Opinion
Teaching Opinion

Movement-Oriented SEL Might Just Improve Student Learning

Whether learning in-person or virtually, students can benefit from the practice
By Zoe Darazsdi — January 13, 2022 6 min read
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In the summer of 2020, I worked as a drama specialist at a virtual camp for neurodiverse children. On my first day, I entered a Zoom room full of fidgety 5-year-olds and immediately panicked that I wouldn’t be able to hold their attention. One student was in a garage where the floor and walls were lined with gymnastics mats. During our drama games, he sprinted across the room and back flipped off the walls, appearing totally unaware of our lesson. But when another student asked him a question, he somersaulted toward the screen and delivered a response that indicated he had been listening intently.

Thus began my process of realizing that both virtual and in-person schooling can increase students’ learning capabilities and overall well-being when engaging in movement during instruction. Especially now, as the highly transmissible omicron variant continues to rage through communities, many school districts are debating a return to virtual learning. Regardless of the location, movement-oriented learning is a must for students of all ages.

My interest in using creativity and psychology to empower neurodiverse people led me to pursue a master’s of clinical mental-health counseling at Villanova University. It was there that, in addition to conducting my own research on neurodiversity, I joined a team headed by education researchers and social-emotional-learning experts Madora Soutter and Chu Ly and supported by fellow graduate research assistants Diainni Dennis and Amanda Adams.

Starting in fall 2020, our qualitative study team interviewed parents, teachers, and students to investigate ways in which social-emotional learning can be fostered in online spaces. SEL is a pedagogical commitment to help students acquire social, emotional, and academic skills and is typified by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning competencies of self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decisionmaking, and relationship skills. Our team focused specifically on transformative SEL, which shifts the focus away from an individualistic and decontextualized approach of assessing and building students’ social-emotional skills and toward a communal effort to create equitable classrooms and societies. Whereas traditional SEL places the onus on each child to exemplify SEL competencies—regardless of how societal influences can make that inequitably harder for some students—transformative SEL uses a collectivist approach to acknowledge and rectify the effects of societal systems on the classroom community.

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

Early in the pandemic, experts in the field of social-emotional learning asserted that, while educators may find their attention called to myriad other challenges—from transferring an entire in-person curriculum to a digital space to managing their own and their family’s new physical and emotional needs—they should not neglect SEL curriculum. Rather, it was predicted that an increase of SEL lessons would support the social, emotional, and mental well-being of students during this stressful time. While prepandemic research focused largely on the benefits of SEL in person, recent research from around the world has illuminated the ways in which challenges with holistically supporting students through the pandemic engendered innovative educational practices (e.g., including students’ families in the educational process, utilizing daily student check-ins) that can be carried forward into postpandemic classrooms in the best of conditions.

Both virtual and in-person schooling can increase students’ learning capabilities and overall well-being when engaging in movement during instruction.

One such innovation concerns utilizing SEL to foster the partnership of physical and emotional health. We know from extensive literature that enabling a child to engage in movement throughout their school day helps them to learn and implement their SEL skills. For some students, virtual schooling meant long hours sitting on Zoom calls, but for some of the participants in our study, it meant increased freedom to move around their house while still observing the lesson.

The qualitative findings of our study suggest the importance of movement for students of all ages, proclivities, and differences. We utilized lengthy, open-ended interviews with a diverse group of participants until we reached saturation, meaning that though our sample size was small, the care we took to thoroughly explore many different types of people’s lived experiences generated a robust and valid comprehension of this phenomenon.

Our study also generated some recommendations for educators whether they are teaching in-person or not:

  • Strengthen classroom community through physical games. Incorporate games that get students to move and collaborate to teach them self-management, relationship skills, responsible decisionmaking, self-awareness, and social awareness while releasing excess energy. Participants discussed the benefits of structured group movement breaks and projects that required 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 some group exercise.
  • Teach emotional regulation through mindful movement. The increased stress that COVID-19 foisted upon children created a need for mindful movement practices that can be integrated into any teacher’s toolbox. Our participants cited the significance of activities like progressive muscle relaxation, stretching, usage of mindful movement websites, and embodied breathing exercises to increase students’ self-management and self-awareness. One participant listed combined breathing and movement exercises with fun, kid-friendly names, like balloon breathing, which teaches students to breath in deeply enough to inflate their stomach like a balloon. She noted the value of imparting a technique that is not “reliant on external tools” but rather something that students can always carry with them.
  • Create freedom of movement in the classroom. Many kids who struggled to adhere to the movement limitations of traditional classrooms thrived when they could attend Zoom class while pacing or bouncing on a yoga ball. One participant showed us the balancing 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 pace or a policy that allows students to quietly stretch or stand during lessons. This recommendation is particularly applicable to creating equitable learning environments for neurodiverse students who have utilized improvisatory movement, such as stimming, as an adaptive means of self-management throughout the pandemic.

While the pandemic has given rise to countless adversities, it also has catalyzed the swift transformation of practices that were not inclusive to all students. Movement practices are just one way to redefine inclusivity and wellness in a postpandemic classroom.

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