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Three insights from Lorea Martínez on the importance of SEL today

Classcraft TeamSeptember 16, 2022

Three insights from Lorea Martinez on the importance of SEL today

This article is part of an ongoing series featuring conversations with experts and researchers in SEL, behavior support, and learning technology led by Classcraft CEO and Co-founder Shawn Young. 

On September 1, we were honored to host a webinar discussion with Lorea Martínez, one of today’s most distinguished experts in social-emotional learning. Lorea was kind enough to share what she’s learned across her extensive career both as an educator and an SEL specialist, with a focus on key strategies for developing social-emotional skills in people of all ages.

The webinar covered a lot of ground, but much of the conversation helped to illustrate just how important social-emotional skills have become in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Below are three key insights that can help educators navigate the unique challenges that schools are facing today.

Academic learning loss shouldn’t overshadow social-emotional learning loss

Learning loss is one of the most talked-about consequences of COVID-19 within education. The pandemic resulted in countless hours of lost classroom time combined with a sudden and drastic shift to remote learning, which in turn led to widespread issues with attendance, behavior, and engagement. However, as Lorea pointed out in the discussion, the national conversation around learning loss has tended to focus on the issue from a purely academic standpoint without giving due attention to social-emotional learning loss as well. 

“We can’t forget that learning is social and emotional, in addition to academic,” Lorea said, highlighting that addressing social-emotional learning loss is inseparable from addressing academic learning loss. “The idea is that the pressure’s on and the kids are behind, so we need to focus on academics. My argument is that you can’t do academics without SEL. Stressed brains don’t learn.”

Speaking more broadly, she underlined the importance of acknowledging the pre-existing problems in the education system that the pandemic simply brought to the surface or made worse. “There’s a piece that, of course, comes from the pandemic, but it’s also the fact that the systems we had in place were not protecting and supporting our students the way that we need them to.” 

Despite this, Lorea was optimistic about how today’s challenges have opened more educators up to SEL as a framework and allowed it to become a more normalized part of instruction, indicating just how necessary it was all along. “SEL is now becoming more accepted as something that needs to be part of how we teach. We don’t ask the question, ‘Do we do SEL or not?’ anymore. Now it’s, ‘How do we teach it effectively?’”

SEL instruction should be relevant to students’ lives

Implementing SEL with the most effective instruction possible has always been vital to the framework’s success, but considering the especially poor levels of student engagement that have resulted from the pandemic, extra care is needed to make sure that SEL truly sticks. Even in normal circumstances, it’s not uncommon for students to have difficulty retaining what they learn. This is why the relevance of instruction to students is especially important to consider today.

One thing that we know from affective neuroscience is that our brains don’t pay attention to things that aren’t interesting to us,” Lorea explained, responding to a question submitted to the webinar by an educator. “That’s the way our brains save energy — if we had to pay attention to everything to the same extent, we wouldn’t be able to function.”

She followed with a piece of advice that can apply just as easily to the retention of SEL skills as the retention of academic content: “One of my recommendations is that you connect the content with the students’ interests. We need to make the content relevant to students’ lives in order for those brains to pay attention to the content.” By integrating SEL instruction with themes, hobbies, or scenarios that students find genuinely engaging, the retention of core competencies can be far higher, helping educators to make social-emotional learning recovery more impactful in post-quarantine learning communities.

Adult SEL is more essential than ever

Another key area of discussion during the webinar was the role that SEL can play in adults’ lives. “Many districts skip the step of building social-emotional skills for teachers,” Lorea explained. “I often say that you can’t teach what you don’t practice.” She connected adult SEL to the organizational and mental health difficulties that all educators are experiencing today as a result of the pandemic:

“We have a crisis in the teaching profession because so many educators are leaving due to the working conditions, the trauma they’ve experienced, and their stress levels. Part of that has a lot to do with their individual SEL skills, and the other part is about the systems for teaching SEL. From a practical perspective, we adults have the potential to develop these skills.”

Lorea stressed that, in order to be effective, adult SEL needs to be fine-tuned for adults rather than carried over from instruction that’s designed for students. “I’ve seen many schools say, ‘we’re doing these activities with the kids, so we’ll just change them a little so they can be done with adults.’ It needs to be done in a developmentally appropriate way. This is adult learning, and it needs to be done respectfully.

When it comes to administrators, Lorea shared insights into the connections that need to be made between social-emotional learning and the unique challenges of leadership. One was the fact that administrators serve as role models who set the emotional tone for the school, or even the entire district. “Emotions are contagious — if you have a leader who is always stressed and overwhelmed, those emotions are going to be felt by the staff as well. So there’s a big part of leadership that is being calm and open, and having what I call emotional agility, which is being able to move through your emotions quickly so that you can be ready to make decisions.”

At the same time, Lorea balanced this with the often-overlooked importance of vulnerability among those in leadership positions, reflecting on key lessons she teaches as an adjunct professor at Columbia University Teachers College. “We talk about accepting this vulnerability as part of your leadership, which means acknowledging when you don’t have the answers and that you need people to support you in your decision-making.” She emphasizes that, in addition to this vulnerability, it’s wise to lead with “emotional intelligence, emotional fluency, and with the capacity to empathize and listen to what teachers need, what parents need, and what’s happening with students.” 

Lorea’s words resonate strongly with our current moment. There seems to be no better time for all educators to not only ensure that students have the social-emotional skills that they need, but to do the same for themselves while developing better relationships with one another. Ultimately, everyone is on the same team. In Lorea’s words, “We are all part of this community that’s working to support the kids.”

We’d like to thank Lorea Martínez for sharing her time and expertise with us. These takeaways were only a small part of a deep and wide-ranging discussion, so be sure to watch the full webinar below for more! 

Dr. Lorea Martínez is the award-winning founder of HEART in Mind, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate Social Emotional Learning into their practices, products, and learning communities. Her new SEL book for educators, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, is available now. You can learn more about her work at www.loreamartinez.com

School & District Leadership - Social Emotional Learning