Social and emotional learning takes its place at centre of B.C.’s new school curriculum

Kimberly Schonert-Reichl

THE upcoming school year represents high school teachers’ last chance to experiment with B.C.’s new curriculum before it becomes mandatory for Grades 10-12 next year. The new curriculum, mandatory up to Grade 9 since last year, puts personal and social competency on the same level as communication and critical thinking when it comes to what children should be learning in schools. In 2009, UBC became the first university in North America to make this part of teacher training. We asked Faculty of Education professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, who pioneered that program along with colleague Shelly Hymel, to explain what social and emotional learning will look like this year under the new curriculum.


What is social and emotional learning?


Social and emotional learning involves the ability to get along with others, to resolve conflicts, to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses, to show empathy for others, and to make responsible decisions. It’s those things that are essential for all of us to live happy, successful, and productive lives. Parents should realize that the research is very clear that children exposed to those experiences do better in school and in life. They’re happier, healthier and more successful. A lot of parents might see it and say, “Why is the teacher not doing more math? And where’s all the homework?” Well, if kids are stressed and anxious, if they’re feeling isolated, they don’t learn. It doesn’t matter if you have five hours of math — you’re not going to retain anything.


How might students and parents see social and emotional learning incorporated into classrooms this year?


Whether you’re learning math, or reading, or even the arts, there will be more of an emphasis on developing self-awareness, social awareness, self-regulation, and social responsibility. For example, in social studies when you’re learning about the experiences of Aboriginal people, you might be asked, “How would you have felt if you were in this situation?” In your reading lesson, you’ll have to empathize with different characters and think about how they will respond. So that’s one thing. You might even notice it in how classrooms are organized. Many classrooms have “reset” stations where young children can go and learn to self-regulate and calm down. Instead of being punished, if they’re feeling anxious and having trouble paying attention, they can go and just do some breathing, or squeeze the stress ball, or listen to music.


Social and emotional learning has been growing gradually in B.C. schools through programs like MindUP and Roots of Empathy. How does the new curriculum change things?


Whether your child received a program like that really depended on whether the principal supported it, the district supported it, and someone was there to champion it. Teachers didn’t have to do it if they didn’t want to. Now, British Columbia is one of the few places in the world where this has been intentionally put into the K-12 curriculum. New Zealand is doing this, as is Singapore and some places across the U.S., but there are few countries across the globe that have made the promotion of social and emotional learning an explicit part of the school curriculum. Other places might say, “This is important,” but they actually don’t put their effort where their mouth is.