When she was a middle and high school teacher in rural China, Western Oregon University Associate Professor Xiaopeng Gong observed many of her students struggled with various social and emotional challenges.
“As a teacher, there were so many questions that I wanted to find an answer to but did not have a means to do so,” Gong said.
She was recently awarded the T.H. Gentle Professor of Education for 2021. Her research focuses on the social and emotional development of adolescents.
“Receiving the award provides a turning point for my career,” she said. “For years, I have been trying to find a way to bridge research and practice and make meaningful contributions to teacher preparation programs.”
The endowment is made possible through donations from Western Oregon University’s College of Education supporters, including the Gentle family.
“Dr. Gong was selected from a pool of applicants for her focus on the critical and current work in social and emotional learning and preparing future educators to maximize their effectiveness given the increasing challenges for schools, families and children,” College of Education Dean Mark Girod said. “I have no doubt that Xiaopeng will help Western Oregon University become a regional leader in this work.”
Gong earned her bachelor’s degree at Bohai University in China and her master’s degree and doctorate in educational psychology from Ball State University in Indiana.
An educational psychologist with a human development emphasis, Gong said her research examines how family relations and affective environment influence shape adolescents’ social and emotional wellbeing, including perfectionist tendencies, emotional regulation and coping with stress. She teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on child and adolescent learning and development at WOU.
Through both her experience as a teacher and a researcher, Gong said there are many things both parents and teachers should know about social and emotional development that can provide them with the tools to help students experiencing a stressful time in their lives, such as parent conflict or divorce.
“Socio-emotional learning (SEL) is a central piece to education but has often been neglected,” she said.
According to Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is a process in which children and adults learn the essential skills and knowledge about understanding and managing emotions, making responsible decisions, empathizing with others and establishing and maintaining positive relationships with people from diverse backgrounds.
Gong shared 14 states have articulated SEL competencies and standards in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
“Oregon lags behind and only has socio-emotional standards for pre-kindergarten to third grade with a big SEL gap for fourth grade and beyond,” Gong said. “My goal is to advocate for SEL for upper levels of elementary and secondary schools, starting with teacher candidates in teacher preparation programs.”
Gong advocates for nurturing socially and emotionally intelligent teachers and to train teachers who not only know the importance of SEL but also can integrate SEL into teaching a subject.
“Emotions matter. Socio-emotional learning is crucial as it shapes who we are and how we feel,” she said. “Being mindful about what emotions we are experiencing at the moment is the first step for adaptive emotional regulation.”
SEL allows people to understand themselves including their emotions and the strategies they use to manage and cope with stressful situations through the lens of family and culture. Part of SEL includes appreciation and embrace of ethnic, language, cultural, family and other differences.
The endowment allows Gong to serve the future generations of teachers who are studying at WOU as well as working with students on her research project.
“There are many ways to help students to reach a point where they feel empowered and have a positive understanding about self, and this research is definitely one of them,” she said.