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What Teachers Can Do Now to Boost Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Thursday, September 28, 2017 -- Scott Sterling

Research continues to illuminate the short- and long-term benefits of improved social and emotional learning (SEL), both in the school and home settings. It can be argued that SEL may serve as the foundation of all other forms of learning and success. While making wholesale changes at the school or district level to implement or adjust SEL curriculum can be a long process, there are no shortage of steps individual teachers can immediately take to improve the SEL in their own classroom. Here are five ideas to get started.

Reframe class expectations

Many behavioral expectations in classrooms come in the form of demands (i.e. “Do not speak without raising your hand”), and neglect to explain why such norms exist on the interpersonal level. In any future discussions about your expectations, make sure to address the “why” behind your rules in terms of SEL. Using the hand-raising example, after introducing the expectation, you could explain that not only can speaking out of turn can be distracting to classmates, but also that quietly listening when someone else is speaking is a sign of respect. If you have a poster of your expectations, consider rewriting them to describe the effects each behavior has on individual students.

Focus on goal setting, progress monitoring, and overcoming challenges

If you ask students what their goals are, chances are most will say “good grades”. Measurable success is important, but true learning goes so much deeper than numbers and letters. Build students’ SEL skills by give them more opportunities to set their own goals, perhaps even on a daily basis. Then, model how to effectively track progress toward those goals. It’s also important to make failure a part of the conversation—students will inevitably fall short of some goals, and need to make significant changes in their approach to achieve other. Normalizing this can help learners build resiliency and develop a growth mindset.

Rethink your bell ringers and closing activities

Many teachers employ specific strategies that begin and end class, usually as ways to preview and summarize the content covered during the day’s lesson. While checking for learning is certainly important, this time can also serve as opportunity for students to share—or at least acknowledge—how they feel about the content. In other words, make these activities more first-person and less third-person, allowing the students to focus inwardly on their feelings. In addition to developing the ability to be self-reflective, students will get critical practice in listening to and being respectful of their peers’ feelings and potentially differing viewpoints.

Establish a space for quiet reflection

In many classrooms, students only get to visit an introspective, quiet area of the room when they are in time out, signaling that having time to think and reflect is a punitive activity. If this is the case, your students are missing out on a key opportunity to build SEL skills. Try establishing an inviting space in your room where students can go freely to focus on themselves and how they are feeling. If you already have a (non-punishing) “time out” space, make it more welcoming with comfortable seating and soft, natural lighting. You will also want to set expectations on how the space will be shared. After all, sharing is a key aspect of SEL.

Survey your students

In the SEL context, surveys can accomplish two goals: they provide an opportunity for students to reflect upon and discuss their thoughts, and they provide you with an opportunity to monitor the climate of your classroom. Ask students about their personal highlights and lowlights of recent work. You will want to avoid using multiple choice questions and instead focus on items that can be answered in the first-person. And keep in mind that surveys don’t have to be time-consuming ordeals—asking a few short questions every couple of weeks is more than enough.

Looking for more tips and ideas to prioritize SEL? Check out this blog post for 6 Strategies to Incorporate Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom!