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Why Social Emotional Learning Requires UDL

Alex Norton
Alex Norton
May 6, 2021

We’ve all read and heard about social emotional learning numerous times over the past several years, but I don’t think anyone has stated it in such clear, simple terms as the TED talk video, How Social-Emotional Learning Benefits Everyone from Caige Jambor. In the talk, Jambor points out that we shouldn’t be asking, “What’s wrong with you?” when students struggle but instead, we should be asking, “What happened to you”?

My students are a compilation of all the things that came before the moment they enter my class. Loads of good things (I hope), and some not so good things. This past impacts the behaviors I see today. So, how do I work with this unknown past in order to help my students succeed, and without causing them a ton of stress? Caige said it already – pause and take a few deep breaths. 

As I reflected on my own practice as a teacher who is committed to UDL, I realized the power and privilege I have to provide flexible pathways to support my students. Two specific examples come to mind. My first example involves a student who frequently submits empty assignments. When I recognized this pattern, I immediately got into “teacher mode” to help the student by showing them how to submit their work. They are super cooperative and say they will try harder, and all is good with the world. A few days later, the student submits another empty assignment. Their counselor brings it up and asks me to help them. I am flummoxed as I have already shown them numerous times. Rather than get frustrated, I decide to take a wait and see approach. Sure enough, this student ends up going back and resubmitting almost all of their work – three to five days late. And, it’s good work – thoughtful, creative, “A” quality work. In the meantime, they have submitted two more assignments with nothing attached.

If I were stressed out, or get frustrated easily, this could become a real problem for both me and the student. Instead, I recognized that this student just takes longer to process some of their assignments. Last week, we completed several animation assignments. All three from this student were late. But, the day after the last one was due, the student turned in all three assignments. I could tell they were proud of their work, especially the one where students created a fire animation. So, what do I do? Should I mark off a ton of late points, or not accept the work? Who does that really help? Instead, I give them three A’s and complement their efforts, reminding them that I am here to help them if they ever have any issues with their assignments. I’m calm, they’re calm, and they learned what I wanted them to learn.

My next example also just happened. I had my students create a blueprint of either their current home or one they dream of owning someday. In their home, they are supposed to identify where they will put a router (or routers) so they have good internet signal where they typically use their devices. Some students drew a plan, others used online tools like paint, and some super creative students used more sophisticated software to create realistic blueprints. On a side note, one student even created a 2D/3D model I could virtually walk through. I digress. Anyway, one of my students emailed me the day before their project was due, that they were having some trouble with the software they were using. They had one floor done, but when they clicked on the plus sign to create a second floor, all of their previous work was deleted. I could tell they were stressed and told them not to worry, I’d extend the due date a couple of days. They thanked me. A few days later, this same student emails me frantically that the same thing happened. They were sure they had figured out how to use the software and really wanted to include both floors of their home. I could tell they were so done with this assignment, but they offered to draw the blueprint. Instead, I asked them what type of router they would use, where they would put it, and why? After they responded, I told them they were done and got an A. The assignment wasn’t about designing an amazing blueprint, it was about understanding the limitations of networks and routers. 

I guess my point is that I, as the teacher, need to keep my focus on the actual goal for my assignments. My responses can help my students learn and produce quality work, or my responses can be hurtful and cause them to shut down. When I am stressed or frustrated, it might be harder to keep this in focus. Because of this, I need to do what I can to keep my stress levels down. Taking walks, getting decent sleep, eating healthy food and spending time with my friends – these aren’t just important for me, but they are important for my relationships and how I interact with my students. And they are critical if I am going to continue to universally design my learning experience and support the academic and social emotional needs of my students.

Take your learning to the next level; learn how to improve student outcomes. Explore how to create an environment that fosters social, emotional, behavioral, and academic growth using both UDL and SEL in your learning environment: How SEL and UDL Intersect.

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