Unbabbled Episode 4: Social-Emotional Learning

Beyond Academics: Social-Emotional Learning with Renee Attaway

According to today’s research, you need two things to be successful in adulthood, and grades aren’t one of them – social competence and grit. In this episode, nationally-recognized speaker on Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking® methodology and founder of the Social Learning program at The Parish School, Renee Attaway, discusses social-emotional learning, and its far-reaching impact on a child’s development. Our team discusses how social isn’t just about playing together on the playground, but also how the social world plays into academics, and how to support social-emotional learning at home and in the classroom.


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Stephanie:                        00:05                   Hello and welcome to Unbabbled a podcast that navigates the world of special education, communication delays and learning differences. We are your hosts, Stephanie Landis and Meredith Krimmel and we're certified speech language pathologist who spend our days at The Parish School in Houston helping children find their voices and connect with the world around them. Today we'll be speaking with Renee attaway, certified speech language pathologist and the founder of the social learning program at The Parish School. Renee currently has a private practice where she runs social groups for elementary, middle and high school aged children as well as adults. In addition to her private practice, Renee's a member of the social thinking, training and speakers collaborative where she travels the country speaking and giving trainings to professionals and parents. During our chat, Renee will explain what social emotional learning is and why it is so important for all children. Give Red flags for a child who may have social, emotional difficulties and discuss a few ways parents and educators can support social emotional development. Hello Renee, welcome. We're so glad to have you here today. Thank you. We're so excited to talk to you about social emotional learning and, and the importance of it within the classroom setting and at home. Let's start off with having you describe a little bit about what social emotional learning is since it may be a new term for many of our listeners.

Renee:                               01:22                   Of course, social emotional learning is the process by which children or adults learn about self management, about problem solving, about self awareness, uh, reading other people's cues and empathy, really anything to do with emotional intelligence.

Stephanie:                        01:39                   Very cool. So with that, can you explain how a child might look if they're having difficulties with social emotional learning? Just some red flags.

Renee:                               01:47                   Oh, of course. Typically you'll see from a pretty early age that they're not reading cues from other people around them, that they might walk into a situation and not really understand those hidden rules that we all kind of follow. And No, maybe they stand out as not really doing what the other people around them are doing. They may stand out as people are children who are, um, doing things that really impact other people in a negative way. Maybe giving other people uncomfortable thoughts or doing things that annoy others and it seems out of step with what is typical for that age. The other thing you'll see is that they're not great at managing their own emotions. Typically you'll see bigger reactions to smaller problems and they don't seem to get back into control as quickly as other kids their age. You also might see a lack of play. They don't really know how to create collaborative play with other people and that translates as they get older too. They may not be able to engage in conversations and hanging out the same way as other people around them.

Stephanie:                        02:44                   So for say a three year old who's in a preschool setting, there might start off with a difference in play.

Renee:                               02:51                   Yes.

Stephanie:                        02:52                   Okay. How might that look?

Renee:                               02:53                   So you might see them playing alone a lot. So you might see them not really aware of the other children in the room and often they may be more interested in objects then they are the p in the people in the room. You may also see that they've been in a classroom, they should know what to do. And what to expect, but yet they have to be explicitly told a lot sometimes to go and join the group to know to be able to follow the directions, to be able to attend to what's important in the room. They may get distracted by things inside their own brain a bit more. You can also see that perhaps they do enter the play, but they stay in their own ideas quite a bit. Or maybe they dominate it and they don't really know how to engage with other people and follow other people's ideas and it comes so intuitively.

Stephanie:                        03:39                   Too many kids as they're aging. The other day I dropped my son who is two off at his little preschool classroom and we walked in a little bit late and the kids in the group were painting on the floor using trucks instead of paint brushes and he was so incited. He watched, he looked, he immediately ran to the center where they got the trucks, grabbed his own truck and then ran and joined the group and instead of jumping into the kids play turn waited next to the other like for kids that were waiting there and I thought, oh my gosh, this is what reading the cues and figuring things out it looks like. Right, so can you explain maybe a little bit about how it would look if he had stepped that?

