Social Emotional Learning, or S.E.L., has always been a critical element of a successful classroom. However, it is being taught more explicitly in recent years. As primary teachers, we have probably already been doing many things to foster and encourage SEL in our classroom. Intuitively, we create a warm, inclusive environment. We help students to learn routines that are essential in a group learning environment. We help students to navigate peer conflict that may arise.
How can we go even even further in creating a positive classroom that incorporates SEL principles directly? And once we identify what we have to do, how can we get started? What about when you’re feeling 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 possess the level of emotional literacy that we might assume they do. I had a student who simply could not easily identify a peer’s emotions when looking at his face. He also didn’t understand that we all share the same emotions. Through a lot of practice, this student was able to realize that facial expressions and body language could show how a person is feeling. Another challenge with this student was to match 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 describe an event that might make most people sad. Instead of assuming that all of your students have strong levels of emotional literacy, it’s very helpful 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. Ask your students…how do you think these people are feeling? What is happening in the story to make them feel this way? Have you had a similar experience?
- Create simple faces on sticks and compare them with your students. Is this face happy? What is something that makes YOU feel happy?
- Take photos of students who have different facial expressions and make a collage. Before you take a picture of a student, say “You dropped your cookie on the ground. How do you feel? Show me in your face and body.” Compare the faces of different students and talk with your class about how they are similar 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 acticity to be fascinating!
- Partner Games: Students take turns making a face that represents an emotion. The partner tries to guess and name the emotion.
Take a few moments in the morning to check in with students about how they are feeling. This process validates their emotions and builds a strong connection between student and teacher. 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 process gives them a safe place to talk about things that they may be feeling sad about, and an opportunity to notice that others also have these same feelings. It also encourages students to focus on something good that is happening in their life, and encourages a habit of feeling gratitude, even when everything is not perfect.
- Check-In Jars: The teacher sets up a series of Emotion Jars, each labelled with a different emotion. Students put a stick with their name or photo on it into the Emotion Jar that matches their feelings on that day. If students put their picture into the “Sad” or “Anxious” jar, it signals to the teacher that something emotional is happening to that student and that he or she 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 different students may feel differently about the same things. Students may also notice that emotions change and are not permanent. This is a powerful realization and coping tool.
A major goal for a teacher as the school year begins should be to find a connection with each student. Students need to have a personal connection with you in order to build a level of trust and comfort that allows them to learn effectively. How can we find these connections? A personal connection can arise out of simple conversation with students, from supporting them during struggles, or even from a shared joke 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 always succeed in a task the first time. Talking to students about your own experiences with making mistakes can help them to deal with their own mistakes.
“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 free play that the most natural and relevant SEL learning can take place. These are powerful experiences because they are especially relevant and important to students. Play gives students opportunities for experience with cooperative learning. This can be tricky, though, as students all come with their own skills, personalities and needs. Talking to your students about problems and feelings that come up during play can help them to deal with these issues during play time.
“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 if 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 that 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 simple stories that describe common situations that occur frequently in the classroom. They state a situation clearly, possible feelings that may occur, self-talk strategies that can be helpful, and the desired outcomes. Social stories can deal with daily routines of a classroom environment, such as walking in the hall or having a fire drill, or interpersonal conflicts that often occur during school. A big advantage of social stories is that they give the class a focus for thinking and discussion, a common language, and a reference point to refer back to when situations arise in the classroom or elsewhere at school.
“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 to this expectation can seem impossible! The answer is to integrate. We already mentioned above that you can integrate SEL principles 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 in which students can write about social problems they have and ask for input from others. Younger students can write cards or notes to promote kindness and gratitude each day. All of these activities are meaningful ways to provide cross-curricular SEL content.
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