Creating an Effective Learning Environment

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Social, Emotional Competencies Can Benefit Children in All Areas

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by Susanna Palomares

We all want young people today to become the knowledgeable, responsible, empahtic citizens and leaders of tomorrow. The skills developed through social and emotional learning experiences are key to this outcome, and after‑school programs are an ideal venue for this development to take place.

Good after‑school programs recognize and address the multidimensional needs of children by providing engaging experiences that let children express their creativity, emotions, talents and sensitivities while they are developing the sense of self and well‑being necessary to function in a complex society. Every child who enters your after‑school program is a blend of emotional and cognitive intelligences, and each comes with his or her own unique experiences, skills and talents. Because children grow along multiple, interconnected pathways, they need varied opportunities to develop the ability to reason, investigate, solve problems, imagine and create. They need experiences that develop the social and emotional as well as the cognitive domains.

Why social and emotional learning is important

Children who are socially and emotionally competent – who manage their own feelings well and who recognize and respond effectively to the feelings of others – are at an advantage in every area of life, whether with family and peer relationships, school, sports or community and organizational pursuits. Children with well developed social and emotional skills are also more likely to lead happy and productive lives and to master the habits of mind that will assure them personal and career success as adults.

When a child's social and emotional needs are developed and nurtured, he or she tolerates frustration better, gets into fewer fights and engages in less self‑destructive behavior. They are healthier, less lonely, less impulsive and more focused. Relationships with others improve and so does academic achievement.

As Daniel Goleman states in his ground-breaking book, Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ, "If your emotional abilities aren't in hand, if you don't have self‑awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can't have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you aren't going very far."

Developing self‑awareness and social skills

Self‑awareness lets children manage their feelings and recover from bad moods more quickly. Children who are self‑aware can talk about such feelings as fear, frustration, excitement and envy, and can understand such feelings in others, too. It's through self‑awareness that children learn to identify and understand their internal feelings when they are feeling them. Through this, they learn to identify events that precipitate upsets and angry outbursts, how to bring their feelings back under control, and how to successfully manage their behaviors.

If they are fortunate, children are surrounded by people who give them attention, are actively involved in their lives and who model healthy, responsible, interpersonal behavior. It is through being treated well and observing and experiencing effective social interactions that children learn important skills in the art of forming relationships. Some of these core skills include empathy, listening, understanding nonverbal cues, responding appropriately to others, working cooperatively, and resolving conflicts. Self‑awareness and social skills, the heart of social and emotional learning, equip children to monitor their own expressions of emotion, attune to the ways others react, and fine‑tune their social behaviors to be effective in groups. When lacking development in these areas, young people are apt to make poor choices and be less effective in all areas of their lives.

These critical social and emotional skills can, and should, be taught. The acquisition of these skills is so important to the individual child and society that their development shouldn't be left to chance. Involving children in direct instruction and creating the supportive environments that foster these skills should be a guiding mission of all classrooms and after‑school programs.

Play's role in social‑emotional learning

One of the primary ways social and emotional skills are developed in children is through play. In the after‑school setting it should be play with a purpose! Guided lessons that allow children to be playfully and joyfully involved provide them opportunities to actively explore, manipulate and interact with their environment and with others. A lot of work and skill building is occurring when children play—they are learning to solve problems, make decisions, take turns, work in teams, (sometimes leading and sometimes following), express their opinions and ideas and listen to others. It's through this adult‑guided "play" that children can investigate, discover, take risks and create – all adding to their understanding of themselves, others and the world around them. The fun‑filled, hands‑on activities provided in Social Emotional Learning Activities for After‑School and Summer Programs give instructors concrete lessons so that children can enjoy play with a purpose.

Creating a supportive environment

In addition to their direct involvement in social and emotional learning experiences, the environment in which children spend their time is a co‑activator in the development of these skills. Providing a safe, supportive and emotionally engaging environment provides the fertile ground for the seeds of experience to germinate. This can be done by:

  1. Creating a place where children want to be. Ensure that your after‑school program provides an enjoyable place where young people can spend their time, where they feel welcome and safe and where everyone is treated with respect. Everyone wants to be in a place where they are happy, comfortable and having engaging, involving experiences.

  2. Encouraging social interaction. Humans are social beings, and most learning takes place in a social context. To boost learning, encourage interaction, sharing and teamwork. Child-to-child relationships matter, as do adult-child relationships. It is through our interconnectedness that we educate children to become fully developed people. Allow children to share, plan, design, create, problem solve and relate with one another. Social‑Emotional Learning Activities for After‑School and Summer Programs features more than 75 socially-engaging experiences to help you do just that.

  3. Encouraging creative and critical thinking. When working with children in any type of activity and asking questions, remember that you want the children to think about, process and learn from the experiences they are engaged in. Rather than wanting a "right" answer, encourage their creative thinking by accepting and supporting what the children say Real learning happens through the process of solving a problem, not from answering correctly

  4. Having fun. Emotions, laughter and just plain fun are all good for learning. Positive, engaging experiences lower stress and increase the availability of neurotransmitters needed by the brain for alertness and memory.

Social‑Emotional Learning Activities for After-School and Summer Programs is designed to promote learning by engaging the emotions through role‑play, music, art, games, movement and dance. By promoting fun, you help children learn and retain important life skills.

The activities in Social‑Emotional Learning Activities for After‑School and Summer Programs encourage positive interaction among children and between adults and children. Rather than a hit‑or‑miss approach, the book provides a coordinated and sequenced set of skill-development activities all presented in engaging, challenging and fun ways.

For social and emotional skills to be internalized, sufficient time must be focused on the learning experiences. New skills are rarely acquired from a single experience or lesson. Meaningful learning requires multiple experiences, repeated focus and active involvement or learning by doing. Lectures alone rarely produce growth and learning, but when young people get their bodies as well as their brains involved, much progress is made. This book provides an easy and effective way to bring social and emotional development to an after‑school program on a regular basis and in a meaningful way.

Susanna Palomares is the author of more than a dozen books, including Social‑Emotional Learning Activities for After‑School and Summer Programs.


To explore or purchase the book referenced in this article go to the link below.


Social–Emotional Learning Activities for After-School
and Summer Programs—

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