Why we must support SEL for At-Risk Students

By Christina Cipriano, Ph.D.

Spotlight on the uninformed educator. Maybe you know one?

Who still believes in the assumption that schooling has next to nothing to do with emotions and the greater educational and social climate. Someone who is unaware of the mounting evidence from neuroscience and education that validate the role of social and emotional learning (SEL) in high quality classrooms. SEL is the key: high quality classrooms are in support of, rather than dismissal of, student emotional health. SEL is more than the foundation for student’s learning in the classroom; SEL is the brush that paints the picture of what quality instruction and learning look like.

The areas of our brain that process and regulate our emotions are inextricably tied to areas of the brain responsible for our learning and cognition. This means that when a student is angry, upset or anxious, their brain focuses its energy on how they are feeling while they are trying to attend to what they are learning. Such emotions, when unsupported and unregulated, can decrease a student’s attention to the learning processes – the ability to meaningfully attend underscores human information processing and all learning! These temporary interruptions in attention diminish a student’s ability to listen, understand, and engage in learning meaningfully alongside their peers and teachers.

But what if these interruptions happen more often than not? Some students chronically struggle with their affective responses and regulation. Underperforming students, including students with special education needs as well as students who are low-achieving, are at increased risk of emotions that can override their attention.  Unfortunately,  focusing on just academics, since their scores are low, won’t address these needs. Many students struggling in school, need support to address their social emotional health. Students with special education needs, such as those with diagnoses of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders (EBD) and Learning Disabilities (LD) can experience prolonged disruption to performance in school by their symptoms. When students are struggling and school performance is poor, they are more likely to find school and learning as a source of anxiety, manifesting in diminished self-efficacy, motivation, engagement, and connectedness with school.

Think about it. When confronted with a challenge, it may feel natural to shy away and disengage. Neurologically, tasks that are difficult, complex, and new, actually require more of our active attention to complete- it is impossible to meaningfully encode, store, and retrieve new information if you have not properly attended to it from the beginning! When learning new information, nerve impulses will sometimes travel longer and more complex pathways to make meaning of the information. This longer time requires active attention- just like the first time you ate with a fork, or rode a bike. With practice and experience, these impulses speed up and become automatic, freeing up more of our attention for more learning! However, if we are continuously overwhelmed while learning, the energy to learn and attend meaningfully can be exhausting, anxiety inducing, and demotivating.

As a result, when students are struggling and find school difficult they are less likely to pay attention even before we account for the role of their emotional processing. Unfortunately, the same students who need to attend more are also most likely to struggle with reduced attention and processing skills from the start. SEL programming specifically designed with these students in mind can help increase student availability to learn and support closing the achievement gap.