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The Use of Metaphors in Social Emotional Learning?

There have been many books and articles written about the power of metaphors in both the worlds of education and psychology. At its heart, metaphors in both education and psychology help people connRipple effect as a metaphor for social emotional learningect a new idea to an already established concept. This connection aids intrinsic understating of the new idea. Since social-emotional learning (SEL) is connected to both the disciplines of psychology and education, it would be valuable to explore the metaphor’s impact and role within the field of SEL.

Let’s explore the commonly used metaphor known as the ripple effect. Throw a rock into a pond and ripples start to form, first small ones start in the area where the rock lands and then the displaced water spreads in all directions creating slightly larger and more distant waves or ripples. Almost every human has perceived this ripple effect in some way; whether it be throwing that rock into a pond or a Cheerio into a bowl of milk. We have that first hand comprehension of what happens when a solid object is thrown into a liquid. We understand that the solid does not just have an impact on where it lands, but that its impact ripples out, having an impact on the rest of the liquid as well (possibly even splashing the milk out of the bowl of Cheerios).

The question then becomes, how does that relate to Social Emotional Learning? Well, what happens when a student or colleague comes into a classroom or office, slams their bag on their desk and proceeds to sit down in their chair arms folded with a nasty scowl on their face? Perhaps the bag, desk, or chair get damaged or perhaps a loud noise is made. Likely most people in the vicinity will turn to look at the person. Someone may even try to intervene. Regardless, whatever was taking place in that classroom or office prior to the person arriving surely would have gotten interrupted. Who was being impacted? Not just the person in the bad mood who came in and slammed their bag, but also everyone else who was present at the event. The person in a bad mood started a “ripple effect”. The chair and desk was where the person landed but the action had ripples to everyone else. Others would have gotten distracted, turned their head, made a comment, made a judgment, empathized with the situation, and so on. One person’s mood and/or behaviour rippled to the other people in the space.

Two key components of Social Emotional Learning are Self and Social Awareness. In the example provided, the person in a bad mood becoming self-aware of their recent actions, facial expression, and body language would be an important piece of the social-awareness construct of Social-Emotional Learning. In addition, recognizing how their mood and actions impacted others would be an important piece of understanding social awareness, another vital construct of Social-Emotional Learning.  How could a metaphor be helpful in enhancing self and social awareness in this situation? Maybe someone could just be specific and concrete and announce “your poor mood and loud actions are distracting the class /office”. Maybe the group understands what you are trying to say but for many likely only on a very superficial level. The constructs of self and social awareness are not necessarily being internalized as they are not being connected to a well understood concept. Saying, “your action are having a ripple effect on me and the people around you”, may actually create a more thorough understanding of the situation because it connects the social emotional learning concepts of self and social awareness to a well-established and commonly perceived concept – the ripple effect.

To go a step further, how about making the metaphor more engaging by making it experiential. Have the learners take a rock, write an emotion or action on the rock and throw it into a body of water. Have the learners notice and count the ripples. For every ripple have them write down what and/or who would be impacted by that action or emotion. For example, when I help clean up after dinner (action) my parents are impacted because they have less to do (ripple #1), which in turn creates a more relaxed atmosphere in my house (ripple #2), which means I may more likely get desert (ripple #3), and so on. In this activity the metaphors greatly aids in providing a deeper meaning in the social emotional learning constructs of self and social awareness and the experiential nature of the activity may increase both the understanding and engagement of self and these two SEL constructs as well.  

The use of metaphors do not just need to be limited to supporting self and social awareness; they can be used to enhance meaning for all five of the SEL constructs (self and social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making). The key is to use metaphors that already have a connection to the clients or students or to create those connection through teachable moments.

One of the best experiential example of using metaphors to enhance social emotional learning from a teachable moment I came across was after mountain biking with students at a place called Camp Summit in Brakendale, British Columbia. 

Camp Summit built a spinner activity with categories representing various component of mountain biking. They appropriately called it the “Balance Board”. The Balance Board included things like tires, bike parts balance board for debriefingshocks, pedals, brakes, etc.. This spinner activity was designed to be used as the debrief post mountain biking. (Of note, when I witnessed this debriefing tool being used, this was the first time most of the participants had ever mountain biked). When a participant spun the spinner and it landed on “brakes”, they would be asked something like “how did your brakes help you in mountain biking today?” This establishes a strong connection between the brakes and a recent first-hand experience, having just used the brakes while biking. Then, after the participant’s response, the next question would be, something like “when do you need to use your brakes in your life outside of mountain biking”. The “brakes” are now being  used as a metaphor for something in the participant’s life that requires stopping or slowing down. Perhaps the person uses the example of  recess, or taking a time out in a sporting event, or any time someone needs a break in one’s day to slow down or rest because otherwise things may end up going to fast being out of control. This direction of the question can help build a more insightful sense of self-awareness and self-management. The next question may then be “what do you do to turn on your brakes in life outside of mountain biking?” Maybe the response would be “take deep breaths, or read a book, get a better sleep, or even my parents are my brakes”. This type of question about the bike parts metaphors could address more SEL constructs including, self-management, self-awareness, and responsible decision making ,and even some relationship skills. These next level debriefing questions through the use of the “balance board” tool help the participants gain insights and allow the component of social emotional learning to potentially become more intrinsic and meaningful.

In camp summit’s mountain biking parts debrief, they were using the first-hand experience of mountain biking and all its components as metaphors for the life experiences of the participants. It was very obvious how this use of this experiential metaphor not only engaged the participants in social emotional learning but also deepened their understanding of how the SEL constructs applied to themselves and each other.

Metaphors can be very useful and powerful; consider what metaphors would be meaningful to use when exploring social-emotional learning within your populations. Have participants develop their own metaphors or create debriefing games and activities that involve a metaphor that your populations may be quite connected to already. An example could be using video games as metaphors to explore the five core SEL constructs, especially self-management and responsible decision making. The creative possibilities are endless.

Have a great Fall! (In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere  Fall is a time for change. Could that be a metaphor to take advantage of with your populations?)

Take care and be well.


Sheldon Franken

School Counsellor and Owner / Workshop Facilitator Inquiry Adventures

Looking for more games ideas and metaphors to explore self-awareness and the other pillars of social-emotional learning? Check out some of our great books and products and consider having Inquiry Adventures run a workshop for your organization.

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