Social and emotional learning (SEL) has intrigued Blair faculty member Sharon Merrifield since the start of her decades-long career in education. Over the years, she has delved into the topic through graduate coursework in school counseling, as a certified K-5 public school teacher, and, more recently, through a yearlong course in mindfulness and a weeklong course in emotional intelligence. As a language, health and wellness, and mindfulness teacher and a freshman academic monitor, Ms. Merrifield is incorporating what she has learned into her work with students and faculty colleagues at Blair.
“SEL is an approach that takes into account the whole of a person’s development, not just the intellectual,” Ms. Merrifield said, pointing to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) for the formal definition of SEL. “It starts with self-awareness and self-management, including goal setting and decision making. It moves out from there into developing healthy relationships with others and with the wider world, including the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with people who are different from us.”
The value of taking such an approach, she says, is that it gets at the relationship and connection between cognition and emotion. “Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Ms. Merrifield explained. “How we are feeling at any given moment very much impacts the degree to which we are able to effectively learn and engage with the material being presented, particularly if the topic evokes strong emotion, is controversial, potentially triggering, and/or challenges our assumptions and beliefs.” An understanding of all of this stands to benefit both students and teachers in their day-to-day work of teaching and learning, which is why she is infusing SEL in her classroom and beyond.
In her French classes, Ms. Merrifield will often begin with a brief, mindful breathing exercise that invites students to come into the present moment and give their full attention to what is in front of them, leaving behind the previous class, conversation or Snapchat video. “Teaching students to check in with themselves, to identify their feelings and where those feelings might be showing up in their bodies is a powerful tool,” she said. “For many of us, including me, it’s far easier—and safer—to stay in an intellectual space, but learning to identify and be curious about our emotions and bodily sensations leads to greater self-awareness and, in turn, a better understanding of our patterns of relating to people places and things. A simple pause can help regulate our nervous system and empower us to choose how we want to show up. This can be especially helpful before giving a presentation or engaging in potentially controversial or difficult discussion.”
Another of her strategies is aimed at helping students identify their inner critic and learn that they are not their thoughts. She asks them to draw a simple image on their test before handing it in, depicting how they feel they performed. “Their perception and the reality are often quite different, and this exercise is a very concrete way to address that,” Ms. Merrifield said. In addition, she infuses her classroom and speech with “growth mindset” phrases, introducing these empowering words on her syllabus at the start of the year and reminding students of them in moments when they encounter challenging material or feel stuck.
In her work as a freshman class monitor, Ms. Merrifield has collaborated with Dean of Academics Nathan Molteni and Director of Academic Support Alison Leddy to develop a program that supports ninth graders as they adjust to the rigors of high school academics. “The freshman planner and freshman study hall—while not particularly popular with students—have proven to be beneficial to them in many ways,” she said. “Since we know that the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25 or 26, it’s no surprise that providing tools and scaffolding to assist teens with executive function leads to better performance and fewer problems earlier on in their Blair career.”
Ms. Merrifield has also put together an SEL toolbox for her faculty colleagues, a list of resources that they can easily access. “My sincere hope is that faculty begin to see the educational value of intentionally incorporating some SEL strategies into the classroom,” she said. “We focus so much on content and outcomes; students learn best when they can be fully present, regulate their emotions and interact with one another and their teachers in positive, healthy ways. SEL isn’t just ‘caught,’ it can be taught and modeled. As teachers, we create the classroom container in which our students learn. The more aware we are of our students’ needs and of our own ways of interacting and managing ourselves and our students, the more intentional we can become in creating an optimal learning environment—one in which students feel safe to self-reflect, take risks, make mistakes and fail forward.”
As faculty members prepared to return to teaching following winter break, Ms. Merrifield presented a workshop on mindfulness to her colleagues as part of a Lunch & Learn professional development seminar series offered by Blair’s Inclusivity Committee and arranged by Committee members Director of Counseling Ally Thomas, Associate Dean of Students Andee Ryerson and history teacher Dr. Hannah Higgin. Mrs. Thomas has also been a strong proponent of SEL practices at Blair, and the Lunch & Learn sessions were designed to help teachers facilitate discussions on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion using the five guiding principles of SEL. By sharing this information with teachers, Mrs. Thomas and the Inclusivity Committee hoped to augment faculty members’ toolkits for supporting students through uncomfortable conversations.
For her part, Ms. Merrifield will continue to promote SEL and infuse its tenets into her work at Blair, in the hope that students find tools to learn more effectively and the courage to show up as their authentic selves. “I was drawn to education because of my lifelong interest in and curiosity about human development,” she said, reflecting on her passion for the SEL approach. “My own educational experiences—for better and for worse—have had a profound impact in shaping my personhood. The teacher-student relationship, the classroom environment and school communities as a whole offer incredible potential for walking alongside and positively influencing young people in the formative stages of life. SEL practices align with the way I’ve always framed the question of learning—for myself, my children and my students—first, it is about who we are, and subsequently what we choose to do as a result.”