Incorporate social-emotional learning into physical education in Virginia schools

December 30, 2021 12:02 am

Children play tag in a hallway at Fox Elementary School in Richmond, (Ned Oliver/ 2019 Virginia Mercury file photo)

By Lila Newberry

The Virginia Department of Education says their recently developed equity-focused social-emotional learning standards are in place to “ensure every student in Virginia attends a school that maximizes their potential and prepares them for the future: academically, socially, and emotionally.”

The development of SEL standards for Virginia schools is a step in the right direction, but how will schools really implement these changes?

House Bill 753, passed during the 2020 session of Virginia’s General Assembly, implored the VDOE to establish a concrete definition of social-emotional learning and to develop grade-specific guidance standards. The new standards developed by the Virginia Department of Education are simply a vision for how SEL will be incorporated into schools. They define social-emotional learning as “the process through which all-young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions.”

I propose that the VDOE should embed SEL practices into physical education classes. That would meet two (self awareness and self management) of five core competencies laid out by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a nonprofit which advocates for implementation of social and emotional learning. If SEL were to be seamlessly integrated into physical education classes, it would stress the idea that well-being is just as dependent on social and emotional health as it is on physical health.

It comes as no surprise that students’ social and emotional health was shaken by COVID-19. Students today are simultaneously experiencing the effects of unfinished learning and unfinished social-emotional development. A 2021 survey conducted by McKinsey & Co surveyed 16,370 parents across every state in the United States on their child’s emotional health during COVID-19. The survey discovered that “80 percent of parents had some level of concern about their child’s mental health or social and emotional health and development since the pandemic began.” Students need social-emotional learning in our current climate more than ever before. SEL must no longer be a perceived “add-on” in a course, but a critical component of the class itself.

One of the desired outcomes for self-awareness is to “recognize and understand the interactions between one’s own thoughts and emotions.” This desired outcome of self-awareness aligns well with a course in mindfulness. Massachusetts public schools, such as Westborough High School, have successfully implemented such programs into physical education classes by offering a movement course entitled “Mind, Body and Soul,” which introduces students to mindful meditation, yoga, pilates and tai chi. Self-management is the second core competency that can be logically applied to a physical education classroom. One of the overarching concepts for this core competency is for students to “demonstrate the skills related to achieving personal and academic goals.”

Physical education teachers can provide instruction on goal-setting, in particular with a focus on “SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely)” goals. Students could develop SMART goals for their growth in particular units, such as my proposed mindfulness course. They could even apply their goals to pursuits outside of the physical education classroom.

The VDOE solicited public comments on the proposed VDOE standards following passage by the General Assembly.  One comment says “leave character development to the parents.” But character development in schools is foundational. Teachers are pushed to nurture specific values in their students that will aid success outside of a classroom setting. Students spend a period of key development in a school setting, and it should partly be the responsibility of physical educators to lay the groundwork for holistic success.

Social-emotional learning should ideally be incorporated in all classroom settings. But for now, I believe Virginia schools should prioritize streamlined instruction in physical education classes. Physical education classes already scaffold students towards healthy social and emotional growth, and this can be further enforced by SEL-based class components provided to all K-12 students. In doing so, Virginia would take one more step in the right direction.

Lila Newberry is a sophomore at the College of William & Mary studying public policy.

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