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What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning, often abbreviated as SEL among social workers, teachers and counselors, is one of the cornerstones of our curriculum at the UAS West Side Transition Academy. But what is SEL? You might think it has to do with learning about emotions or social interactions, and you’d be right, but it’s much more than that.


I spoke with Anita Schmidt, L.C.S.W., a social worker at the UAS Academy about SEL. Anita and her graduate student interns facilitate SEL groups at the Academy with transition students from West Side Chicago public high schools. These students, who range in age from 16-23, have autism and related challenges.


ABOVE: Anita leads an SEL session at the UAS Academy.


What is SEL?

Social-emotional learning includes many things and can look different depending on the person or population you are working with and their specific goals and can be delivered in a group or in an individual setting, both of which are provided here at UAS.


In a nutshell, students learn about emotions, behavior management and interpersonal skills which they can use at home, at work, or in other social settings.


I like to use a definition for SEL from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: SEL uses evidence-based techniques to help the learner acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.


For our students at the UAS Academy, SEL consists of a series of psychoeducational groups that aim to help students identify emotions in themselves and in others, expand their emotional lexicon so that they can accurately describe their emotions, and provide a kind of structure or system they can use to regulate and manage their emotions. Once students achieve competency with emotional self-awareness and management, we move on to topics such as self-advocacy, responsible decision making, problem-solving and conflict resolution.


Each week, we also have a process portion of our groups where we might start the conversation with a theme word, such as 'responsibility,' and allow the students to have a conversation using their growing interpersonal skills. The process portion is very lightly moderated, just to keep students from getting too far off track. Our SEL curriculum spans the entire school year, and we incorporate more complex materials as competency develops for each student.


Why do we engage in SEL with the population that comes to the Academy?


Persons with autism or related challenges are referred to as 'non-neurotypical' meaning their brains work a bit differently. Many non-neurotypical people struggle with social constructs that have been created by the neurotypical population. For instance, eye contact may make them uncomfortable, they may not read facial expressions or body language the same way, or sometimes they may have a really hard time with taking the perspective of another person. Someone with autism might assume that everyone in the room feels the same way that they do. Social encounters that neurotypical people find easy and take for granted can often be more difficult for non-neurotypical people.


Sensory perception can also be different in people with autism. Lights and sounds may be overstimulating for some people. Others may often feel under-stimulated and feel the need to 'stim' themselves by spinning, rocking, hand flapping or using fidget objects. For some, processing multiple sensory inputs is challenging while for others, it helps to have two inputs. For example, a teacher might think it's rude that a student is drawing in class, but that student may be listening just fine and the drawing is helping them process the class discussion. So differences in sensory processing and perceptions can make navigating life more difficult for our students. We aim to help them learn adaptive skills to help them be successful as they transition to independent living.


What does SEL look like?


Each group builds on what students learned in the previous group. In the beginning, we focus on identifying emotions. We use a system of zones ranging from red, to yellow to green to blue to help students categorize their emotions. As you might imagine, if you’re in the red zone you might be angry or frustrated while when you’re in the green zone, you’re happy, grounded, focused. The yellow zone is in between and the blue zone is where you might be ill or depressed, sad or just low energy. In addition to discussing how to identify what zone you’re in, we talk about techniques that can help move you toward the green zone.


Because we have a population of diverse learners, we use lots of pictures as well as music. For example, each student identifies a song that can help them get into the green zone.

As students demonstrate competence with emotional awareness and regulation, we introduce concepts such as problem-solving skills and conflict resolution. We explore strategies to use if a problem can’t be solved, such as mindfulness practices in order to accept what cannot be changed, rather than acting on difficult emotions. Throughout the school year, we continue to refer back to the color zones as a structure to help identify emotions, reactions and to reach our goals.


These tools are designed in part to help our non-neurotypical clients navigate a largely neurotypical world. However, it would be wrong to think that they are the ones who need to adjust to the world. Neurotypical people also need to shift their perspectives to incorporate neurodiverse perspectives, for instance by providing accommodations in the workplace or by being aware of and accepting their varied communication styles.


The techniques and ideas that are central to social-emotional learning can be used by anyone, but for neurodiverse young adults, these tools are especially helpful because of their unique challenges.

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