Social Emotional Learning, or S.E.L., has always been important in the classroom. However, it is becoming more explicitly taught in recent years. As primary teachers, we have probably already been doing many things to foster and encourage SEL elements. We create a warm, inclusive environment intuitively. We help students learn routines that are essential in a group learning environment. We help students navigate peer conflict that may arise.
How can we take this even further by teaching more purposefully and creating a positive classroom that incorporates SEL directly? And once we identify what to do, how can we get started? And what if you feel pressure to fit in your SEL teaching along with academics?
These topics are explored below, with some quick tips and examples to get started.
Many students do not have the emotional literacy that we assume they have. I had a student who simply could not easily identify a peer’s emotions by looking at his face. He also didn’t understand that we all share the same emotions. Through a lot of practice, he was able to realize that facial expressions and body language could show how a person is feeling. Another challenge was matching an emotion to an event; this student could tell a face was sad, but could not give an example of a time when he was sad, or an event that might make most people sad. Instead of assuming all of your students have this understanding, take some time to discuss emotions and what they look like. This can be done many different ways:
-Look in books and magazines to find photos and illustrations of faces. How do you think these people are feeling? What is happening in the story to make them feel that way? Do you have a similar experience?
-Create simple faces on sticks and talk about the differences. Is this one happy? What is something that makes YOU feel happy?
-Take photos of students with different facial expressions and make a collage for them. Before you take a picture, say “You dropped your cookie on the ground. How do you feel? Show me in your face and body.” Compare the happy or sad faces of different students and talk about how they are the same or different.
-Use small mirrors so students can see their own faces. Let them see what they look like as their emotions change. Most students find this fascinating!
-Partner Games: Students take turns making a face that represents an emotion. The partner tries to guess and name the emotion.
Emotional Check In
Take a few moments in the morning to check in with students about how they are feeling. This validates their emotions and builds that connection between peers and teachers. This can be done in several ways:
-Morning Meeting Circle: Students sit in a circle each morning and tell about a “high” and a “low” of their day so far. This gives them a safe place to talk about things they may be sad about, and notice that others also have these feelings. It also encourages them to focus on something good that is happening in their lives, and starts a habit of gratitude even when everything is not perfect.
-Check In Jars: Students put a stick with their name or photo on it into the emotion jar that matches their feelings that day. If students put their picture into the sad or anxious jar, it signals to the teacher that something emotional is happening and that may need a short discussion, a front-loading before certain activities, or just an extra hug that day.
-Feelings Journals: Students can draw a picture of how they feel, and talk about why they feel that way. After a few entries or class shares, students notice that some students may feel differently about the same things. They may also notice that emotions change and are not permanent. This is a powerful realization and coping tool.
The first goal as the school year begins is to find a connection with each student. Students need to have a personal connection with you in order to build the trust and comfort level needed to learn. How can we find these connections? A personal connection can arise out of simple conversation with students, or supporting them during struggles, or even a joke shared about something funny that happened. You could try a personal handshake, or take an interest to show that you care about their lives.
“How was your birthday party over the weekend? I remember my 8th birthday…”
“Do you have any pets? What are their names? I have a cat named Fluffy and she is always getting into trouble!”
“I noticed your big sister sounded a bit mad today. I don’t have a big sister, but I have a big brother. Sometimes he would get mad at me. Here’s what happened one day…”
Mistakes Are Okay
One thing we know for sure is that mistakes will happen. We know for sure that we don’t succeed in everything the first time.
“Mistakes always happen. You got the first mistake out of the way! Is there anything we can learn from that mistake? Let’s make friends with mistakes because they help us.”
“Should we make a deal? How about I won’t be upset if you make a mistake, if you won’t be upset when I make a mistake. Is that a good deal?”
Make Time To Play
For students, play is hard work! It is through this free play that the best natural and relevant SEL learning can take place. These are powerful experience specifically because they are relevant and important to students. It gives students opportunities for experience with cooperative learning. This can be tricky as students all come with their own skills, personalities and needs.
“What can we do when both of you want to use the same blocks?”
“What can we do when the blocks fall down and we feel frustrated?”
“How do you think our friend feels when we laugh when his block tower falls down?
“If your creation does not work, can you change your idea and try a new approach?”
“How can we make sure everyone gets a turn?”
“Did you all agree on the rules of the game before you started to play?”
“How can you decide who goes first?”
“What are some teamwork strategies we can write on a list?”
“Why is it important to find ways for everyone to feel like it’s fair?”
Use Social Stories
Social stories are short and simple stories about daily routines in a classroom environment, such as walking in the hall, or having a fire drill. They state the topic, expected behaviors, and why it is important to everyone’s success that the rules be followed. The advantages of social stories is that it gives the class a focus for thinking and discussing, common language, and a reference point to refer back to when situations arise in the classroom.
“Why should be walk quietly in the hallways? What if we don’t?”
“What might you be feeling during a fire drill? What are some safe and unsafe choices?”
“When you are frustrated, can you use a calm-down strategy?”
“Everyone feels anxious sometimes. Let’s practice some self-talk to help us feel better.”
Integrate SEL and Writing
Many teachers feel swamped with the amount of curriculum that needs to be covered. Adding SEL lessons on top of that seems impossible. The answer is to integrate. We already mentioned above that you can integrate SEL topics during play, but is it also a meaningful topic for writing. You can start an SEL Journal to write and reflect in each day, or start a Problem Solving Journal where students can write about social problems they have, and ask for input from others. For younger students, they can write cards or notes to promote kindness and gratitude each day. All of these are meaningful ways to offer cross-curricular SEL thinking.
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