From education to employment

Social and emotional learning in education – Meeting young people’s life challenges​

Dr Leila Khouja Walker, Educator, Researcher and Co-Founder of Persona Education

 Dr Leila Khouja Walker, Educator, Researcher and Co-Founder of Persona Education discusses the importance of social-emotional learning for secondary students in light of the pandemic

The last 18 months have seen a renewed interest in social-emotional learning (SEL) due to the overwhelming impact of the pandemic on student wellbeing. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for greater innovation in SEL delivery, with the education sector recognising the pressing need to equip young people with the ‘soft’ skills required to meet life challenges.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is not new to education. The concept of a holistic curriculum is over 2,000 years old but today it is more relevant than ever. The life challenges that young people face through their early, middle and later stages of education are now different, and the threats to their wellbeing much more varied.

Purposeful SEL must meet children’s modern needs, be sensitive to their unique life stages and adopt pedagogical pathways that can be applied universally, boosting wellbeing and leaving no child or young adult behind.

The long-term benefits of supporting good wellbeing among teenagers cannot be overlooked; they include higher educational attainment, more success in competitive situations such as job interviews or university applications, better life choices, higher productivity in work, and greater life satisfaction. SEL techniques can help us to ensure teenagers’ wellbeing needs are met so that these benefits are realised.

Conscious adaptation

Wellbeing needs work, and for teenagers in secondary school or college, the mental and social aspects are often the most challenging.

The part of our brains that contributes to personality development continues to develop until the early to mid 20s, so the processes that this area of the brain handles can change dramatically during the teenage years. These include social cognition, self-regulation, cognitive control and emotional regulation.

Fortunately, these processes are potentially open to conscious adaptation. Understanding, trying out and practising this adaptability can help teenagers to achieve more positive outcomes in the day-to-day life challenges they face.

Developing life skills

Social contact is the number one topic of interest for most teenagers, including relationships with friends, teachers, classmates, parents, siblings, sports teammates and more. These all have a huge impact on wellbeing too, and they all depend heavily upon effective communication and appropriate behaviour in different situations.

Developing an awareness and understanding of their own mix of personality styles, and other people’s, helps young people to improve the life skills that can make or break the success of their relationships. These essential skillsets include capabilities such as being realistic, communication skills, being open-minded, problem solving, being resilient and self-control, which can all be taught through SEL activities.

Learning to recognise and use these skillsets is a route to the conscious adaptability that can help teenagers to achieve positive outcomes in relationships of all kinds, from friendship groups to getting along with teachers, as well as short but important interactions when they are older such as job interviews.

Practical thinking

At Persona Education, we have developed thinking frameworks such as the personality styles concept, which offers young people an approach they can use to develop, accelerate and deepen their learning and application of social-emotional life skills.

The Persona thinking framework is based on four personality styles, which are descriptive, positive and rapidly internalised. We call these styles: Animated, Decisive, Rational and Sociable.

The four styles are derived from observing two fundamental aspects of thinking, communication and behaviour: Assertiveness and Responsiveness.

  • Assertiveness reflects how much someone tends to make statements or ask questions
  • Responsiveness reflects how much someone tends to focus on people or tasks

Combining these two aspects gives us an insight into anyone’s mix of personality styles. We call this their Persona.

  • Task focused and asks more questions > Rational
  • Task focused and makes more statements > Decisive
  • People focused and makes more statements > Animated
  • People focused and asks more questions > Sociable

Your Persona is about 50% determined by your genes, and 50% by external factors such as your school, friends and experiences. Some people have a more focused Persona than others, who may have a more balanced mix of styles.

For teenagers, their Persona is very likely to change as they navigate their teenage years, as they are still exploring how they see themselves and how they want the world to see them.

One of the most attractive aspects of using this type of personality insights approach to developing life skills is that there is no attainment ladder, no good or bad. Every student is equal, because none of the styles is seen as any better or worse than the others.

In fact, everyone has a unique mix of styles. Regardless of how focused or broad that mix is, everyone can identify positive characteristics to nurture, and growth areas to consider.

For example, many younger secondary school aged children have a mix of personality styles, focused around the Animated style with some Rational characteristics which come into play when they are more relaxed.

Animated style characteristics include being imaginative, talking about ideas and feelings, and relishing experiences. Rational characteristics include information gathering, analysing factual evidence, and taking time to reflect upon it.

Some of the adaptations young people with this combination of styles might consider employing to improve their communication and their relationships include more active listening, trying not to interrupt, being realistic with ideas and tasks, not overbearing others who may be less confident, and trying to be more patient, organised and disciplined.

Making SEL age appropriate

The teenage years span seven years of observing, experiencing and reflecting upon a wide range of life challenges, many specific to age and development stage.

To be meaningful and practical, SEL provision must be contextualised around specific life events common to teenagers. Teachers and students can then choose those that are most appropriate and relevant for them at a particular time of their life.

Early teenage stage (13-15 years old) learning modules might include dealing with friendships and managing social media, whilst later stage (16-19 years old) modules might steer towards key life transitions, for example, preparing for exams and interviews, transitioning into further education, or dealing with your first job.

Of course, we must take care not to assume the relationship between age and development stage is the same for all teenagers. Some will develop quicker than others, whilst some may stay at a particular stage for some time before moving on.

Considering age, development stage, life challenges being faced, and the wellbeing needs of the individual, are all important for delivering successful social-emotional learning in the teenage years.

Dr Leila Khouja Walker has been working in the education sector for 25 years. An ex-teacher and pastoral deputy head, she is now a respected edtech and pedagogy thought-leader, leading development of the personality insights social-emotional learning app Persona Life Skills, at Bristol (UK) based edtech company Persona Education.

Leila and her team at Persona Education are knowledge partners of the WISE Edtech Accelerator. Alongside partners like them, the WISE edtech team are able to better understand the learning landscape across edtech and in turn, create a global community of edtech specialists focused on accelerating learning innovation.

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