School Resources

The role of social connection, self-regulation and motivation in student achievement and wellbeing

In a webinar with The Education Hub, Claire Chuter from John Hopkins University in the USA talked about the importance of the different mindsets, skills and competencies that constitute social emotional learning, or SEL, and how they can be integrated into teaching and learning. 

The three pillars of social emotional learning 

Social emotional learning describes the mindsets and skills that students need in order to thrive in their life and learning. While SEL covers a broad range of categories, the three core pillars of social emotional learning are social connectionmotivation and self-regulation. Importantly, each of them is malleable – in other words, they can be developed and enhanced. 

  • Social connection with peers and teachers at school is important for students because it helps to buffer the stresses of school and boost students’ resilience. It keeps students engaged and promotes attendance. Feeling a sense of belonging, and of being valued for being your authentic self, is essential for academic success. 
  • Motivation is the drive that keeps students going. Research has shown that motivated students think categorically differently about their goals to unmotivated students, and that they continue to think about their learning beyond the classroom. 
  • Self-regulation involves students’ ability to regulate their time, attention and emotions. Self-regulation can be compared to the dials on a radio, helping students to dial up their attention in relation to particular tasks while tuning out distractions, or to dial down emotions like frustration by using strategies such as positive self-talk. Self-regulation supports and promotes students’ academic success. 

Strategies for promoting social emotional learning at the school and individual level 

School leaders and teachers can promote and enhance social connection by: 

  • Having clear and consistent school-wide policies around things like bullying, and involving students in developing these policies 
  • Modelling and explicitly teaching perspective-taking, conflict management strategies, positive self-talk, and breathing techniques 
  • Being open and honest about mental illness 
  • Being a safe person for students to approach with concerns and problems 
  • Ensuring the curriculum represents stories and perspectives of all cultures in the school 

Teachers can promote and grow motivation by: 

  • Designing tasks and activities with a Goldilocks level of difficulty, which is optimal for motivation 
  • Building in an element of student choice 
  • Designing tasks and activities with a Goldilocks level of difficulty, which is optimal for motivation 
  • Building in an element of student choice 

Teachers can support and promote self-regulation by: 

  • Explicitly teaching students backwards planning – in other words, having them work backwards from their due dates to plan their workload and monitor progress towards their goals and deadlines 
  • Ensuring that students practise using these skills themselves (rather than teachers doing the planning and monitoring for them) 

It is better to learn all these strategies in practice rather than in theory, and the evidence suggests that embedding SEL strategies in all teaching and learning programmes is more effective than using a programmatic approach that sequesters SEL from learning activities. Teacher modelling is a highly effective and powerful method of promoting the development of students’ social emotional learning skills and mindsets. 

Measuring and monitoring SEL 

It is important to measure how well schools are doing at promoting social emotional learning. This can be done once or twice a year using formal tools such as Panorama surveys, as well as more frequently using informal classroom-based checks such as exit cards that ask questions like ‘do you have a trusted adult to talk to?’ and ’do you persevere to achieve your goals?’ Some questions, particularly those relating to motivation, should be asked in relation to particular subjects and curriculum areas rather than applied broadly. 

If students are struggling academically, the following questions might help teachers to identify barriers to their engagement and achievement: 

  • How are the student’s relationships? 
  • What are the student’s goals? 
  • What strategies is the student using to regulate their attention and emotions? 
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