We’ve been hearing a lot about social and emotional learning (SEL) and its impact on education, but a recent life experience showed me the power and reach that SEL can have.

SEL Hits Home I was diagnosed with cancer in June 2020. I was having a difficult time dealing with the diagnosis, along with everything else 2020 had thrown my way. I was emotionally breaking apart and my husband was just following me around picking up the pieces I had dropped, unsure of what to do.

We were sitting outside two days before my surgery. I was unravelling about my diagnosis, the stress of managing the kids through my surgery and potential treatments, the pandemic…everything.

Free SEL and Anti-Bias ProgramsOut of nowhere my husband asked about my resiliency. When the pandemic first began and the country hunkered down, the first new program I created at the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, where I develop training programs, was a webinar called “Resilience: Getting Through Stressful Times.” He had watched me learn the new computer programs I needed to run the webinar, develop the new content, figure out the staffing I needed and he even participated in a mock webinar of friends and family so I could practice what I had learned in a safe space before going live. So he knew that I knew about resiliency.

When he asked me about my own resiliency during this particularly stressful time, it stopped me in my tracks. The old platitude, “practice what you preach” rang loudly in my ears.

When I have facilitated webinars on resilience, I talk about seven variables that contribute to resilience.

I went inside the house, got the detailed agenda I used for the program and ran through the seven variables. They are:

  • Self-Awareness: I was definitely aware of my thoughts, feelings, physiology and moods surrounding this crisis. I had this one down.
  • Self-Regulation: This was something I have always struggled with. I was exercising regularly, setting goals for myself and watching some feel-good TV in order to regulate my emotions. However, I was not working on my breathing or meditation which could help me better regulate the negative thoughts. I could work on this.
  • Impulse Control: This piece of resiliency is about moderation. Was I doing my best to moderate my negative impulses? I realized I could work harder on my impulse to read everything online about my condition. That was making me spiral deeper into negativity. I decided to get offline.
  • Empathy: Feelings of empathy help create positive relationships. When I stopped and realized the stress my husband must have been experiencing, I was able to connect with him on a deeper level. This increased my resilience.
  • Optimism: Many people think that optimism is simply seeing life as the glass half full. But the actual definition, according to the American Psychological Association, is knowing there will be problems in life, but knowing you have the agency to fix them. Here I was with this big problem, and I was having the operation I needed to fix the issue. I didn’t know the outcome, but I knew what I needed to do. Having this plan helped my resilience.
  • Self-Efficacy: This is about believing in your ability to succeed. I was struggling in this area. While I could do what I needed to do, I didn’t have any say in the outcome, how much the cancer may have spread or what treatments I would need down the line. This area of resiliency felt hopeless to me.
  • Connection: Strong relationships build resiliency. I am thankful I had this. I had friends who created a meal train for me and my family post-surgery. I had family who were there every step of the way. I have loving kids and a loving husband. I excelled in this area.

Once I really took a look at my strengths and weaknesses in terms of the seven variables of resilience, I saw where I could improve. I bought the Calm app and did some guided meditation, I stopped believing the online doctors, I joined a cancer Facebook support group and while I was still stressed and worried, I was able to move through the next two days a bit more resilient.

Benefits of SEL The act of being resilient lies within the realm of SEL. SEL is the key to living a healthier and more productive life. For the past few years educators have realized this and been focused on SEL. The New Jersey Department of Education has put out guidelines for schools on what should be incorporated into learning in order to have a more holistic approach to teaching. The five areas to concentrate on are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. If students can master these five areas, they will certainly have an easier time learning and be more successful in life.

These five areas are what corporate culture has deemed “soft skills.” These soft skills are what employers look for when making new hires. Most soft skills are also considered SEL skills. Forbes magazine has a list of the top ten skills companies look for when hiring a new employee. Of these ten skills, eight are directly linked to SEL.

While educators understand the advantages of SEL, many people not intimately linked to education still don’t understand the benefits. While student benefits are clear to the State of New Jersey, corporate America and to educators, it’s helpful for everyone to understand the benefits to students. These benefits include better academic performance (students who are in schools that integrate SEL into learning have an average gain of 11% in academic achievement), better attitudes about themselves, their peers and the school, lower levels of stress and anxiety, less aggression and a more positive school climate in general.

What has been less clear to all is how providing SEL for students, benefits educators. When successful SEL programs are introduced and sustained, research has found that educators are happier, more responsive and organized, have higher quality relationships with their students and colleagues, have greater self-efficacy and the climate of their classrooms improve greatly.

SEL in a Virtual World Until now, SEL has been administered face-to-face. The benefits are clear. But what do we do in our new 21st century, distance learning world? How do we reap the benefits of SEL in a virtual environment? There are many ways. The New Jersey State Bar Foundation has identified nine different ways in its handout entitled How to Promote SEL in Distance Learning. Some of these methods include virtual morning meetings and journaling for students. The Foundation’s Social-Emotional Character Development trainings and curriculum highlight many more ways to include SEL virtually.

SEL Beyond Walls Social and emotional learning has been proven time and again to improve school climate for both students and educators. But it’s important to recognize that these lessons extend much further than the walls of the school. They can even be found in the backyards of people diagnosed with cancer and working to survive all that 2020 has thrown their way.

For more detailed information about our programs, please go to our website.

Elissa Zylberschlag is director of conflict resolution and anti-bias for the New Jersey State Bar Foundation; visit the organization’s website.