Renee:                               04:16                   Probably it would have looked like he would have just ran in and grabbed the trucks and started in in the activity without really noticing what was expected or whose turn it was or what should he be doing. I have students that might walk in and just go to an entirely different part of the room and start playing with a new object or maybe they just get into the play and then maybe he would have taken it over and had a different idea and not really followed the idea. I think we take for granted though for our students on how much of this is intuitive versus how much of this is not intuitive for these students were thinking about today. So many of them just they, it's not that they don't want to, it's that they really aren't born with that neurological ability to easily read that situation.

Stephanie:                        05:01                   What are some of the kind of difficulties that a child might have that might impede their ability to engage in social emotional learning?

Renee:                               05:12                   While there are many, many different diagnoses or labels that come with a social learning challenge, some of those can be autism spectrum disorder, which formerly could have been high functioning autism, it could have been Asperger's, it could have been PDV. Some of those were more common in the past, but autism spectrum disorder of course. Um, we also have like Adhd, many of those students can talk about social all day long, but in the moment it's hard for them to read everything and regulate their own emotions and also their, their own actions. Gifted and talented. Just because your IQ is high in no way means that your emotional intelligence will be high. So we often can see challenges in that group. Nonverbal learning disorder, uh, emotional challenges, learning disabilities. There's so many that can come with a social learning challenge as well.

Meredith:                         06:03                   I think a lot of people hear social learning and they think, well social just being around other kids and they don't realize the impact it has on academics. Can you explain a little bit about how your social emotional learning can impact your academics and how you learned in the classroom?

Renee:                               06:17                   Right, of course. So part of it is that we take for granted what it takes. First of all, just to share space in a classroom. Really, social is not necessarily about playing on the playground. It's actually about sharing space with others. So thinking about how much it takes in a classroom to share space with each other, to understand what is the teacher's intention, what are the directions they're supposed to be following, um, to read the cues from the other peers around them, to understand that their mind is not the only mind in that classroom. Also to just realize like what are the changing hidden rules from teacher to teacher? That's why so many of our young students struggle. Maybe they do well in their classroom, but then they go to PE or art or in class that has an entirely different rule system and they really struggle in that. So that's the first layer. But then really if a child is struggling to read cues, if they're not figuring out well what other people are thinking or feeling or what their plans or motives are, what happens is that same ability to figure out those cues and to read other people's thoughts and emotions and motives is the same ability you need to read a character's thoughts and emotions in reading comprehension or to understand an author's motive. In academics, this is often called point of view and so you'll see that fall apart. The other thing is every single time I figured out someone else's thoughts, it's an inference and so much of the social world we learned through inferencing, reading between the lines and inferencing is vital for reading comprehension. It's vital for answering so many of the academic questions. And then finally I would say there's something called gestalt.

Renee:                               07:50                   We have to see a big picture. We have to understand what the big picture is and what's important and what small details fit into the big picture, which aren't important. That ability translates to be you being able to write an essay to you being able to study to you being able to find a main idea. And so if our students are struggling with conversation and maybe they're giving too many details and they're not really getting to the point or they can't do a narrative, often that translates very directly into not being able to write an essay.

Meredith:                         08:18                   And at a more basic level, if you can't self regulate, you can't learn very much.

Renee:                               08:22                   And that's, that's more the obvious one, right? Yeah. If you, if you're falling apart in the classroom, how could you possibly learn in a group?

Stephanie:                        08:28                   And we've seen a number of families who as their child comes in, that math might've been a strong suit for them when it was really concrete in the younger years. But even first, second grade math now is having word problems where they put in extra information or you have to make an inference on what they're actually asking you to solve for and we're finding that some of these kids who had really strong solid math skills, once you add in that component of language and that social emotional learning to it are starting to struggle in math as well.

