By Amélie Bédard, Inclusive Education Professional at the CSSDPS
Now more than ever, student well-being is essential for learning. Students need a proper balance between the heart and the brain in order to learn and reach their full potential. Our main priority, therefore, must be to connect with and nurture the hearts of our students, be it online or in the classroom. For teachers, bonding is the gateway to the heart. Getting to know students, making them feel important, listening to them, talking to them about what they are going through, helping to regulate their moods – all these simple kindnesses help establish a secure bond with your students.
How can we create a secure bond? How can we show that we are listening and caring? Even virtually, teachers must create a special bond and encourage an affective-cognitive balance to engage and reassure students. This can be as simple as creating welcoming rituals, checking in on students, and listening to what’s going on in their lives. Being attentive to students' needs and responding effectively help establish a healthy attachment relationship, the invisible and secure link between teacher and student.
For over 20 years, research has shown that social-emotional learning (self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, interpersonal relations, and decision-making (Shanker, 2014)) should take a more important role in the classroom. Students learn best in classroom environments where they feel physically and emotionally safe; when students feel safe, they develop interpersonal skills and interact with classmates and teachers much more positively and productively (Hoy and Woolfolk, cited in Shanker 2014; Newman, Rutter and Smith, cited in Shanker 2014; Sutherland, cited in Shanker 2014). For students to be successful, teachers must talk about emotions with their students and show them how to recognize, understand, and manage them. By meeting the emotional needs of students, teachers can foster a healthy classroom climate and harmonious relationships. The quality of the student-teacher relationship and the emotional support that students receive from teachers are very important for student well-being and academic achievement (Perry, cited in Shanker 2014; Skinner and Belmont, cited in Shanker 2014). In fact, the more positive the learning environment, the more the students are engaged, and vice versa - this symbiosis is critical (Tinto, cited in Shanker 2014; Fredericks, Blumenfeld and Paris, cited in Shanker 2014). For students with learning disabilities (LDs), social-emotional learning is linked to self-advocacy. When students have greater self-awareness, a more positive perception of themselves, an understanding of their difficulties and the impact on their reactions and emotions, and a relationship of trust with the teacher, they are more likely to self-advocate.
Knowing that these skills have a positive impact on our students, how do we ensure they develop them, in addition to everything else we have to teach? During a time when constant adaptation and resilience are required in the face of adversity, emotional literacy - for adults and children alike - is more important than ever.
Moreover, the type of academic and moral support that students receive from teachers is critical (Croninger and Lee, cited in Shanker 2014; Hamre and Pianta, cited in Shanker 2014; Baker, cited in Shanker 2014; Bernstein-Yamashiro, cited in Shanker 2014). Whether consciously or unconsciously, teachers affect their students on an emotional level. A teacher's constructive feedback is a constant source of social-emotional development, and the teacher’s own emotional state can profoundly influence that of their students, a phenomenon known as 'limbic resonance' (Goleman, cited in Shanker 2014). This means that teachers, not external specialists, are best positioned to foster the development of emotional and social skills (Shanker, 2014). Therefore, teachers must ensure students develop these skills and must assist and support them in managing their emotions. Given the magnitude of the task, we recommend the teacher use children's literature to work on emotional and academic skills simultaneously. This will allow the teacher to follow the curriculum through reading and planned activities while showing students that their emotions, feelings and experiences are important, all in a safe learning environment. Emotional skills can be developed through different teaching strategies such as enhanced interactive reading. By setting emotional and educational goals for each reading, the teacher gets the best of both worlds. For added support in this process, work collaboratively with other school contributors (special education teachers, psychologists, research specialists, speech therapists, librarians, etc.). Keeping these colleagues up to date with the work done in the classroom will create a consistent and caring community around students.
