Responsibilities and opportunities: prioritising student well-being in the English classroom

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Introduction

It’s not an easy time to be a teenager.

According to the U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics, 20% of high school students report being bullied, with some of the principal reasons for being singled out cited as physical appearance, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, religion, sexual orientation. Moreover, 41% of the affected students indicated that they expected it to happen again.

At the same time, the development of new technologies has meant that young people today are increasingly distanced physically from their peers and less socially connected. Social media has brought a pressure to post and project a perfect life while removing some of the direct contact and human support on which young people used to be able to rely.

The Children’s Society in the UK estimates that in a class of 30 children, five are likely to have a mental health problem. The situation has clearly been exacerbated during the pandemic, with lockdown and social distancing measures leading to increasing isolation among children and teenagers. This is coupled with the fears many are experiencing for the safety and well-being of family and friends, as well as the stress of online learning, often in less than ideal circumstances. In one Italian study, 42% of children were exhibiting more frequent behavioural problems, while 51% of parents in India noted increased levels of anger in their children. At the same time, studies worldwide reflect that teenage anxiety is on the increase.

As teachers, many of us will have seen evidence of behavioural issues in our students and suffered the classroom management challenges which can result from them. However, perhaps we need to consider these teens not so much as ‘problem students’ (a term which tends to imply wilful misbehaviour) but as ‘troubled teens’, manifesting the psychological problems which so many studies have identified.

So, what can we do about it?

Social and emotional learning (SEL)

In the mid to late 1990s, experts, including educators and psychologists, started to realise that children and teenagers needed help in order to successfully navigate the challenges of school, as well as life beyond the classroom. In parallel, a shift began in the business world, with a recognition of the importance of soft skills (such as conflict resolution, teamwork and problem solving) and a realisation that many school-leavers were ill-equipped to address these challenges in the workplace.

In 1997, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) drew up a document entitled ‘Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators’. The document identified five key areas of competence to form a basis for SEL:

  • self-awareness: the abilty to recognise one’s emotions, values, strengths and limitations
  • self-management: the ability to manage emotions and behaviours to achieve one’s goals
  • social awareness: the ability to show understanding and empathy for others
  • relationship skills: the ability to form positive relationships, work in teams and deal with conflict
  • responsible decision-making: the ability to make ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behaviour

The idea was to integrate the teaching of SEL into the classroom and incorporate SEL values into the school environment.

The importance of SEL

For most teachers, our immediate priority is ensuring functional classroom dynamics. Our own personal interest in Social and Emotional Learning may therefore be as a means to achieve more harmonious and less conflictive classrooms. If students develop competence in the areas indicated above, improved behaviour would surely be a welcome result and make for happier teachers as well as students!

SEL, however, goes beyond what happens at school. Young people who can successfully recognise and manage their emotions, interact empathetically and effectively with others and make appropriate choices will also exhibit the kinds of skills and emotional intelligence that are increasingly valued in the world of work.

At the same time, and perhaps most importantly, we will be helping young people develop emotional and social well-being which will contribute to their general levels of happiness and that of those around them as they progress into adulthood.

Get Involved! empowers students to talk about real-life issues with confidence through the Collaborative Projects and special Social and Emotional Learning activities in the workbook, giving them the platform they need to manage and express their emotions.

Responsibilities and opportunities

As teachers we have a responsibility not simply to teach students the syllabus for our subject but to educate the whole person. However, as language teachers we have a unique set of opportunities compared to other subjects.

Let’s take maths. If you’re a maths teacher, your focus is on imparting knowledge such as mathematical concepts, formulae and how to perform mathematical operations. By contrast, as language teachers, while we still have some concepts we need to impart (such as a new set of vocabulary or a grammatical point such as the use of relative pronouns), a lot of our time is spent on practice. This may be in the form of grammar exercises, or it could be while developing skills such as listening. However, in terms of content, the exercises we give and the skills work that we do can be about anything.

Let’s look at an example. Imagine you’re focusing on the use of question words. You could give your students an exercise like this:

Complete the questions with What, How, Who or Why.

1 …………….. old are you?

2 ……………. is your favourite singer?

3 ……………. isn’t Carly at school today?

4 …………… do you do in your free time?

Alternatively, you could give this exercise:

Complete the questions with What, How, Who or Why.

1            Q: …………….. are the people around us?

A: They include family, friends and neighbours.

2            Q: ……………… are they important?

A: Because these people can help us in different ways.

3            Q: ……………… can they help us?

A: They can listen to our problems and help us think of solutions.

4            Q: …………….. other things do they do?

              A: Our family and friends also influence our ideas.

The language practice provided in both activities is the same. However, the second exercise not only provides more context for the questions by giving answers, but it also opens up an area of SEL – in this case, Social Awareness – by recognising why the people around us are important.

Returning to our comparison with teaching maths, it’s clear that students don’t necessarily need to interact to do maths. Yet, language is an innately communicative subject. In order to practise, our students need to talk together. This provides an ideal opportunity to work on Relationship Skills. In this activity, students first complete a short table about two recent conversations they have had:

 

Who was I talking with?

What was the speaker talking about?

Was the listening attentive?

How did I feel?

Conversation 1:

I was the main listener

 

 

 

 

Conversation 2:

I was the main speaker

 

 

 

 

Following this, they compare answers with another student before going on to write some tips for effective listening. At its heart, this is a speaking and writing activity, but at the same time it provides a perfect opportunity for students to develop their social and emotional skills by becoming more sensitive listeners.

Conclusions

It’s clear that many young people today are struggling and that this can lead to behavioural problems both in and out of the classroom. Fostering our students’ social and emotional skills will not only provide us as teachers with a calmer and more empathetic classroom environment, but it will make a significant contribution to our students’ all-round needs and development. Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning into our teaching does not require a big shift: it’s about taking advantage of the little opportunities that present themselves and using them to achieve lasting change.

If you’re interested in this area and looking for more practical ideas on integrating SEL into your classroom, you might like to sign up for my forthcoming webinar (add link to sign-up page), ‘Promoting student well-being through English’.

Bibliography

https://casel.org/about-us/our-history/

https://www.pacer.org/bullying/info/stats.asp

https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/what-we-do/our-work/well-being/mental-health-statistics

https://www.unicef-irc.org/publications/pdf/Life-in-Lockdown.pdf

Kate Pickering is a teacher, trainer and writer based in Madrid. 

She worked at International House for over 20 years and is currently teaching English for Health Sciences at Comillas University. She is the author of coursebooks for adults and teens, including “Global” and “Communicate”, and Macmillan Edcuation’s new secondary course “Get Involved!”. 

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