Socio-emotional skills are a priority to build a fairer society

Small, intentional changes may seem fleeting but can have a drastic impact on young people’s socio-emotional development - and their learning, writes Bethia McNeil

Small, intentional changes may seem fleeting but can have a drastic impact on young people’s socio-emotional development - and their learning, writes Bethia McNeil

22 Nov 2022, 5:00

Social and emotional skill development at our college is the fundamental building block that underpins learning and relationships. We are not alone in this belief. The Education Endowment Foundation and a significant body of research have evidenced the long-term impact of socio-emotional skills across the life of young learners.

In Pearsons School Report, the characteristics teachers felt learners needed to thrive in today’s society were resilience, kindness and self-esteem. These don’t happen by accident, but through an intentional and considered implementation of observable quality practice.

Take diversity. It’s important to “meet all people where they are” and promote diversity through considering, exploring and centring others’ experiences and emotions, whilst reflecting on our own responses.

The equity effect of this learning, where in high-quality provision those with the lowest levels of socio-emotional skills develop the most alongside supporting the learning of their peers, means there is much to gain for colleges, students and society.

Socio-emotional learning has always been, to some extent, at the mercy of fashion and politics. Shared language and practice across schools, FE and out-of-school provision has been weak, and as a result we have arguably failed to recognise that young people “transfer” learning into and across all the domains of their lives – a failure that needs to be addressed if we want young learners to build a fairer society.

Creating the right environment

At YMCA George Williams College, we have an evidence-informed approach to socio-emotional skill development that connects all these domains, including a theory-informed outcomes framework and a suite of measures to help organisations understand how well they are promoting this development. One of our key tools is the social and emotional learning programme quality assessment (PQA), developed by the David P. Weikart Center for Youth Programme Quality in the US.

The PQA helps to structure how we centre “quality” in socio-emotional skills development. In the same way that these skills develop across all areas of young people’s learning, the staff practices that support them should also be present. Creating environments that promote socio-emotional skills development is the most important step we can take as managers of educational spaces.

Establishing a safe space

At the foundation of all this is “safe space” – building environments of emotional and psychological safety for all students. This involves using positive and warm language to convey inclusion and mutual respect, showing genuine interest in young people’s wellbeing and proactively managing group work to create opportunities to talk and listen to others.

Supporting learners

“Supportive environments” build on “safe space”. They include educators naming and acknowledging young people’s emotions and supporting them to name them too. They also include discussion about how we handle our emotions, and what can create certain emotional responses.

Becoming interactive

“Interactive environments” focus on fostering teamwork and facilitating the development of shared goals. They include group process skills, promoting responsibility and leadership, and encouraging young people to mentor one another. They also include formal opportunities for young people to learn about and value difference.

Engaging proactively

And finally, “engaging environments” focuses on setting plans and goals, offering support for student interests and furthering learning. This could involve providing all students with opportunities to take responsibility, developing peer mentoring schemes or group leadership opportunities.

Each of these tips may seem small and potentially fleeting, but evidence shows they are not. The PQA guidance equips us with a checklist of simple and practical ways in which we can enhance our learning environments to also be socio-emotional environments. This ensures our classrooms are supporting all students to learn, grow and reflect on their relationships with themselves, their peers and the world around them.

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