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3 Tips for Talking to Parents About Social and Emotional Learning

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By Michelle Mullen

Speaking to parents about math is relatively easy. While some parents push back on the "new math," they ultimately know that math skills matter for their children. It's the same with teaching students science, history, or even certain behavioral skills.

A challenge arises, however, when we turn to the social and emotional components of learning. Words like "attitude" and "emotion" often make parents uncomfortable, especially if they believe educators are making judgments about their children. Social and emotional learning, or SEL, raises questions about the boundaries between the role of parents and that of educators. This is all backed up by research - like the great work done by Learning Heroes - on the kinds of messages that resonate with parents and those that turn parents off entirely.

Parents are charged with helping their child navigate the social and emotional world of everyday life, while educators establish the appropriate environment to support students' social and emotional development at school. The power of bringing these two areas of expertise together cannot be overstated. This is how we equip young learners to succeed in school, identify their aspirations, and build their readiness for the future. SEL is what makes it possible for students to learn and achieve academically. Parents must be part of this important conversation.

Here are three tips for engaging parents in the social and emotional learning conversation.

1. Paint a Picture

Terms like "noncognitive" are not helpful when explaining the premise of social and emotional learning to some parents. Discussing executive function or mental processes is not as intuitive as a conversation about long division or a spelling list. Educators should paint a clear picture of social and emotional skills through concrete examples and experiences that parents understand

Describing abstract concepts and how they relate to students' sense of self and the development of determination and self-reliance can make a difference. For example, students at Ansel Adams Elementary in Stockton, California, started the school year by reviewing the difference between fixed and growth mindsets, making posters that were displayed to help both parents and students better understand how a person's attitude toward challenges and failures can make a big difference in how they learn.

growth mindset.jpg

2. Offer Opportunities to Engage

Experts agree that effective SEL initiatives cannot be completed in isolation. Not only should we do our part to learn about the needs of our students' families, but we should also encourage family contributions by providing guidance on extending classroom practices into the home. For example, offer conversation starters for discussing their day, or give them a list of activities to use during school breaks.

Schools like Narcoossee Middle School in St. Cloud, Florida, bring parents into the fold by hosting parent events where they explain the attributes of successful students and how parents can support their development.

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3. Highlight Benefits Through Research

Research showing the importance of social and emotional learning is compelling. Even if the vocabulary for SEL isn't immediately intuitive for parents, the results can be. The data tell us that students who have been instructed with social and emotional learning strategies are more likely to excel academically when compared to their peers. Research also finds school-based interventions to support the whole child have positive, long-term effects that help improve attitudes and behaviors into young adulthood. When students are given opportunities to develop these vital competencies, they are directly prepared for the types of skills sought after by future employers.

Now you're speaking in a language parents can understand.

We know the ability to manage emotions, make effective decisions, and build strong relationships is key to the future personal and professional success of students. If we want success for our students, we have a responsibility as educators to share that knowledge not only with our students, but their families as well. We must ensure that all stakeholders--from our students, to their parents, to the larger community--understand and know how to talk about social and emotional learning.

Photo 1: Growth Mindset versus Fixed Mindset comparison posters created by 5th grade students at Ansel Adams Elementary School in Stockton, Calif. (Courtesy of AVID)

Photo 2: A parent/community event hosted by AVID teacher Amy Henson at Narcoossee Middle School (Fl.). (Courtesy of AVID)

Michelle Mullen is the executive vice president of AVID, where she oversees learning programs, products, and services, including K-12 and higher education curriculum, English learner and STEM support, publications, professional learning, leadership development, and AVID National Demonstration Schools. These teams support schools and districts with program resources and learning experiences to ensure quality AVID implementation, educator engagement, and student achievement. Mullen believes passionately in the potential of our young people and is energized by work that builds student and educator capacity, opportunity, and hope.

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