Renee:                               09:00                   I think we see that across academics. I definitely have a big population of clients and students who did well very early on when the academics were quite rote. When you learn sound symbol association, when you learn the letters, when you learned the numbers and you could count, all of those things are quite rote. What happens though, and especially it used to be around third or fourth grade, it actually now is somewhere between second and third grade. There's a major shift to abstract learning and abstract abilities are necessary for you to fully understand the academics after really about second grade and so word problems become predominant. My son is in third grade and he just learned geometry. He just learned major fractions and things that took a lot of abstract thinking for him to fully understand. The reading comprehension questions for instance, have gotten much more complicated. And so that's why so many students can look really great at the very beginning. But then as they shift to this higher level, more abstract learning, they don't do as well. And that's really frustrating.

Meredith:                         10:00                   So if we get, we start noticing some of those red flags early, like playing alone, having trouble reading the cues of a room and reading the room even though they might be doing well academically. What I'm hearing you saying is maybe we should start stepping in and doing some intervention at that young stage yet. So tell me some of the things that we can do to help these young students. So maybe they can be more successful down the line.

Renee:                               10:22                   Of course. Well, actually there's a mandate across the United States, many other countries called social emotional learning because first of all, every student can benefit from this. And we definitely have a wider group of students needing it now through the increasing technology uses, kids aren't playing as much, so kids are actually walking to school with many more social emotional challenges than they really ever have. But for this group, we're talking about students who intuitively do not read the social world the way they should. They're intuitively not walking into a situation and seeing what's expected or understanding what's important or what to focus on. Maybe they're not intuitively reading the cues and figuring out other people's thoughts.

Renee:                               11:02                   So for these students, they need explicit direct and deep teaching and that really looks like laying it out step by step. Starting actually out of such a basic level. You would never even think to start there with teaching students to figure out other people's thoughts, teaching them that others have thoughts. And then we have to figure that out. So the intervention really starts at a level of, hey, I have thoughts, you have thoughts, we have thoughts about each other. We can change each other's thoughts. So we start there. We also start teaching them about things like a group plan that hey, there's a group in the room and they have a plan and we're supposed to be figuring out that plan. We teach them to read cues. So intervention should again be super explicit. You can't just tell a student that's struggling with these things, hey, care about someone else.

Renee:                               11:48                   You know the this other person is sad. You should feel bad for that. You should help them. That's not going to do the work. You actually have to teach them. How do they read the cues? How do they know the child is sad? How do, how do they understand what happened to cause that child to feel sad? And then what are their strategies and ways they can handle the situation and problem solve themselves. So it has to be explicit. And there are many social emotional programs available. The one of course that I use is Social Thinking. And that's when I also speak for and have used for many years because it is so explicit and deep enough that I think we can get to a level that is needed for these students.

Stephanie:                        12:25                   So you've used the term, I'm having a kid look for cues. Can you give us just a basic list of what some of the cues you have students clue into?

Renee:                               12:33                   Of course. So typically we figure out other people's thoughts, emotions, motives, feelings, all of those things through first of all, looking at their faces. Generally that's going to be your first. You're gonna look at facial expressions. I'm going to use my eyes. I'm going to follow your eyes to see what you're looking at and what you're thinking about. I'm going to look at your body language. I'm going to figure out what sort of, what is your body saying? I'm going to, um, listen to the intonation in your voice. How you said something. I'm also going to think about what I know about you because my past experiences with you and your personality also guides me to figure out what's really happening and how I should read this or interpret this certain situation. I'm also going to listen to your words and watch your actions to interpret. So really we are social detectives in this. That's how we read cues. We have to take all of these clues, put them together, and then we make a guess. We make an inference, we interpret so that we can then figure out, hey, what is this person really thinking right now?

Stephanie:                        13:32                   So for a parent or teacher who may be starting to notice some of these uh, flags or I already have this area identified for their child is an area of weakness, what are a few simple things that they can start doing at home or in the classroom to start supporting their child or student?

Renee:                               13:52                   Are we thinking about elementary level or any level?

Stephanie:                        13:55                   We can start with elementary. Yeah.

