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SEL for Gen Z? The Responsibility of Meeting Students Where They Are.

Generation Z.jpg

Today's guest blog is written by Peter Kraft, CEO and Co-Founder of Evolution Labs, a company whose focus is to deliver well-rounded support and positive social and emotional outcomes to students from K-20 

Today's learners are digital natives who are accustomed to accessing information through the use of internet-enabled devices. From mobile phones to laptops, rapid advancements in technology have increased access to virtually all online information at any time, drastically changing how students interact with content. With access to any media outlet at their fingertips, students have become more comfortable looking up information independently rather than seeking out assistance from a peer or adult. According to recent research studies, the majority of classroom instruction is facilitated using electronic devices, and recent data showcases 65 percent of children ages 3-to-18 years old access the internet at school.

This shift in ownership, where previously the adults in charge could filter content presented to children, has led to a greater need for educators to deliver information promptly and proactively to their students. If the education system relies solely on students to be the first to speak up when they have a social and emotional need, it becomes more unlikely that educators will reach them with the right information in time. Therefore, it is critical for schools to develop strategic plans that demonstrate an understanding of Generation Z learners' needs, interests, and comfort zones. For example, the Tennessee Department of Education developed a toolkit to help teachers understand the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL), and included a variety of best-practice examples for social teaching and instructional teaching methods. 

Parallel to the integration of educational technologies has been a growing focus within K-12 systems to teach students the skill sets needed to leverage these digital innovations beyond the classroom effectively. This movement is referred to as the Framework for 21stCentury Learning and is commonly defined using the 4C's: collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity.

The alignment of SEL programs to bolster this skillset is evident; when students are in tune with their emotions and the emotions of those around them, they can foster better social relationships that support positive school environments and are equipped to self-regulate to make responsible decisions.

The overlap of these three emerging trends (education technology, the rise of the 4C's skillset, and SEL programs) in the K-12 landscape is not a coincidence. As technology breaks geographic barriers to connect people across the globe, today's workforce has become increasingly diverse. Therefore, educators must prepare students to be socially aware of others perspectives to maintain relationships throughout an increasingly diverse working environment.

Social and emotional learning is also gaining traction as an approach to addressing mental health issues in children and adolescents. In a previous post on this blog, Peter DeWitt shared statistics about mental health and its increased prevalence in school-aged children. Middle-to-high school student suffer from high instances of mental health issues, childhood trauma, and violence against others or oneself. If schools do not have a strategic plan in place to address these concerns, then they are not taking advantage of their opportunity to intervene.

While supporting students' social and emotional needs in school might not solve every problem, it can have significant positive effects and help steer students away from adverse outcomes. In fact, students feel more supported by simply knowing that they are surrounded by caring adults who want to meet their needs.

Although the evidence supporting integrating SEL into academic instruction in schools showcases positive outcomes, educators have identified challenges to its wide-scale adoption. Below are two of the primary roadblocks voiced by educators and ways in which leaders should begin thinking about overcoming these challenges.  

Challenge 1: The lack of a clear and universal definition for SEL, and a need to develop and define assessment/measurement tools.

The Collective for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is leading the discussion around SEL and its integration into academics. CASEL outlines five social and emotional competencies that a program must help students develop in order to be considered effective: self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, and social awareness. Using this as the backbone for any SEL integration, leaders in education must identify the specific social and emotional needs of their student population and adapt instruction to meet these within their district. 

Challenge 2: A lack of time for educators to focus on and develop strategic implementation of SEL into existing instruction.

As SEL gains traction and more content is published about successful implementations, there is a growing need to equip educators with the teaching practices required to foster these competencies. A combination of explicit instruction with opportunities for practice and support throughout all academic instruction has been identified by thought leaders as best practices moving forward. Therefore, school leaders must incorporate professional learning opportunities for educators to understand and strategize ways in which to incorporate SEL across their campus. 

While overcoming these above challenges won't happen overnight, technology is playing a key role in helping educators by providing tools that help empower administrators, teachers, and parents with information they need to foster SEL and ease the way to collaboration. For example, the student data captured throughout a variety of classroom technologies can help administrators receive early warning indicators for emerging issues, leading to more-timely, and therefore effective, interference. Technology is not a cure-all for SEL, but when implemented as part of an initiative led by dedicated leaders, it can gain buy-in, help teachers feel supported, make content delivery more efficient, and help students consume content in a way they desire.

Final Thought
Educators have become quite skilled at "meeting students where they are" in various regards. From relating literature to relevant current events or taking the lessons learned from history and adapting them to real things happening in students' lives, there have been instructional innovations to make academics real and relevant. The same concept of meeting students where they are can be applied to the essential lessons that are "non-academic" in nature, from teaching students about the hazards of bullying to helping them find content that addresses pressing mental health concerns, the dangers of substance abuse, social media pressure, and many more lessons that impact overall wellness.

For Generation Z, "where they are" is online and, more often than not, on a mobile device. In 2018, even their parents may be more comfortable reading information from a cell phone than giving the school counselor a call. To meet the objective of reaching every student and demonstrating that we understand them, we should understand that it is the school's responsibility to reach students with SEL content anywhere and everywhere they take their devices. It all starts with a plan and, of course, great content. But if we don't make sure the content is received, we haven't done the job. A strategic plan makes all the difference.

Connect with @EvolutionLabsEdon Twitter. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt's Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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