Annie Keeling: Back to school with SEL |

Annie Keeling: Back to school with SEL

Annie Keeling

Kids are back in school and the reactions of family members vary.

Many look forward to the structure, variety, friendships and excitement that a new year provides. For others, though, the academic pressures and accompanying stress levels begin on day one and cloud the enjoyment of school.

Standards must be met. Teaching to tests requires a specified amount of knowledge to be retained and then reproduced by each student. There is pressure to perform.

The start of the school year is a great time to be reminded of the need for emotional support as much as academic teaching and guidance. Humans are feelers. At our core, we are ruled by emotions and not reason. All information to our rational brains must pass through our limbic system, which is our feeling brain.

If a child’s social and emotional world is left unattended to, he or she can be driven to distraction or act out with unregulated emotional behaviors.

The amygdala is a part of our brain that handles emotions. Sometimes, we have an overwhelming emotional response that is out of proportion to the stimulus because it has triggered a more significant emotional threat.

Where we used to watch out for predators on the savannah, we now can get triggered by a red warning on the envelope of an overdue electric bill. This disproportionate response is called an Amygdala Hijack. The stress of daily coursework can lead to such emotional hijacking.

With such an emphasis on academic success and the accompanying stress, parents carry concern over how best to support their children and help prevent these hijacks.

Psychoanalyst William Sharp uses the term “emotional tutoring” as a way to improve kids’ experience in school and academic performance. Increasing social and emotional development (SEL) can help clear learning blocks and assist cognitive brain function.

SEL is learning how to understand one’s feelings, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, handle disappointments and make good decisions.

Increased SEL skills validate a child’s emotional world, making academics easier.

Parent support

Be self-aware. Put some focus on your own feelings regarding the back-to-school transition. Share these with the child. Adults’ modeling of self-regulation can be helpful for kids to see.

Talk to your child. Ask them about the transition of going back to school. “Do you have any feelings or thoughts about school starting?” Give space after the question for the child to think and feel before answering.

Structure. Set limits on phone use and bedtime. This can be helpful for everyone in the family to follow, even the parents.

Teacher Support

Communicate clear expectations, guidelines and appropriate consequences.

Practice calm strategies when angry. Breathe in for a count of seven, hold for seven, breathe out for seven (calms the nervous system).

Smile; know your students’ names.

Give students choices and respect their wishes.

Ask questions that help students solve problems on their own.

Ask guiding SEL questions toward clearer self-awareness and self-management: “When you lose focus or are stuck or stressed, how do you still move toward your goal?” “What are you good at in this class and how do you know you are good at it?”

“When you don’t understand something in this class, what do you do?” “When you are working with others, how do you make a decision?” “When you are working in a group, how do you make sure it is fair for everyone?”

Values Inquiry

How does a child act when pushed out of his comfort zone? What if she perceives tiny disappointments as huge catastrophes? Has she developed unrealistic expectations that must be met so that she feels good about a situation?

I once worked with an 8-year-old boy who was easily triggered at school. The teacher reported that he “flew off the handle” easily, unable to stay calm with even small disappointments. I guided him through a 4-step process.

4-step process

Step 1: Likes. I asked the boy what he liked at school. The boy said he liked recess, getting a gold star on projects, drawing, field trips and being liked by the other kids.

Step 2: Values. With prompting and suggestions, I helped the boy see what value each of those gave him.

Liked by others: Acceptance and attention

Recess: Social and playful fun, positive attention

Gold Star: Positive attention

Drawing: Creativity, positive attention

Field Trips: Variety (not boring)

Step 3: Rules. The next step was to find out what unspoken rules the boy had set up to provide circumstances that met those values.

Let’s look at his rules around acceptance. I asked, “What does it need to look like at recess for you to feel accepted by the other kids?”

The boy made a list with me. He said getting picked to be the dodgeball captain, getting to make the rules, win the game and being congratulated by others.

It was clear that this boy liked to feel important and noticed. We discovered if these expectations weren’t all met (and they rarely were), he went in from recess feeling hurt and angry. He acted out almost every day after recess.

Step 4: Three easier ways to meet a value. Instead of his strict “rules,” I helped the boy come up with three other ways to meet his need for acceptance and positive attention at recess.

First, to teach others a new game they don’t know yet but he does. Second, to make an effort to congratulate winners and thank them for playing. And third, ask someone to play catch or a game with just he and one other child.

In other areas of needing positive attention, like wanting a gold star so badly that he would act out if he didn’t, we brainstormed three other ways to meet that value. I emphasized ways that he could contribute to others.

Bring a sticker to school and give it to someone else that he thought did well on the assignment.

Stay after to help clean up the room.

Ask the teacher what he could do better next time.

The opportunity to give back or help someone else feel better took the focus off his negative emotional state, giving the situation new meaning and a new action for his body.

Helping our kids to notice their thoughts and emotions around what they value, understand the rules they use, and take a new action goes a long way in improving their SEL. And this will positively affect their academics.

Annie Keeling, MFA, of Grass Valley provides parent coaching and teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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