Renee:                               13:58                   Elementary or preschool level. And probably this is the same for other levels as well. First step is really to talk about thoughts we have to make, what we is sort of internal for us and what's intuitive for us. More direct and more explicit. So that means I'm not going to assume that because I easily figure out if someone else's thoughts the student in front of me or this child does as well. So at that point I want to make sure that I'm talking about my thoughts. I am narrating the social world for them. So for instance, let's say I'm taking a s my own child to the park and my child is a third grader and someone else, maybe they get in an argument with someone else about a toy. I'm not just going to tell him, okay, give the toy back, do this. I'm going to talk to him about, hey, he feels sad right now. Look at his face. He's, he's upset. I wonder why he's upset and we're going to talk about he's upset because he had wanted a turn and you've been playing for quite a while. I wonder if we can change his thoughts, what could we do? And so it's a very problem solving base, but I'm actually going to narrate what I think other people are thinking. Or I'm, I might take a student at a birthday party who's really overwhelmed and I might just pull them back and talk about, okay, let's watch what's happening. Let's watch the group. So this group is thinking about this, this group is thinking about this and I'm going to make sure that I'm really narrating the world around them that we assume they get, but they might not be seeing. So that's first level. The other thing you can do is really make sure that you're giving them chances to figure out other people's thoughts when they're not involved. So that might be like take TV shows, whatever TV show they're into or books you're reading with them. Picture books are great for this and stop as you're reading or as you're watching and ask what the character's thinking about, what's the character feeling, what are the characters, thoughts about this other person? And just helping them to sort of decipher this world that's quite abstract in a way that feels comfortable for them and they're not currently involved. That's the first step. There's many other steps after this, but I think this is a place to start.

Stephanie:                        15:49                   Yeah, that sounds practical and simple and easy for people start getting into now.

Meredith:                         15:56                   Can we get back to Stephanie's example earlier about her own son in the classroom and how he ran in with the trucks and we talked about what the missteps might look like if a child was struggling with social emotional learning. Can we walk through ways that the teacher or the parent could support that child in that situation? So if a child is walking in and just jumping in there and disrupting everyone else's play, I think a lot of teachers might see that as a behavior problem. You know, you need to leave the group, go to timeout, come back when you're ready to share. What's some other language that they could use to support that and really help the child learn the skill versus just a punitive approach.

Renee:                               16:29                   Right. And I do think that's common. I think when we see students struggle with these things we've been talking about, it looks like a behavioral problem at first glance, but we know that these behaviors are actually occurring because of their social challenge. So at that point, I think first of all, I don't try to talk through this and reason with a student who's very angry. So if they're very angry, I'm going to give them time to calm down, time to get back into their regulation. I'm going to give them a break, whatever they need to get calm and then, or let's say that they are calm or let's say in that moment they are not upset. At that point I'm going to pull them back and I'm going to ask them to observe. And so I might say, okay, let's take a look. What is the group thinking about right now? And I'm going to now ask them just to watch and then we'll say, okay, they're thinking about truck now what's the group plan? Let's see. They're taking the truck and they are, you know, running it through the paint. That looks like the group plan right now. What could you do as part of the group plan and so I'm going to slow them down. I'm going to have them observe and then try to get an idea of what's expected in that situation. We also have something in social thinking we teach called a social behavior map and you can Google this on the social thinking.com website, but it's a way also to break down for students that are repeatedly struggling. Like let's say we have a student who every time they're in circle really does the same sorts of behaviors to either get out of the circle or they don't know how to participate in a circle or they're disrupting the circle. You can stop and actually begin teaching now what's expected for circle time, they are very specific behaviors we generally expect during circle time. Let's say we're in a, how old is your son again? I believe he said he was two happy with him. They a preschool classroom. We can start teaching very early. Hey, what's expected in circle? Well, it's expected that we sit on our spot. It's expected that our body is very still as much as we can make it.

