apparent, the Harkness philosophy plays a major role in our Senior School SEL program. It nurtures student ownership of learning, and balances the classroom dynamic to value student voice in our classrooms, which are exactly in line with SEL best practices. Through the Harkness philosophy, our students learn to question each other respectfully, to be assertive, to be supportive, to be empathetic, to come to class prepared and organized, ready to grow. Advisory, co-curricular offerings, and Harkness are not new to Southridge. We have been doing these things for years, and the results speak for themselves. But we continue to push for SEL growth in new ways too. For example, and new this year, all of our Senior School faculty have set social-emotional learning goals as part of their Teacher Professional Growth Plans.

As part of our ongoing strategic plan to Equip Each Student for Their Path Ahead, one of the newer Senior School SEL initiatives I am most excited about is the SEL advisory program that our Student Life Team and many of our Senior School faculty have been building this year. While it is important that we allow freedom and flexibility within our advisory program, we are currently in the building stage of an SEL curriculum that will be facilitated through advisory. This year, our team has already designed and delivered advisory activities around SEL themes like:

  • Contributing to Community and Caring for the Environment
  • Connecting and Engaging With Others
  • Active Citizenship in Canada’s Democracy
  • Building Relationships
  • Valuing Diversity

These activities have involved readings, videos, guest speakers, discussions, polls, and more. If you have been in our Senior building this year, you may have noticed the new digital signage that displays images and slides related to our SEL activities. These images/slides act as important visual anchors for the students throughout the day, and keep the current SEL theme at the forefront as we go about our busy daily routines.

One of the reasons I have chosen this theme for my article this week is that I just returned from a social-emotional learning conference at the Woodside Priory School in California, along with other Senior School Student Life leaders, Mr. Dods, Ms. Prevost, Ms. Newman, Mr. Shaw, and Ms. Holland. While there, we were affirmed in our current SEL practices and challenged with new opportunities for SEL growth at our school. Returning home, we are all looking forward to further building and developing the SEL activities that will be delivered through advisory. We are excited to continue to promote SEL openly and intentionally within our building, and we know how fortunate we are to have the supportive faculty that we do. Their personal and professional strengths and experiences are incredibly varied, which ensures that we have a collective wealth of social-emotional intelligence within our walls.

If you would like to explore more about social-emotional learning, I would recommend the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as a good starting point. They are commonly considered the authority on SEL in the world of education. Their definition and exemplars are clear, and their resources are practical and informative. I am always happy to discuss the social-emotional side of our Southridge educational program with anyone who has questions, so please reach out any time.

By Darren Jones, Vice Principal - Student Life/Class of 2001