SEL to Me

My SEL Journey as a Student, Parent, and Educator

February 14, 2023
Anne Childers
SEL Consulting Collaborative
My SEL Journey as a Student, Parent, and Educator

My son has ADHD. He’s in third grade now, which means he missed the end of Kindergarten, all of first grade was on Zoom, and second grade was all about finding a mask that would stay on his face. As school returns to normal, it’s been incredibly challenging for him and for us, as the language, both verbal and nonverbal, that he receives at school is coming at a critical time for socialization and language development. 

In an IEP meeting this winter, I expressed concerns about my son’s negative self-talk from feeling othered, as ADHD can impact social skills. When I brought up this concern at the meeting, one of the educational leaders replied that he was sure everything was fine; he could tell that my son felt like he belonged because he was in compliance with recess behavior protocols and was playing basketball.

I disagreed. “Following protocols doesn’t necessarily lead to a sense of belonging. Has anyone asked him if he feels like he belongs at recess?”

There was silence. The 11 adults in the room grappled for words beyond the observable behaviors. I suggested adding reflective questions to protocols in order for the team to understand his experience at school. We reside in California, where conditions for thriving, as outlined by T-SEL state guidelines, include, “Notice whose perspectives and modes of communication are dominant in meetings, discussions, school processes, and events, and seek out or elevate the voices of individuals from marginalized groups.” As educators, parents, or caregivers, we must avoid making assumptions about how a student feels, or what is working in their learning environment, and instead elevate the voices of individuals of marginalized groups.

Words matter 

More than a decade ago, I began integrating concepts of social and emotional learning into professional learning and coaching new teachers at a national nonprofit, digging deep into the language and concepts. What I found were words that moved away from deficit- and compliance-based and instead helped support conversations about student and adult learning needs. 

In that work, I discovered what was missing from the classrooms and playground games of my childhood. In my elementary years, I was identified as having “anger issues.” This came mostly on the soccer field at recess, where my overly competitive nature led to slide tackling, while others just wanted to kick a ball around. I was unknowingly isolating myself and hurting others. The school’s response was to give me one-on-one interventions, but that really only made things worse. For me, these interventions led to shame and mocking from other students. It was only through sports—not my experience in the classroom or on the playground—that I gained competency in self-management so I could process my feelings of anger, feel better about myself, and play better with others.

In retrospect, I would have loved to have group conversations about belonging on the playground so I’d understood the perspective of those that felt excluded by my actions or words. I’ll admit, I was an overly competitive third-grader battling challenges at home and out to prove myself. But I had no way of understanding how that impacted others. In hindsight, I needed conversations about belonging and about othering.

SEL at Home

Although there is much room for my growth as a parent, the experience I try to offer my son is very different from the one he has at school. Reflective questioning is at the heart of every interaction in our home, even in the small moments when ADHD gets in the way of my son successfully doing what he needs to do around the house.

When he struggles, I’ll ask: “What was your goal in going to the closet? What happened to finding your shoes?” He’ll shift course, not always, but a little bit. And I know he’s starting to ask himself those same questions, shifting his own course. While I have a lot to learn about the best way to support my son’s health and well-being at each stage of his development, what I can always come back to is reflective questioning–and that true transformation comes from within.

Our responsibility to learning conditions

This is why I yearn for more support from his school. We’re having a particularly challenging time with the words he’s hearing on the basketball court. According to our developmental pediatrician, my son is at the age when children with ADHD start to internalize negative comments. I’ve started to see signs of it: “Maybe they are right, Mom,” my son will say, “maybe I am stupid.”

While my son receives multiple intensive health and education supports, I’m surprised at how little attention is focused on his regular instruction and classroom experience at school every day. What feels absent is a conversation about ways in which educator efforts can build a stronger foundation for all to thrive. The success of our systems of support in schools relies on the foundational assertion that attention to learning conditions precedes secondary interventions. We need to look at the entirety of the day, including recess, and the impact on student well-being.

Remaining optimistic

As an instructional designer and SEL consultant, I continue to learn and grow as the field learns and grows. As a parent, it takes all of my professional skills and vocabulary to reframe language that swirls around my son, transforming a deficit-based system into words that build on strengths and focus on upward mobility. After all, if we don’t have the language, how do we describe a path ahead? My hope for my child’s future teachers is that we all can discover this language and aim to truly listen to every student, empowering them to show us the way.

Anne Childers, M.A., is a partner at SEL Consulting Collaborative as well as an educator, speaker, and instructional designer with 20+ years of experience working with both non-profits and school districts. Anne is primarily focused on integrating Social and Emotional Learning into school design, classroom practices, and educator development.

The views in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

SEL to Me

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Beth Beitler

Thank you for sharing this important experience for others to gain knowledge and support. As a school counselor, SEL leader and parent, I too was faced in similar circumstances. My SEL mindsets are always forefront in my professional and personal life. We need to advocate for SEL for all children, including our own, to gain the needed skills to be functional and achieve their highest potential.

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Wendy Baron

Thank you, Anne, for elevating your son’s voice and sharing your experience reframing harmful language. Advocating for inclusion as fundamental Transformative SEL conditions for learning and using reflective questions to convey trust and cultivate agency in your son is inspiring.

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