Renee:                               18:17                   It's expected. We keep our hands to ourself. It's expected that we think about the teacher, we let the teacher talk. So I'm going to make, so a couple of things, I'm going to make it very explicit. I'm going to make sure that I'm giving them what is expected. I'm going to help the student pull back and observe. I'm going to give the student ideas of how can they participate in that, what's expected for them, and then I'm going to problem solve with them. Let's say the student is like, no, I don't want to use a truck. You know, I want to use this train. Well, I can be flexible as a teacher at this point. I can easily say, oh, maybe we don't need a train. You know, a truck. Maybe we need a train. Maybe we need a bus, maybe we need an airplane. And so I'm going to work with the student in their own creativity to try to keep them doing what's expected, which is I need them to put some sort of transportation in this paint and stay in the group.

Meredith:                         19:00                   Do you find when you're teaching this, sometimes the language is a little high for the younger students or maybe our language delayed students and if so, how do you kind of approach this with them taking out some of the language?

Renee:                               19:11                   That's a tough thing because I'm definitely, the work we're talking about is very language based. So for those students though, a lot of times they're, if they're language delayed than a lot of their frustration is they don't have the language to navigate that situation. They're struggling maybe to understand it or they're struggling to navigate. So for those students, I'm going to use much slower language. I'm going to chunk my language and keep it short. I'm going to make sure that they're thinking about me with her eyes as I'm talking, I'm going to use lots of animation. And the other trick I use a lot with these younger students or even older students who struggle with language delays, is I draw. I'll do a whole lot of drawing and I might draw the whole situation for them and then show them. And I've not yet had a student that didn't respond to that because I think once you make it visual, it's much easier. If I can't get control in that situation, I really can't get them to um, participate in an expected way. Then I'm going to keep that in my brain and I'm going to work later to start teaching that on. We're going to role play for even in language delay student, I'm going to draw it out for them. I'm going to give them ways and then we're going to replay that situation so they can have a chance to come in to the situation, figure out how to do what's expected and join the group.

Meredith:                         20:23                   Is there anything else that you think would be really important for teachers or parents to know about social emotional learning and ways to support it or at home or in school?

Renee:                               20:31                   I think that probably the biggest thing, and I don't think we mentioned this, is just we live in a world where academics are the important points, right? We think in our heads that if students just read and if we can get him reading and we can get him making good grades, there'll be fine for adulthood. But the truth is research pretty clearly shows at this point that you need two things to be successful in adulthood and grades are not one of them. Social competence, so being able to do all of this social emotional learning stuff we've been talking about. And also something called Grit, which means persevere. Keep at it are the two things you really need an adulthood. So as we're looking at our younger students, even as a mom, I've had been told over and over by society and everything I read that man, my kid better be smart or they won't be okay. But as a society and as parents and as teachers, we have to value social, emotional learning. We have to realize that one of our greatest jobs is to teach this and to inspire this in our students and to take time to walk this journey with them and help them to see the social world around them, to help them have an opportunity to get better at things like empathy and reading cues and problem solving and that kids aren't born always with the immediate ability to do it. We know some students are more intuitive but in this world of technology and world where kids aren't really practicing this before they walk into school, we have to make sure that we're giving them chances to teach it. There are many social emotional learning programs out there for mainstream students. You can look at casel.org for many examples of programs like responsive classroom and open circle.

Renee:                               22:11                   Social thinking - I would also encourage you to look at the website, socialthinking.com this is a very, explicit, direct, deep teaching approach for teaching our students social, emotional learning in a way that really helps them to go deep and have many, many opportunities to practice and think about this. So don't assume that academics are everything. Take time for this. Don't assume that the child in your classroom that is struggling just woke up that day and wanted to make your life miserable. I swear they did not. Um, they really are struggling with this stuff and just because our brains make it easy, it doesn't mean their brains do. And so we need to really try to understand what's going on and take time to help them and to teach them and to give them strategies that will help them succeed and really dig deeper as to why they're struggling.

Stephanie:                        22:55                   And I'm really encouraged. I think that more and more schools are starting to recognize that the pendulum swung a little too far the other way as they pushed play out and pushed in more time for reading and math and drill that they're starting to bring back in some social emotional programs into we've seen in public school classrooms is they're noticing that it's a skill that's important for every single student out there and especially important for kids who are just neurologically not wired to pick up on those things.

