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Five Tips for Integrating Social-Emotional Learning in Your Classroom

August 19, 2019

By: Elizabeth Kelsey, Kendall Hunt RPD Intern, with contributions from the writing team of Pathways 2.0

School can be an environment of “every person for him- or herself,” and not just on the elementary school playground. According to Vicki Zakrzewski of UC Berkeley, “testing practices, punitive teacher evaluations, and university admissions processes fuel our competitive self-interests.” In the world of scholarships and class ranks, the educational system can seem to steer kids into a “them-or-me” mind-set: for me to excel, they have to fail.

In response, social-emotional learning (SEL) has become the latest buzzword. At its core, SEL tries to teach students to understand themselves so that they can interact with others in healthy ways. SEL takes the form of separate lessons or additional curriculum. For example, my elementary school had a Conflict Managers club, where students attended training to learn how to effectively problem-solve among peers. We also had a character education program called Kindhearted Kids, which used stuffed animals to teach lessons about empathy, ethics, and responsibility.

Such self-contained SEL lessons have shown mixed results, however, and lately, a new trend is on the rise: not teaching about SEL but teaching with it. By integrating SEL into the teaching method rather than handling it as a separate lesson, you can show your students SEL’s place in their daily lives, rather than painting it as “that thing we talk about once a week with the stuffed animals.”

Check out these five ways to seamlessly incorporate SEL into your classroom.

1. Encourage group work

Place students in groups and guide them to develop their own lists of group norms and standards for group behavior. This increases learning about the content area in question and also urges them to think about the needs of their fellow classmates. In turn, it gives them a clear way to express their own emotions and increases their self-awareness of what they need as members of the group.

2. Connect class texts

When analyzing the behavior and interactions of the characters within the texts you read, you can easily include lessons on SEL. For example, the Pathways 2.0 program asks students questions like “How did the main character rely on God when he faced adversity?” or “How do you think this character felt when she was treated this way?” Whether discussing historical figures like Ellen Ochoa or fictional characters in books by award-winners Pam Muñoz Ryan and Linda Sue Park, Pathways 2.0 gives students a content-oriented, effective way to discuss SEL themes and build self-understanding.

3. Practice respectfully disagreeing

Structured classroom discussion, such as Socratic Circles or Philosophical Chairs, are not only positive ways to demonstrate the use of evidence and well-reasoned argument. They also allow you to introduce students to the idea of challenge and positive disagreement. By using evidence to defend their ideas while acknowledging and questioning those of others, students learn how to manage their emotions even in tense situations while still staying true to their own morals and feelings. Respectful disagreement is a valuable skill that can be used to teach both content and SEL.

4. Write journals

Daily journal prompts such as “when did you use self-control this week?” get students thinking about SEL topics while practicing valuable literacy and writing skills. Even five minutes of writing per day gets kids grounded in the school mind-set, improves writing skills, teaches vocabulary for social-emotional expression, and lets students discover how they’ve been using SEL in their daily lives.

5. Model it yourself

You’ve got to practice what you preach, says Patrick Cook-Deegan, also of UC Berkeley: “Teachers need to be able to embody what they are teaching—to be self-aware, emotionally intelligent, and deeply connected with their own sense of purpose. Teachers must be willing to be vulnerable with students.” When teachers are open and can demonstrate a strong ability to manage and understand their own emotions—and aren’t afraid to show them in healthy ways once in a while—it can be more of a positive growth experience for a student than a hundred SEL lessons.

Which of these five techniques will you try this fall in your classroom?