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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Children's Stories for Social Emotional Learning

Noah Teitelbaum is an advocate for social-emotional learning programs and a leader in social emotional curriculum design. He is the Executive Director of Empowering Education, which provides a K-8 SEL program that is mindfulness-based and trauma-informed. His new children’s book, Munchy and Jumpy Tales, is a book of illustrated stories from that program, teaching lessons such as gratitude, diversity, inclusion, and equity.

In this Q+A, Noah shares some personal and professional insight on emotional intelligence for children.

In your opinion, what are the primary components of an effective SEL program?

There are so many ways to do social-emotional learning in school and so many great programs out there to help do that. Of course, there are a lot of factors that make a program effective: is it trauma-informed, culturally-relevant, research-based? 

But an important issue often gets ignored: if a program isn’t used, it won’t work. That’s why we focus a lot on ease-of-use, accessibility, and fun.

I see schoolwide implementation of an SEL program like a math problem. (Yes, I was a math teacher.) If one coping skills class has an impact of x, a whole school of children learning that coping skill has an impact of x to the x power. 

In plainer words: if every teacher and staff member in the building can use the same set of skills and vocabulary to support students, the support is far richer. An effective SEL program should make that easier to achieve.

You began your career by working on human rights in postwar Croatia for the United Nations, then spent several years teaching at low-income schools in the New York City area. How did these experiences influence your approach to mindfulness, compassion, and social-emotional learning?

In Croatia, I mostly reported what was happening. While our office wrote some darn good reports and maybe even helped a few refugees get their pensions or houses back, it was the personal experiences that stuck with me.

In Knin, a beautiful city deeply scarred by war and ethnic tension, I helped to organize a youth art and music festival. The teenagers showed up to hear music without regard for ethnic lines, something I couldn’t have imagined their parents doing.

Later, I attended a two-day social-emotional workshop designed to facilitate conversation to ease the tension between different ethnic groups. The conversation was stilted. There were these long periods of silence and a lot of talking around the issues. 

What amazed me was that the attendees primarily were Croatians working in refugee-aid organizations—they were the very people who were committed to overcoming what had happened, but they were stuck and didn’t seem to have any experience in talking through difficult feelings. It’s clear that the foundations of social-emotional skills are much easier to develop when we’re young, rather than set in our ways.

Teaching, especially the first few years, was far more difficult than anything I did with refugees. I have not forgotten how hard teaching is and how ill-equipped I was to handle the social-emotional issues in my classroom. My room was full of issues that were compounded by my students’ shallow SEL toolkits and, at least as importantly, my own similar ignorance. They had a good excuse: they were kids!

I was so busy treading water and trying to get past behavior management to what I thought of as real teaching. But, I realize now that I was inadvertently and constantly “teaching” SEL. I cringe to think what sort of modeling I was doing in those first few years. I frequently was visibly angry and not self-managing particularly well. 

While my intentions were good, when students had a conflict or were upset, I was basically making up strategies and, when frustrated, those “strategies” seemed to center around some form of “shhhh!”

That’s why I want our program to be easy and fun – we offer something that I could have actually used in the classroom myself when I was getting my bearings as a teacher while still giving me room to go deeper as my comfort grew.

image courtesy Empowering Education

The social-emotional children’s book that you just published, Munchy and Jumpy Tales, includes optional suggestions for movement or discussion. What are some guidelines for when teachers or parents should include these?

We wrestled a lot with this question. Some parents and teachers used every single question and movement suggestion, and, of course, it was too much. If you read our book of stories to your class or children, please pick and choose!

Read alouds are a balance between engagement and comprehension. It takes practice! It’s relatively easy to notice when children are no longer into the story—the harder question is when to pull engrossed kids out of the story and into thinking about the story. 

Asking kids for their predictions or for how the story relates to something they’ve experienced can feel disruptive when you see kids entranced. Indeed, stories have their own power to teach and there’s value in simply letting the story do its thing. 

But we also want students to be able to reflect on what they’re reading while they’re reading. It takes trial and error to dial this in. 

So, how do you decide how often to interrupt? With our Munchy and Jumpy stories, if you get to the end and the students can’t thoughtfully answer the questions we provide, sprinkle the reading with more of the questions next time.

image courtesy Empowering Education

There are a lot of anxious kids these days because of school closings and quarantine. How can Munchy & Jumpy’s practices like ‘roses and thorns’ help kids cope with tough days?

It’s easy to forget to be grateful for the good things that happen during a day marred by one or two tough moments. It’s just as easy to avoid acknowledging the tough parts of a day. The way our program sees it, mindfulness and social-emotional learning is not going to make tough days go away. We want to develop the ability to face them honestly and squarely and to have the skills to move on in a healthy manner.

Roses and thorns can help kids (and adults) reflect on a day in a balanced way. Your question inspired me to write out some tips on using roses and thorns as a self-reflection tool for kids:

  • By having children reflect on their “roses”—the positive experiences they’ve had recently—you’re asking them to practice gratitude, which research shows has lots of benefits (surprisingly, this includes better physical health).
  • By having children reflect on their “thorns—the negative experiences they’ve had recently—you’re giving them space to voice what’s bothering them. Two of CASEL’s social-emotional competencies are Self-awareness and Self-management, and it turns out that the first competency is a big part of the second. Naming what you’re feeling is part of managing the feeling.
  • By inviting children to observe what’s bothering them in a non-judgmental way, you also are practicing mindfulness with them. (Mindfulness is basically the act of observing what’s going on inside and outside of you without judgment.)
(See: How to Teach Kids to Self Reflect)

By the way, you can also add “buds” to roses and thorns. Ask yourself: what am I looking forward to?

image courtesy Empowering Education

Munchy the bunny is initially too nervous to play with a raccoon, but they end up having fun together. How can animal stories help kids learn about differences among people?

We all look to identify with characters in stories. By using animal characters, we hope to avoid internal prejudices about gender, race, ability or other factors. The story you’re referring to, Paws and Hands, is one of several stories in the series that explore diversity.

In another story, the twins’ babysitter turns out to be a skunk and they have to wrestle with biases against different animal species. Of course, realizing internal biases around race is far more complex than exploring biases against skunks, but you have to start the conversation somewhere!

There’s also a story in which the bunnies realize that they’ve built an obstacle course with their own bodies in mind, upsetting their turtle friend. We hope our stories teach kids about other’s perspectives. When young kids understand other points of view, adults can start discussions about diversity, inclusion, and equity.

This has also been a very challenging time for parents and teachers. How have you been helped by your own practices of mindfulness and self-care?

When I’ve got a free moment to let my mind wander, I think about how so many things that we’re facing are just a concentrated and radically shared form of what we’re always facing. If there isn’t something to be learned from this, what can we learn from?

I’ve been using my mindfulness practice to try to avoid getting overly attached to how hard this time is. First there’s the fact that so many other people are suffering in such tangible and life-changing ways; the comparison makes anything I’m dealing with seem trivial. But another fact is that I’m having some great moments during quarantine. I’ve been hanging with my kids in ways and for lengths of time that are special for me.

When I tease out what I’m actually experiencing, positive feelings exist amidst the sadness and longing.