Meredith:                         23:24                   Yeah, it's really cool. Some of the social thinking conferences I've been to, there's whole school districts out there who are implementing social thinking into their, their classrooms, which I just think is great. Kind of like you were saying, Stephanie, the pendulum's Kinda swinging back and hopefully we can support these students more.

Renee:                               23:37                   We actually get to see a lot of data as I'm speaking for social thinking with whole school districts that are implementing this and under SEL learning, but also PBIS, positive behavioral intervention supports schools more and more realizing that they've got to create this positive community. They've got a value, social emotional learning. So my favorite conferences I get to do are the ones where it's an entire school district. And one of the ones that in recent memory, the principal was front row or my principal was taking justice frantic notes as everybody else, asks tons of questions, because the principals and the teachers do see a value for that. Yeah. They're realizing more and more they have to. And so I think, you know, if we all can work together as teachers and parents and professionals to really value this and help find resources, there are many out there. So, um, yes, I think we're, I think it's turning, but we're not quite there yet. The hope, yes. Where you're holding onto that. And I think we can make a difference if you're talking about this and valuing it. There's actually a great article called why social skills matter and it's by David Bornstein. I think he wrote it for the New York Times. So if you Google that, you can see there's so much research coming down on why the social skills are so important and why it matters in, in our children's life, not just for the playground, but also for getting a job, keeping a job, going to college and getting an apartment, getting an apartment. I mean, sharing space with other people. This matters.

Stephanie:                        25:03                   Hmm. Yeah. Thank you. We, you may have already touched on this, but we ask every one of our guests at the end to give us one piece of advice that they would love to leave with parents or educators. It can be directly related to what you spoke on today or it could be slightly related. Just something that you feel that you would like them to come away with knowing I probably have many pieces of like, yeah.

Renee:                               25:28                   Let's see. I think number one is don't wait. There's so many I could give you, but what I find is when it comes to social and all of the things we chatted about, parents and people around the parents tend to say a lot of things like, oh, he'll get it with age or one day he'll be fine or he'll grow out of it or, or all of these things. If your child had some of the warning signs I mentioned earlier, red flags, I guess just make sure you're on it and when I'm working with parents, I try to teach them to be constant observers. They need to be constantly observing their student. Every child needs a little help with some of this at some time in their life. I'm raising a third grader who right now it's a lot of social thinking in my house as well, so we have to start teaching this earlier. We can't wait until they're in middle school and then say, oh no, they don't have friends. They're really falling apart now and it, it's understandable if you do, but my advice is start getting help for this earlier. Start reading about it. Get on the social thinking website, find out more if you, if you have any concern at all. The Parish School has a social learning program, I actually founded it and it's amazing. I think it's very helpful for students all over the Houston community to come in and even if you just need to take a look, there are many professionals around Houston that can help you as well. So just look into. And around the country. I mean around the country, so many, um, and our speakers collaborative actually has women all over the United States and around the world. We have several in different countries. So people are doing this work, so take the time to just read and learn and, and if you don't go get someone else to help your student with this or your child, take time to directly teach it to them, try to break it down for them, try to spend time talking about it, just do it earlier. That's what we're all, I like that. I think eventually, yes, yes. And it goes to earlier inventions. You have to do early intervention for social as well.

Stephanie:                        27:19                   Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to get to chat with you today.

Renee:                               27:22                   Thank you so much it was such a pleasure to be here.

Meredith:                         27:27                   Thank you for listening to the Unbabbled podcast. For more information on today's episode, including links to articles on social emotional competencies in the classroom, the social thinking website, and Renee's social thinking speaker's page, please see our episode description. For more information on The Parish School, visit www.parishschool.org. And if you're not already, don't forget to subscribe to the Unbabbled podcast on your app of choice. And if you like what you're hearing, be sure to leave a rating and review. A special thank you to Stig Daniels, Amy Tanner and Amanda Arnold for all their hard work behind the scenes. Thanks again for listening.