Tisch College’s SEL-CE program fosters social-emotional learning environment

Professor Deborah Donahue Keegan, in charge of the social-emotional learning initiative by Tisch College, poses for a portrait on the academic quad on Sept. 30, 2017. (Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily)

The Initiative on Social-Emotional Learning and Civic Engagement (SEL-CE), which was launched in early 2017, is a Tisch College initiative running programs for Tufts faculty and administrators. The SEL-CE Initiative focuses on developing equity, well-being and inclusivity across Tufts through a variety of events, including a year-long Faculty Development Program. According to Deborah Donahue-Keegan, the education department lecturer who is also associate director of the SEL-CE Initiative, other programs within the Initiative involve a three-part workshop series titled “Fostering Emotional Intelligence for Inclusive Excellence at Tufts” for Tufts senior administrators and an upcoming half-day workshop on May 10 for Tufts institutional leaders.

According to the SEL-CE website, social-emotional learning (SEL) “involves developing the skills needed to recognize and manage emotions, handle conflict constructively, establish positive relationships guided by empathy, engage in perspective-taking, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations effectively.” The SEL-CE Initiative views SEL as an important lever for advancing equity and civic-mindedness at Tufts and beyond.

Donahue-Keegan said that the purpose of these programs is to help navigate sensitive situations. 

“[We aim] to encourage faculty, staff and administrators to continually develop emotional intelligence awareness and skills in order to optimally address the complex challenges that come with fostering inclusive excellence, equity and well-being — in and outside of classrooms,” Donahue-Keegan said.

Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tisch College, worked with Donahue-Keegan to develop the program.

Kawashima-Ginsberg explained the program was an exciting opportunity that allowed her to apply her background knowledge on social-emotional learning and civic engagement from her work in graduate school and CIRCLE and merge them together.

“I studied social-emotional learning’s impact on student success in graduate school … When there was a conversation about potentially bringing social-emotional learning into Tufts University at Tisch College, I jumped on the opportunity to be able to both contribute my background knowledge of social-emotional learning and civic learning. It also was a really good time for me as a scholar to merge those two ideas,” she said.

Kawashima-Ginsberg went on to explain that the ultimate goal of the SEL-CE Initiative is to make sure that every Tufts student has access to the inclusive and supportive classroom and campus spaces they need to succeed.

“A university of this caliber should aspire to make sure that all students are learning at their highest potential. That doesn’t mean that every student should start at the same point at the beginning of their university education … We should aspire to make sure that everyone has access to an environment where they can focus on their learning. That means we need to provide appropriate support,” Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Nick Woolf (AG ’20), a graduate assistant on the SEL-CE Initiative who works with Donahue-Keegan on SEL-CE Initiative programs, said he helps create strategies to make the workshops engaging for faculty and administrators. Woolf said that because he went to Tufts as an undergraduate student, he understands how important it is for faculty to be aware of the social-emotional dimensions of learning and teaching, as well as how to develop their own SEL skills. He explained that having faculty who integrate social-emotional learning and culturally responsive practices in their teaching gives students the best chance of succeeding in their studies.

“The hope is that these workshops can simultaneously upgrade one’s own self-awareness and social-emotional learning competencies, while also equipping individuals with tools that they can bring into the classroom to better serve students. Something as simple as a professor devoting the first five minutes of class time to mindfulness or journaling can go a long way, especially considering how stressful the academic rigor of being a college student can be,” Woolf explained.

Woolf went on to say that by educating faculty on social-emotional learning, they will be more equipped to teach students emotional intelligence in the classroom setting.

“A common question — and this is the same if you look at K-12 schools tackling social-emotional learning — is why do you start with the adults and not work directly with the students? The rationale is similar to why flight attendants always tell you that you should put the oxygen mask on yourself first before turning to help others in the event of an emergency. We as humans are better able to help others if we are constantly improving ourselves first and foremost. The best mentors have invested significant time and energy in improving their own emotional intelligence, which then spills over into a greater capacity to coach and develop others,” Woolf said.

Ryan Rideau, the associate director for Teaching, Learning and Inclusion at the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching who serves on the Board of Directors for the initiativeconsulted with Donahue-Keegan about the initiative. He explained that having a program dedicated to social-emotional learning is vital, considering that research finds it is imperative for having a positive learning experience.

“Historically, higher education has attempted to view our emotions and cognition as separate entities. But one of the things we know from the research is that they are inextricably linked,” he said. “Recognizing this connection and doing the work to develop our social-emotional intelligence supports Tufts’ mission as an institution of learning. Through their teaching and mentorship of students, faculty members have a large role in shaping the environment at Tufts.  They can model these skills for students and establish a community built upon an ethos of care and support for one another.”

Donahue-Keegan said that, in addition to creating programs for faculty, administrators and staff, she and her team are exploring ways to optimally impact students. In the meantime, she regularly facilitates workshops for students through academic classes and student groups. Donahue-Keegan recently facilitated back-to-back workshops on two Tufts campuses: one for graduate students in the Art Education Master of Arts in Teaching program at the SMFA, and a workshop on the Medford campus for 10 undergraduate Learning Assistants in the mechanical engineering department. She also recently led a workshop for undergraduates in the STEM Ambassadors program.

Hérnan Gallegos, a senior mechanical engineering student, said that the program allows subjects that are not normally associated with social-emotional learning such as those in the STEM field to reap the same benefits.

“Social-emotional learning … in STEM is a new gateway to explore learning avenues for students. For example, as a STEM Ambassador, SEL shows us that we can make both a social and emotional impact to the students we visit within the organization,” Gallegos said. “We begin to understand how our personal feelings and social status affect our connection with these so-called ‘unemotional’ topics in STEM. This creates opportunities for us to create a connection with these students and show that they do have a place in STEM, no matter where they come from … We will use this new tool to ensure we create these strong connections with the students we visit.”

Donahue-Keegan stated that 40 senior Tufts administrators have already signed up for the May 10 event. In terms of the future of the program, Rideau believes that the program will continue to expand as it has received positive feedback from the community.

“I see the program continuing to build upon the momentum it has already established. The program has fostered a community of individuals who are committed to centering social-emotional intelligence in their work. More individuals will be invited to participate in the initiative with a goal of integrating these practices throughout Tufts,” Rideau said.

Kawashima-Ginsberg felt that the future of the program will provide more opportunities to work social-emotional learning into the everyday lives of students at Tufts. She believes that this will smooth the transition for many students.

“The program is currently focused on faculty and staff, but I think as faculty become more skilled in incorporating social-emotional agility and skills and climate to teaching and learning, I think it should become more mainstream. This means that the students should also start to expect that in every classroom and in every discipline. Sometimes I think that means that students also need to acquire the skill to support each other, while also expecting faculty to have those skills,” Kawashima-Ginsberg explained.

Woolf added that the program will continue to expand as a part of the SEL-CE initiative and continues to teach faculty how to best support students. He also said that the program provides a unique experience offered by Tufts to encourage social-emotional learning at the university level.

“Something that I’ve really appreciated about working as part of the Tisch SEL-CE Initiative is that it’s such a unique program. Social-emotional learning is a huge buzzword right now, and it’s one of the most frequently discussed topics in the world of education, but 95% of the research and innovation is occurring in K-12. The fact that Tufts is one of the only higher education institutions in the country to be formally investing in social-emotional learning can hopefully serve as a model for other institutions to model,” he said.


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