Research School Network: Seizing upon SEL with Structured Talk

Seizing upon SEL with Structured Talk

by Research Schools Network
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Stella Jones, Director of Town End Associate Research School, describes her school’s approach to promoting students’ SEL through fostering conversations.

James Britton argued that talk is the sea upon which all else floats’, and I think this principle is particularly true of Social and Emotional Learning. SEL depends on effective communication between pupils and adults. It is vital that teachers undertake high-quality, adult-led interactions with children to support all aspects of thinking, learning and well-being. 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has at its heart five core competencies: 

  • self-awareness;
  • self-management;
  • social awareness;
  • relationship skills;
  • and responsible decision making.

Each of these competencies have associated skills that need to be explicitly taught so that pupils acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL).

It is important that early years practitioners and primary school teachers are supported to understand these competencies and translate the knowledge into meaningful talk routines in the classroom. 

So, how can we teach something so fundamental? 

We facilitate structured talk, seizing teachable moments’, such as pausing to reflect when a character is feeling or acting in a particular way and making links to our own behaviour. Additionally, we carefully structure interactions so pupils rehearse and apply their relationship skills.

Tweaking what we already do can make crucial differences that will positively impact diverse outcomes. For example, in the texts that we share with children, characters routinely encounter crisis moments, problems or difficult choices. We can exploit these moments to develop self-management and social awareness. Done well, a few small changes can easily make a big difference to SEL provision.

INSIDE: OUTSIDE helps pupils to consider what is happening beneath the surface (thoughts and feelings) based on observable behaviours (actions and interactions). For example, in the story of There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom by Louis Sachar, children can be encouraged to consider the character’s feelings further: He leaned his head against his hands, propped up by his elbows. What if Carla is wrong?
he worried. What if I really am a monster?”

Discussing what is happening beneath the surface can develop pupils’ empathy and insights into circumstances beyond their own experience – invaluable for pupils to understand themselves, each other, and the world around them. This approach can also enable children to identify and name emotions experienced by a character and then connect them to their own lives, attitudes and experiences.

Inside Outside

Responsible decision-making can be explicitly taught using THIS PATH:THAT PATH’ which seizes upon a dilemma in the text to scrutinise and evaluate a character’s decision. In this further example from Sachar’s book He looked at his homework shaking in his hand. Then he tore it in half and dropped it in the wastepaper basket…” Pupils can imagine how the outcomes could be different for the character and those around them if another path had been chosen. 

This counterfactual thinking’ supports pupils to consider both actual and potential problems and evaluate and agree on ethical, responsible solutions. Modelling is an essential tool for teaching, along with enhancing children’s social and emotional skills. It is also a good starting point for THIS PATH: THAT PATH, leading to collaboration where pupils can articulate their own thinking and opinions as well as disagree respectfully with others. Structuring this collaboration with sentence stems and clear guidelines helps pupils converse positively, while maintaining positive relationships.

This Path That Path

Facilitating rich discussions is a vital strategy. It allows teachers to pose compelling questions and provide contextual activities that provoke thoughtful responses from teachable moments’ that present themselves in books. Done well, it helps children to practise, apply and nurture their social and emotional skills. All this whilst improving communication, listening and reading comprehension skills too.

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