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SEL: More Important Now Than Ever

It’s a Whole New World

Educators are coming to an understanding that developing academic skills in students at school are no longer enough. As the world continues to change, so do the demands on the skills that students must learn. Some people refer to these skills as 21st century learning skills that incorporate ideas such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, technology literacy, and the ability to problem solve. Intertwined with these skills is a rewed emphasis on developing skills related to a student’s social emotional learning (SEL). These skills range from being self-aware, managing your emotions, and working with others. These non-academic skills were once deemed not as important as academic skills, but that viewpoint is slowly diminishing and here’s why.

SEL Boosts Academic Achievement

An old African Proverb states, “When the fingers on the hand are fighting, they cannot pickup the food.” It eloquently states that more often than not, behavior can impact one’s ability to be successful either individually or as a team. SEL builds on this same concept as it seeks to emphasize non-academic skills as a foundation to helping students improve their academic skills. If a student cannot work well with others, manage stress, or regulate their emotions, this will hinder their ability to learn. SEL helps students develop skills that will help them in the long run as they learn about core content areas like math, science, and language arts.

SEL Improves Employability

Because our communities continue to become increasingly diverse and multicultural, so has the future workplace. Emphasis on communication and collaboration have never been higher, however more and more coworkers do not share common languages, values, or beliefs. For our students to survive in this new global economy, being able to listen to different ideas from co-workers and perform collaborative tasks are essential. Students need to be able to create and maintain relationships with diverse individuals and groups. The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed will be mainstays of the future workplace. Our students need to be able to entertain various perspectives and empathize with others, especially with coworkers from diverse backgrounds and cultures. As students develop these skills, future employers will be ready to hire them.

SEL Helps Manage Negative Emotions

The world is extremely fast paced and with that pace can come stress and other negative emotions. If students can learn how to be able to recognize their own emotions and identify how they can influence their own behavior, then they will be at a distinct advantage over their peers that cannot. Students also need to be able to regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors because this will not only impact their work but it will also impact their overall health. When students can develop project-management skills, goal setting and organization skills, and stress management skills, they will be able to successfully navigate stress and work towards developing a healthy body and healthy mind. Being able to effectively manage stress, control impulses, and work toward personal and academic goals are all skills that are developed when students participate in SEL.

SEL: A New Advantage

As knowledge becomes a commodity and employers care more and more about what their employees can do with information and how they can work with others, the need for socially and emotionally intelligent workers is reaching a peak. The more that SEL can be provided to our students now, then the more advantage they will have as our world shifts towards a global economy where a new set of skills is required to be successful. Workers with these skills will end up being better prepared to be the workforce of tomorrow as the world continues to change.

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Meet a Teacher: Working With Students With Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, emotional and behavioral disorders affect 10–15 percent of children globally. Disorders include attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), autism, bipolar, anxiety and oppositional-defiant. Children experiencing behavioral disorders (BD) and emotional disorders (ED) often struggle with maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships and learning in a mainstream classroom setting. Special education jobs that include working with BD/ED students present unique challenges.

We interviewed Katrina Wojtasinski, M.S. Ed, a certified special education case manager at Falmouth High School in Falmouth, Massachusetts, to learn what it’s like to teach students experiencing emotional and behavioral disorders.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in special education?

As an adolescent I struggled with learning in a traditional setting, and a high school teacher told me I wasn’t “college material.” I was self-aware enough to know this wasn’t the truth and advocated to school administration to receive the support I needed. In college I was diagnosed with a learning disorder and developed the skills necessary to succeed in the classroom and beyond. My experiences helped me realize how important special education is for those with disabilities and those who don’t learn best in a traditional classroom. 

What steps did you take to attain the position you have today?

I started as a special education paraprofessional. I’m grateful my career began this way because I learned a lot about the field before deciding to further my education. I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston and my Master’s of Science in Special Education from Saint Joseph’s University. I chose Saint Joseph’s University because it was one of the few U.S. colleges offering a science-based degree in the field.

I obtained certifications in special education, safety care, crisis prevention institute (CPI) and CPR/AED/First Aid.

What is a typical day in your classroom like?

I’m not sure there’s ever a “typical” day in special education but I have daily routines that help students build their organizational, social and writing skills. I work with students in a resource room for specialized instruction and in an inclusion classroom alongside typically developing students. In my resource classroom I provide children with a visual overview of the day, divided into directed instruction, mini-lessons and one-to-one or group work.

What skills are necessary for a teacher working with BD/ED students?

Patience! Although there’s tremendous gratification that comes with the field there are many, many days that bring challenges that test patience. Strong communication is also key as you’ll collaborate with various personnel involved in supporting students’ learning needs. Versatility and adaptability are also important because the environment and demands are always changing. 

What are some specific techniques educators use when working with BD/ED children?

I’ve had success with “extinction,” which is ignoring or redirecting attention-seeking behaviors. Applied behavior analysis (ABA), functional behavioral assessments (FBA) and the behavior intervention plans (BIP) are among several methods for parents, teachers and school professionals to collaborate on identifying, minimizing and replacing negative behaviors.

What are your biggest challenges?

I would say the challenges are more at the legislative level. Special-needs students are on individualized educational plans (IEPs) to best facilitate student learning. Lately they’ve become a source of contention, with court cases increasing constraints on them. 

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

The kids, 100 percent. Everything I do is for the kids. 

Is there anything that surprised you about working with BD/ED students?

How humbling they are. I had a student who was totally self-aware of his behaviors but had a difficult time controlling them. He eventually reached a point where he could seek out a trusted adult for comfort, often crying because he realized he was having a tough day yet couldn’t control his response.

Do you have advice for anyone interested in teaching students with emotional/behavior issues?

Volunteer, network or obtain a position within the field. Most importantly, reflect on why you want to pursue the field. It sounds heroic to tell people “I’m a special education teacher,” or a “behavior specialist,” but at the end of the day the people who excel are the ones who put their heart into everything they contribute.

Katrina chose Saint Joseph’s University for her master’s degree, and through the university’s online degree program you can too! Find out more about other favorite online master’s degree programs.