Children's literature for socio-emotional learning
As mentioned above, the student-teacher relationship is very important. It plays a key role in ensuring a student's availability and openness to learning, especially if the student has an LD and/or an emotional issue. To promote learning and discussions, teachers can use literature and highlight the emotions felt by the characters. It is easier for students to identify a character’s emotions rather than their own. Reading allows them to live out and reflect on the experiences of literary characters. However, the interactions that take place in your students’ lives, in classrooms, hallways, the schoolyard and the cafeteria are what matter most. The life experiences these interactions provide (rivalries, alliances, shared interests, teamwork, etc.) lay the foundation for success and happiness in adult life (Denham et al., cited in Shanker 2014). This is why it is important to apply the lessons learned from the readings in meaningful contexts on a daily basis. When selecting a book, choose one in which the character feels an emotion and must learn to manage it (see list of recommendations below). All emotions are equally important and should be felt, but students need to learn to manage emotions so that they do not impact academic performance or the classroom climate. Even the most negative emotions, such as frustration and anger can be seen in a positive light, like when they serve to motivate a determined student.
To achieve the intended result, the teacher must properly prepare the activity.
Important steps during reading activities:
- Select a book according to which emotion will be focused on (e.g. fear) or a need identified in class (e.g. having the confidence to try new things).
- Determine the emotional and educational goals.
- Create a healthy climate of exchange to facilitate discussion.
- Read the book and ask the students questions.
- Create a reference system (e.g. common vocabulary, visual representations of emotions etc.).
- Conduct the planned activities.
- Ensure students can apply what they have learned to their daily lives.
During or after the reading, begin the discussion by asking the students guiding questions, such as:
- What emotion is the character experiencing?
- How do you think they feel?
- What is happening in their body, mind, heart?
- Have you ever felt like that? If so, what did you do?
- What did the character do to manage the emotion? Or what could they do to manage it?
- What other methods would your students use?
The key is being open to what the students share. Students should understand that emotions are a part of us and that we need to learn to manage them. Regardless of the emotion - fear, anger, sadness, joy, etc. - we must identify, accept, and manage it, in order to establish well-being and balance. Students need to feel that they are not the only ones who feel emotions; the literature serves to normalize these situations. Students think, “if someone wrote a book about this topic or emotion, that means I am not alone, others have also felt what I am feeling...”
In this approach that combines reading and emotions, the key to success is using the lessons learned in real-life situations. Reading fosters discussion and sets up a common vocabulary. When students experience an emotion, the teacher can use this common vocabulary established through reading and identify the link with the character or characters. For example, if a student is having difficulty during a classroom writing exercise and is sad about it, the adult can say, "I can see you are sad, like in the story of ________ where (the character) ________ did not want to climb the mountain. He was afraid he wouldn't be able to do it and he was sad. You know, it's normal to be afraid or sad. Would you like me to help you overcome this emotion? Do you remember what the character did?” Slowly, over time students develop an array of methods to help understand what they are feeling and determine which method can be used to succeed. Teachers should take advantage of all possible situations in their daily work to make connections to the readings and help students develop their emotional skills.
Teachers can also use literature as a springboard to pursue academic learning beyond reading instruction while focusing on social-emotional learning which is essential to academic success. They can engage students in meaningful tasks such as a writing, art project, or any other planned activity that may be related to the book.
In online learning, we can begin our sessions with a book or simply start a discussion and let our students know that we understand what they are going through. This connects with students through their hearts and creates a welcoming ritual. The goal of the reading activity can extend beyond an emotion, it can start with a specific situation, for example, a story in which the characters undergo significant changes. How did they adapt? How would you adapt to the changes that are currently taking place? What would you need in this situation?
By connecting with children’s imaginations, hearts, and minds, literature allows us, the teachers, to attach that small invisible thread between us and students so they can trust us and understand that we are there for them. Let's take the time to listen to our students and to create those small precious moments that are so essential to learning.
Shanker, S. (2014). Un cadre plus large pour mesurer le succès : l’apprentissage social et émotionnel. Dans Measuring What Matters, People for Education. Toronto : 8 novembre 2014
About the Author
With a Bachelor’s degree in Special Education, Amélie Bédard has always used her passion and creativity to meet the diverse needs of her students. As an inclusive education professional, she works with teams to promote educational development and implement universal and inclusive measures in schools. At the CSSDPS, she is responsible for training LEAD teachers to act as resources for inclusive education in their communities. This project earned the team an award from the Fédération des centres de services scolaires. Amélie is also working on several development projects that aim to improve inclusive practices by leveraging research.