Movement-focused SEL might just improve student learning (Opinion)

In the summer of 2020, I worked as a theater specialist in a virtual camp for neurodiverse children. On the first day, I walked into a Zoom room full of restless 5-year-olds and immediately freaked out that I couldn’t hold their attention. A student was in a garage whose floor and walls were lined with gym mats. During our dramatic games, he sprinted across the room and turned against the walls, seeming totally unaware of our lesson. But when another student asked him a question, he somersaulted to the screen and delivered an answer that indicated he had been listening intently.

Thus began my process of realizing that virtual and in-person schooling can increase students’ learning abilities and overall well-being as they engage in movement while teaching. Especially now, as the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to rage in communities, many school districts are debating a return to virtual learning. Regardless of location, movement-based learning is essential for students of all ages.

My interest in using creativity and psychology to empower neurodiverse people led me to pursue a Masters in Mental Health Clinical Counseling at Villanova University. It was there that in addition to conducting my own research on neurodiversity, I joined a team led by educational researchers and social-emotional learning experts Madora Soutter and Chu Ly and supported by my fellow research assistants graduates Diainni Dennis and Amanda Adams.

Beginning in fall 2020, our qualitative research team interviewed parents, teachers, and students to explore ways to foster social-emotional learning in online spaces. SEL is an educational engagement to help students develop social, emotional, and academic skills and is characterized by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning self-management skills, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making and relationship skills. Our team focused specifically on transformative SEL, that shifts attention from an individualistic, decontextualized approach to assessing and building students’ social-emotional skills toward a collective effort to create equitable classrooms and societies. While traditional SEL places responsibility on every child to exemplify SEL skills—regardless of how societal influences may make this unfairly more difficult for some students—transformative SEL uses a collectivist approach to recognize and rectify the effects societal systems over class community.

We used purposeful sampling to select a racially diverse group of seven parents, four teachers, and four students, all from public or private suburban or urban schools across the United States. Our research team sought a nuanced reflection on how the shift to online teaching has affected social-emotional learning practices, with a focus on how the pandemic and recent social justice movements had an impact on the inclusion of equity in the programme. I was particularly curious about how equity for neurodiverse students was being shaped by the current COVID and racial justice crises.

Early in the pandemic, experts in the field of social-emotional learning argued that while educators may find their attention drawn to a myriad other challenges– from transferring a full in-person program to a digital space, to managing their own physical and emotional needs and those of their families – they must not neglect the SEL program. On the contrary, it was predicted that an increase in SEL lessons would support the social, emotional and mental well-being of students during this stressful time. While pre-pandemic research largely focused on the benefits of SEL in person, recent research from around the world has shed light on how the challenges of holistically supporting students during the pandemic have spawned innovative educational practices (for example, including students’ families in the educational process, using students’ daily records) that can be carried forwardpandemic classrooms in the best conditions.

Virtual and in-person schooling can increase students’ learning abilities and overall well-being as they engage in movement during instruction.

One of these innovations concerns the use of SEL to promote the partnership between physical and emotional health. We know from abundant literature that allowing a child to move throughout their school day helps them learn and practice their SEL skills. For some students, virtual school meant long hours of sitting on Zoom calls, but for some of our study participants, it meant increased freedom to move around their homes while observing the lesson.

The qualitative results of our study suggest the importance of movement for students of all ages, inclinations and differences. We used long, open-ended interviews with a diverse group of participants until we reached saturation, meaning that even though our sample size was small, the care we took to explore in depth many different types of people’s lived experiences generated a solid and valid understanding of this phenomenon.

Our study also generated recommendations for educators, whether teaching in person or not:

  • Strengthen classroom community through physical games. Incorporate games that get students moving and collaborating to teach them self-management, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, self-awareness, and social awareness while releasing excess energy. Participants discussed the benefits of structured group movement breaks and projects that require students to “move around and do things in different groups.” Some examples they cited were as simple as sitting in a circle 6 feet apart or challenging the class to a group exercise.
  • Teach emotional regulation through conscious movement. The increased stress that COVID-19 has placed on children has created a need for mindful movement practices that can be incorporated into any teacher’s toolkit. Our participants cited the importance of activities such as progressive muscle relaxation, stretching, using mindful movement websites, and embodied breathing exercises to increase students’ self-management and self-awareness. One participant listed combination breathing and movement exercises with fun, child-friendly names, such as balloon breathing, which teaches students to inhale deeply enough to inflate their stomachs like a balloon. She noted the value of imparting a technique that is not “dependent on external tools”, but rather something that students can always take with them.
  • Create freedom of movement in the classroom. Many children who struggled to meet the movement limitations of traditional classrooms thrived when they could attend Zoom class while pacing or bouncing on a yoga ball. A participant showed us the balance beam on which she releases excess energy during virtual class time. Find creative ways to allow students freedom of movement, including a designated place in the classroom to step or a policy that allows students to stretch or stand quietly during class. This recommendation applies particularly to creating equitable learning environments for neurodiverse students who have used improvisational movement, such as stimming., as an adaptive means of self-management throughout the pandemic.

While the pandemic has resulted in countless adversities, it has also catalyzed the rapid transformation of practices that were not inclusive for all students. Movement practices are just one way to redefine inclusivity and wellbeing in a post-pandemic classroom.

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