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Leadership Insights

Engaging Families in Social-Emotional Learning

By Jennifer Gunn May 21, 2018

Daniel Goleman, the author of the book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, states that “Family life is our first school for emotional learning.“ It’s through family that “we learn how to feel about ourselves and how others will react to our feelings; how to think about these feelings and what choices we have in reacting.”

No matter the family structure—whether students are living with two parents, single parents, extended family, foster families, or others—the adults at home play a critical role in shaping the emotional life of our students. That means that building bridges between schools, families, and communities can make a serious impact on our students’ social-emotional learning. Here’s some advice on how to start building those bridges.

Share SEL information with parents

The best social-emotional learning strategies for students can’t just exist in school. A student may learn amazing anger-management techniques at school but if the two worlds aren’t connected, that student will fail to use them at home. Schools can encourage continuity at home by sharing emotional strategies and SEL language and activities used in school with parents. This can happen through a simple letter sent home, through regular email newsletters, and/or postings on a school website. The goal is to make parents and families aware of the social-emotional learning that’s happening in school and openly share resources they can use at home to bolster that growth.

Some SEL resources for parents

Host social-emotional workshops for parents

SEL is a learning priority not only for students but for parents as well.  According to the Handbook of School-Family Partnerships to Promote Social and Emotional Learning by Sandra Christenson and Amy Reschly, SEL programs are more effective when they are extended into the home. Hosting workshops for parents on things like listening, anger-management, self-esteem building, mindfulness, and relationship building can help students and parents build stronger interpersonal relationships and reduce stress. The skills students learn in school will more readily translate into the home and likely become more deeply rooted into their long-term emotional development. Where can you find the time for these classes? Workshops can happen throughout the year in the evenings, or during existing events like Parent-Teacher conference nights or PTA Meetings.

Bring the outside in

Every community has experts who want to help kids and families. Work together with your PTA or as a staff to invite outside organizations and speakers to work with parents and students. Make community connections and open up a world of resources for your school families. Partnerships may include after-school providers, health-care professionals, community-based organizations, official agencies, or nonprofit organizations, according to Erin Harris and Shani Wilkes in Partnerships for Learning: Community Support for Youth Success (2013). Bring in that community center to make your school families aware of the many resources available to them. Host classes, community nights, or even a guest speaker series. Be the bridge between your community and its resources.

Bring the learning to the families

Sometimes parents just can’t get to school. Whether they live far away from the school, have work obligations, a disability, or other family members to care for—getting to school for meetings or events can be impossible for many families. For others, language barriers prevent parents from feeling comfortable attending school events. Some schools have found success in reaching families through home visits and in-neighborhood events. If the school is far away from where many students’ families reside, host meetings at a more convenient location for those families.

Home visits as a meetup option

Consider setting up home visits to meet with and share resources with families on their home turf. Bringing SEL learning to families where they are can build long-lasting partnerships and develop unique insights into the lives of students. Home visits can also illuminate student needs that educators may otherwise remain unaware of, and can help break down barriers between families and learning institutions.

Home visits require good preparation. Here are some helpful resources for beginning this practice:

When schools and families truly work together, students thrive. Check out these additional resources on social-emotional learning:

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also cofounder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation, and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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