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What Are the Specific Social and Emotional Needs of High Achieving Students?

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The question that I will be investigating through my inquiry project is “What are the specific social and emotional needs of high achieving students?”

Introduction

During the first few months of my practicum, I have come to understand that there are a number of gifted and high achieving students in my class. As a teacher, it is an absolute pleasure to work with students who are so highly motivated, stunningly capable, and eagerly willing to learn. Of these students, most also take great delight in participating in a wide breadth of clubs, sports, and other extra-curricular activities within and outside the school community. However, as I spent more time in this classroom, I began to notice some troubling reactions to this increased academic and extracurricular load. A select few students seemed to be coming into school more and more tired each week. Complaints of too much homework from supplementary tutors and of over-committed schedules began to rise up among the normally pleasant morning conversation. In one extreme case, a student was placed on a school watch list for social emotional wellness after revealing the extreme academic pressures he faces from home. While these incidents are still far from the norm, the students’ looming graduation from the PYP program and advance into increasingly rigorous academic programming means that the pressure these students face to achieve may likely soon rise.

My intention for this project is to conduct research into how to best support the social emotional needs of high achieving students, particularly those in the independent school environment. I hope to gain a deeper understanding of best practices within the burgeoning field of social emotional learning and work with scholars and education professionals to adapt these to the unique needs of the students in my classroom.

Context

Professional educators have long been aware of the important role of relationships, emotions, and affective needs in the educational process. Indeed, it is impossible to separate one’s learning from the emotional context in which it occurs (Durlak et al. 2011). What is more, numerous scholars have also made connections between students’ social emotional competence and their personal wellness and academic success later in life (Durlak et al. 2011). This, combined with increased concerns over mental health support in schools, has led to a proliferation of research into the topic of social emotional learning (SEL). SEL has been defined as:

“the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL 2014).

Again, these competencies provide the basis for the development of important 21st century skills, including emotional intelligence and effective communication. Thus,

SEL is not only a respite from personal stress, it is also a catalyst for meaningful and creative academic growth.

While research related to the study of the social emotional needs of economically disadvantaged students has proliferated in the past two decades, little attention has been given to the unique needs of children and youth on the opposite end of the socioeconomic spectrum (Luthar & Beeker, 2002). This does not mean that this set does not have its own unique needs. Indeed, research has found that students from this socioeconomic grouping may experience higher incidents of clinical depression, anxiety, and substance abuse than the norm. Stressors linked to these mental health situations include academic pressure, “maladaptive perfectionistic strivings”, and a lack of meaningful connection to adults and peers (Luthar & Beeker, 2002). In relation to education, independent schools are often made into easy targets with regards to assigning blame for over pressured, single-mindedly achievement focused students. According to popular discourse, parents, teachers and administrators at these institutions relentlessly drive students to succeed through increased academic rigor, community involvement and extracurricular participation (Weissbourd, 2011). In reality, such oversimplifications are highly problematic, as adult support and pressures vary greatly within any one group across the socioeconomic spectrum (Weissbourd, 2011). What can be concluded from this data, however, is that independent schools need to recognize the unique risks their students may face, both from outside the classroom and in, and implement social-emotional development strategies accordingly.

My Perspective

        The perspective that I take with me into this inquiry assignment is that of a former socially and emotionally at risk student. As an adolescent, anxiety and maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies were significant issues that affected my mental health and social experiences. While I was fortunate to experience virtually no external pressure from family or teachers to perform academically, I can attest to troublesome potential of maladaptive internal motivation and a highly competitive peer environment. Unfortunately, I can speak to the adverse effects such a disposition has on one’s intrinsic desire to learn, question, and grow in understanding of the world. Such a reality is greatly at odds with the development of a balanced individual and the aims of the IB program.

        As a teacher, I take great joy in working with students who are inquirers and who demonstrate a love of learning. It is exciting to be among young people who are developing their own personal interests and experimenting with opportunities to engage in extra-curricular activities that may be sources of confidence, life long joy and personal satisfaction. However, with my own education as an example, I wish to do all that I can to preserve my students’ love of learning as they advance through the increasingly demanding IB curriculum and academic environment. From what I have learnt so far about SEL in the teacher education program, I am optimistic about its power to improve the affective competencies of my students.

Links to Literature

        In order to frame my inquiry, I will link the experiences of my students to literature outlining the developmental, cognitive, and affective needs of pre-adolescents in the school environment. I will then overlay information gathered from research and observations that look specifically at the challenges faced by high achieving students, such as anxiety, perfectionism, and external pressures. Relevant sources for this section of my assignment include:

Luthar, S. S., & Becker, B. E. (2002).  Privileged but Pressured? A Study of Affluent  Youth. Child Development, 73(5), 1593-1610.

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