Student Success Story: Incorporating SEL into the college classroom at Tufts

How social-emotional learning in higher education creates equitable, civic-minded and collaborative learning environments

Learning and well-being are interconnected. And a focus on emotions in higher ed can build empathy and help students and faculty handle conflicts constructively. With this goal in mind, the Initiative on Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement (SEL-CE) launched at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life in 2017.

The department at Tufts University in Massachusetts offers programs and workshops for the institution’s faculty and administrators. It also partners with other institutions to focus on equity, well-being and inclusivity, and to advocate for the inclusion of SEL in teacher preparation programs. 

Content focuses on mindfulness and how to regulate emotions, including deep-breathing practices that can help lower stress hormones in the body. An approach called “dialogic classrooms,” developed by Essential Partners, is used to improve conversations among students and help participants develop strong beliefs as well as “intellectual humility.”

Recognizing and understanding emotions is not a typical focus in higher education, where “intellectual, rational and logical” thinking takes center stage, but SEL can improve emotional resilience; raising the awareness of stress also wards off health problems and cultivates collaborative learning spaces, says Deborah Donahue-Keegan, a lecturer in the Tufts Department of Education and the associate director of the SEL-CE initiative. 

“With toxic stress comes rising cortisol levels and rapid heart rate, which can lead to an emotional hijacking, and reacting rather than responding,” she says. “The work that we’re doing is raising awareness of neurobiology.”

To incorporate SEL, Donahue-Keegan offers the following best practices:

  • Develop a solid understanding of research and convey it in accessible ways for senior administrators, academic discipline department chairs and faculty.
  • Address any misconceptions of social neuroscience, emotional intelligence and the neurobiology of learning—all concepts that anchor SEL. “Faculty can resist paying attention to the social-emotional dimensions because they see them as a domain of student life,” she says. “They also believe that emotions need to be kept at bay to engage in intellectually rigorous study or research because strong emotions can disrupt logical, analytical rigor.”
  • Explain that SEL is not “warm and fuzzy” or “soft,” but draws from research on the role of emotion in the cultivation of intellectual agility, inclusive excellence, civic engagement and well-being in higher education.
  • Collaborate with teaching centers, as well as student life and student affairs departments on campus, to develop SEL awareness, understanding and workshops.
  • Incorporate mindfulness into programming as a way to promote a sense of well-being and stamina for emotional and intellectual agility.  

Emily Ann Brown is associate editor of UB.


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