Teaching Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Social-emotional learning is the basis for all other learning.  It’s how we develop the ability to effectively manage emotions, develop perseverance, resolve conflicts, and develop empathy for others.  It, in its essence, is how we learn to learn.  Can a student learn to read if they cannot sit and attend while looking at a book?  Should we expect a child to learn to subtract if they cannot handle the frustration of being wrong at times or lack the self-calming tools to try it again? Teaching social-emotional learning in the classroom to students is quite arguably one of the most important parts of their learning.

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Why is Social-Emotional Learning important?

Social-emotional skills are critical in the development of other skills.  The overarching goal of social-emotional learning is to foster growth in 5 categories:

  1. Self-Awareness - the ability to recognize and name personal emotions.  It also includes the ability to understand your own needs, as well as your strengths & limitations.  
  2. Self Management - the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors so that goals are achieved.  It also includes persevering with difficult tasks and in complex social interactions.  
  3. Social Awareness - the ability to understand what others are feeling and have the understanding to take their perspective.  
  4. Relationship Skills - refers to the ability to form positive social relationships, work together, and deal effectively with conflict.  Research suggests that when children are intentionally taught social skills, given opportunities to practice, and provided guidance in teachable moments, they develop positive peer relationships, acceptance, and friendships.
  5. Responsible Decision-Making - refers to children’s ability to make positive choices about their personal and social behavior.  Focus in the classroom and school community should be placed on problem-solving, reflection, perceptive thinking, self-direction, and motivation skills that will all contribute to lifelong success. 

What SEL looks like

Here are some examples of what social-emotional learning can look like in and out of the classroom: 

  • Practice how to disagree respectfully
  • Teaching growth mindset
  • Read aloud with SEL themes
  • Daily greeting and morning meetings
  • Peace areas or calm down corners
  • Do a daily check-in with students on their mood
  • Learning about and celebrating student identities 
  • Talking about managing emotions
  • Give students responsibilities
  • Practice problem-solving skills and give students opportunities to solve their problems
  • Encourage positive self-talk
  • Set goals
  • Teach coping strategies for emotions
  • Give team tasks and encourage teamwork
  • Practice mindfulness
  • Teach students how to listen actively and pay attention
  • Encourage student reflection through journaling
  • Promote kindness and appreciation

Learning SEL through Morning Meetings

Morning meetings are a fantastic way to teach SEL skills explicitly. With the right tools and structured activities, these meetings allow students to learn and practice a variety of social skills. Students learn routines and expectations of the classroom. And the best part is...they can be so FUN! 

Check out the following morning meeting - students are connected in a classroom community that values all members. They collaborate and are engaged in activities that require active listening, problem-solving, and working with others. 

Essentially, morning meetings are daily gatherings that take place, typically at the beginning of the day for 20-30 minutes, and focus on the following components: greeting, sharing, group activity, and morning message.  Here are a few ideas for successful morning meetings:

  • Start with a greeting.  This could include “good morning” rituals like addressing each student with “Hello ____!” greetings like high fives, handshakes & elbow bumps, or any other greeting routines your students might enjoy. You can even let your students get creative and come up with their own greeting ideas! 
  • Engage students in a sharing activity.  This could include students sharing something about their lives while their peers listen and wait their turn.  “Tell Me Something Good” is an easy, sharing activity that is essentially just sharing their good news with the class.  The kids love sharing, and it offers an opportunity to learn more about one another!
  • Complete a group activity.  This would be an activity that encourages teamwork and cooperation while emphasizing additional social skills and/or academic skills. Think turn-taking games, gross motor activities your class can complete together, SEL role-playing, or academic activities in which students can work together.  
  • Finish with a morning message.  This could be focused on a targeted SEL skill or include a short message about activities/focuses for the day.

In this video, a teacher talks about the importance of morning meetings in how they set the tone for the day.  She also goes through some great ideas for students to connect during these meetings!

Promoting Mindfulness in the Classroom

In addition to structured learning during morning meetings, the school day is full of opportunities for incidental teaching of SEL skills, including promoting mindfulness in our students.  Some ways we can strengthen mindfulness in our students might include the use of fidget items, yoga, the use of a calm-down corner, behavior reflection sheets, or journaling.  These promote awareness in students to identify and regulate emotions, resolve conflicts within the classroom, and develop a deeper understanding of perspective-taking and empathy.

I use fidget tools and sensory items ALL the time in my office! Good fidget tools are non-intrusive, quiet, and can be used without looking. These may include fidget spinners, stress balls, or Tangle Therapy toys (plastic chains).  Some examples of sensory tools I use might be a wiggle seat (hokie stool or inflatable disk that allows students to wiggle in their seat), Theraputty, or weighted items like a blanket or weighted stuffed animal

Another way to foster mindfulness is through the use of reflection opportunities.  These may include a calm down corner where students have a safe space to calm themselves and reflect on coping tools and problem-solving strategies.  I’ve discovered there are TONS of ways to structure your calm-down corner to promote mindfulness.  Take a look at a previous blog post about how to set up a calm down corner in your classroom if you’re interested in more tips and tricks! 

Journaling or the use of behavior reflection sheets is a good way for older students to begin reflecting. Journaling is a great way to turn the attention inward to process emotions and situations.  Behavior reflection sheets provide an opportunity for students to reflect and take responsibility for their emotions and their actions.  Both are beneficial in gaining perspective on a given situation or conflict.

Using Books to Teach Social-Emotional Skills

Always an option for teaching social-emotional learning in the classroom is read alouds. Books are a simple and effective way to open the door for communicating on a range of topics, and they can be highly effective in teaching a range of SEL skills. There are so many books that teach SEL skills or are good conversation starters, but here are a few of my favorites:

To teach Inclusion:

Looking for more books about Inclusion? I have a blog post listing 10 awesome books that teach Inclusion.

Can I Join Your Club?  By: John Kelly

To teach Sharing:

The Rainbow Fish   By: Mark Pfister

To teach about Emotions:

The Way I Feel    By: Janan Cain

Teaching social-emotional learning in the classroom can be daunting and seem like one more thing to teach, but it doesn’t have to be! SEL lessons can be incorporated throughout the day or at a dedicated time each week. Check out this digital and print SEL lesson bundle for easy-to-use lesson plans and activities geared toward teaching each of the five categories of SEL skills! Students will meet the Social Emotional Learning Superheros and practice each of the 5 competencies of SEL.

SEL Resources

Teaching social-emotional learning in the classroom is made easy with this SEL superhero themed curriculum.

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