6 Strategies to Incorporate Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Monday, October 31, 2016 -- McKenna Wierman

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is more than just an up-and-coming classroom trend; it’s a key approach to help students become well-rounded and well-adjusted individuals. SEL can strengthen relationships in the classroom, build character in your students and yourself, and improve students’ academic performance.

Teaching with an SEL lens focuses on instructing students in how to deal with their emotions, manage relationships, and effectively work independently and with others. One of the most important things to remember when incorporating SEL into your classroom curriculum is that children mature and develop uniquely, often at different rates. If you are looking to incorporate SEL into your classroom, here are a few tips to help get you started.

1. Start with yourself 

The key to effectively implementing SEL in any classroom is a steady foundation and that starts with you! However, that doesn’t mean you have to be the picture of flawless emotional health and perfect social skills. Having bad days and making mistakes are simply parts of the human experience—and acknowledging (plus accepting!) your own faults is a part of maintaining your well-being. Make sure that you’re prioritizing time for yourself to participate in the activities you enjoy and connect with friends and family. Take time for personal reflection, relaxation, and mindful exercise. Being open to improving your own social and emotional skills will not only help you connect with your students more, but it will also allow you to engage more actively in your lessons and inspire your class to thrive.

2. Make communication king 

It may seem like a no-brainer, but communication is something we seldom give enough attention to. Communication is key when it comes to building and maintaining healthy and fulfilling relationships, which makes it an essential aspect of SEL. Encourage your students to speak up when they have something to say in class, and remind them that the classroom is a safe space for them to express themselves. Some students feel reluctant to express their emotions due to shyness, embarrassment, or fear that their expression will be treated as disruptive or distracting “bad behavior.” However, when students are coached to express their emotions calmly and completely and communicate with others when they feel both positive and negative emotions, relationships will flourish in the classroom.

3. Divide and conquer

Regularly making group activities a part of your lessons is a great way to incorporate more SEL in the classroom. Research has shown that the ideal group size consists of four to five diverse students, with an equal ratio of boys to girls in co-ed classrooms. Have groups set goals together, establish their roles and responsibilities, and rotate roles so that everyone gets a chance to be the group leader. Encourage your students to welcome diversity on every level, and celebrate failure as part of the learning process, recognizing their group member’s efforts rather than their shortcomings. Working in groups also helps students build stronger bonds with their classmates and strengthen lines of communication between one another. You can also find opportunities to incorporate technology and teach your students about respectful, responsible online communication.

4. Practice mindfulness 

It’s easy to get caught up in the stress of the classroom (for both students and teachers), so short breaks within lessons can go a long way to help. Try incorporating brain breaks into your daily classroom routine to help your students reset their minds, refocus during class, and become more self-aware. Mindfulness exercises, such as guided breathing, stretching, and movement activities, are an effective variety of brain break. Reflective activities, like journaling or meditation, where students sit still while focusing on becoming aware of their surroundings and posture, can help them unpack their emotions and feelings. Teaching your students tactics like these to settle themselves throughout the day is a great way to help them learn to process their feelings productively.

5. Weave SEL into your lessons

Another great way to help students learn to recognize others feelings and become more in touch with their own is to focus on helping them connect emotionally with the subjects they’re learning about. While this may not work in every situation, there are lots of creative ways to weave SEL into a variety of lessons. For example, if your class is reading a novel together, have students pay close attention to their favorite character’s development throughout the story. Ask them about ways the character changes and what events led to those shifts. You can also incorporate this practice into history or social studies lessons by asking your students what they imagine life might be like for someone their age during a particular time period.

For subjects that involve more logical thinking, like math or science, remind your class to celebrate failures as they work through problems as part of the learning process. If they’re struggling, ask them to think about a time when they successfully overcame a challenge and how that felt to help motivate them. It’s also important to make sure that students are coached to encourage one another’s efforts—regardless of the outcome. This practice will not only build a supportive environment in your class, but it will also teach students to learn from their mistakes instead of letting a fear of failure hold them back.

6. Remember that all feelings are valid

All of your students will have good and bad days. As an instructor, it’s important to remember that your students’ emotions are very real to them and that they may not have the same level of perspective as you just yet. Something that may seem inconsequential or easily remedied to you, like a student forgetting to bring their lunch to school or not fully understanding the directions for an assignment, could seem monumental to a child. If you notice that your students are acting upset, ask them to explain how they are feeling and why. While they may not give you a straight forward answer initially, asking your students about their feelings will build trust over time, helping you develop strong relationships with your students and keep your classroom running smoothly.

Developing strong social and emotional skills from an early age is fundamental to students’ success and happiness. Looking for more classroom management strategies to foster this critical learning? Check out these seven tips to build a positive classroom community

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