Social emotional learning is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. We as educators owe dedication to social and emotional learning to every tiny human we have the privilege to have in our class. Skills that deal with social and emotional situations are crucial not just in the classroom, but all throughout life. We as teachers should help be the support for our students to begin to understand how to effectively navigate through all their emotions, feelings, and behaviors. In this post, I will give you ideas and great ways on how to add this necessary piece in your classroom. Not only will these critical skills be honed in on, everyone will have fun learning and growing!
I’d love to tell you a personal story. It’s 2020, my son is in preschool transitioning to a new room, and we as parents were not allowed in the building. After school, gone were our outings to museums, parks, or libraries because of the quarantine, AND he had to adjust to a new baby sister that joined the family. This all happened within a span of a few weeks. Needless to say, we had a hard time, at home and at school. School behaviors were a tad unacceptable, so naturally explicit social emotional teaching was key in our home. Finally after MONTHS, we were able to meet his teachers and of course, all that teaching paid off.
His teachers told us that our son is such a caring, compassionate child. We heard that ANYTIME a friend is hurt, he goes right over to lend a hand. When he intentionally hurt a friend, he apologized for his actions and checked in. It was all I needed to hear. Afterwards, my husband asked me why the majority of the conversation was spent discussing his social skills, instead of academics. I told him that in these early years of childhood, educators have a responsibility to also teach children how to interact with others and the world, as well as to problem solve. We must spend time fostering empathy for one another and being a sweet person to ALL. I walked out of that meeting today feeling so proud of my son for being a kind human, but more importantly realized just how crucial social and emotional education is.
We have had to work SO hard at home to build empathy and compassion for others. We work tirelessly to teach kindness and build capacity for this tiny human to solve problems on his own and basically be awesome independently. Now I’m not saying this to brag about my kid or my parenting, but instead to show the importance of the type of teaching it took and the benefits we reaped. So let’s get into how we can do this in our classrooms!
Community Comes First
First thing to do is spend time building a loving community with your class.
Model, Model, and Model Some More
Just like we teach and model expectations, we must also teach and EXPLICITLY model behavior as well. Imagine your new group of students you have or are about to have in front of you. Would you teach them the procedure for using the bathroom or how to get a pencil? Of course! And of course we must teach them how to express themselves and show kindness to everyone. I am a HUGE proponent of explicit modeling for students. I believe that no matter the skill students are being taught, we must model for them what it looks like and what it sounds like. In order to do that, we must think through what we need to model.
Think about how we communicate, how we calm ourselves when upset, how we work together, etc. While teaching, I model A LOT and then provide opportunities for them to practice what we’ve learned. We must allow ample practice time for students to work through these skills in order for them to become successful at doing it. I also like to show students what it doesn’t look like so that they see when they need to redirect. Always remember, while students are practicing what it looks like, they get to watch YOU practicing what it doesn’t look like. They love watching you make mistakes or be silly and really love to correct you. However, you NEVER want students to practice what it doesn’t look like. We want them only displaying the modeled correct behavior!
I LOVE using literature to teach different skills and topics to students. There are so many wonderful books to help students relate to and understand big and heavy topics in a safe way. Read alouds allow us to facilitate great conversations, discuss misconceptions, and open up for so many other companion activities to help practice skills. There are SO many amazing Social Emotional books out there and the list just keeps growing and growing! Usually, Google and social media platforms are some of my favorite ways to learn about and find new books. Take a look at this POST that includes some of my favorite SEL books and what great topics they cover! I would definitely check out @diversereads as a start on the journey to finding books you’d love to use.
Expressing yourself is a super important skill when it comes to social and emotional well-being and we’re not born knowing how to do it in an effective and respectful way. I want you to think about your students again and their background. Do they know how to effectively communicate? Have they ever been taught how to express themselves? Do they have the language to do it effectively? Maybe. However, some adults are still learning how to do this, so we of course have to teach the littles our expectations. As with every other expectation, we must MODEL and PRACTICE over and over again.
One of my favorite ways to teach young learners how to express themselves to let someone know that something has upset them is by reading, A Bug and a Wish by Karen Scheuer. This book is a great way to introduce the concept of speaking up. It teaches a very simple and effective way to say, “Hey. I don’t like that. Please fix it.” Check out the poster that I love using below. It provides students with the language they need so that they can begin to express themselves in a respectful way.
Introducing I Statements is another great tool for students to use while communicating how they feel. Here’s an example, “I feel sad when you say things about my shoes. I want you to stop doing that.” Or “I feel angry when you don’t include me. I want to play together.” These respectful, direct statements help students express how they feel and state what they want. Anchor charts are a great way to give students a constant reference when learning how to express themselves. I keep our behavior charts up the entire year for students to refer back to when expressing themselves and solving problems. Providing students with sentence stems scaffolds learning and helps to build the capacity to learn how to express feelings independently.
One activity I love using at the beginning of the year is Emotions Uno. It is a fun way for students to begin learning how to express themselves and know that they are in a safe environment to share their feelings.
We need effective communicators so that we can solve problems. The goal is to teach students to know how to solve problems independently, or at least attempt to do before seeking help from an adult, or having a meltdown. At the beginning of each year we learn about Big and Little Problems and the difference between the two. Then we learn ways to independently solve our little problems. If you’ve taught primary students you know exactly how exhausting it can be to help solve ALL those little problems throughout the day- “She’s looking at me.” “I lost my pencil.” “My crayon broke.” The list goes ON and ON. Instead, use this lesson HERE so students can learn to be independent problem solvers! After subscribing, you will have EXCLUSIVE access to the Size of the Problem DIGITAL Sort pictured below, as well as my entire FREEBIE resource library!
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In class we have to solve problems together. But of course we have to teach expectations for how we work together. How are we a team? What does that look and sound like? Well we know that we HAVE to learn to work together since we are spending the entire year together learning and growing. Again, there are some WONDERFUL books that we can use to learn why it’s important to be a team. One of my favorites to use is, Teamwork Isn’t My Thing and I Don’t Like to Share. We read this book together and discuss the importance of teamwork and why we are a team. Then comes the fun part, team building activities! Below I’ve listed just a few of my favorites. These can all be easily adapted for social distancing by just a few masks and a couple gloves.
Cup Stacking- Students start in their table groups just stacking cups to make one structure using their hands. Give them about 5 minutes then each group talks about how they worked together and what they made. The 2nd time they are not allowed to use their hands to move the cups. We give each table group a rubber band with pieces of string attached and they have to use that to move and stack. Afterwards talk about the difference and how they had to work together to get the cups stacked.
Worm and Lifesaver- This is prepped with a gummy worm, a gummy lifesaver, a plastic cup and 4 paper clips. The cup is flipped over and the lifesaver is inside it, with the gummy worm on top. The students have to get the cup off the lifesaver and the lifesaver around the gummy worm without touching either of them. Teamwork is key!
Hula Hoop Challenge- Students hold hands in a circle, put hula-hoop on one student’s arm and they have to get the hula-hoop all the way around the circle without letting go of each other’s hands and whoever can do it the fastest wins. If anyone lets go, then we will start over.
Lily Pads Game- Students are split into 4 Groups of 6 (or the closest you can get to this with your class size). Each student in their group will get only ONE piece of paper (so that they will each have 6 pieces of paper). As a group they will have to make it from one side of the carpet to the next by only stepping on their paper. Their entire team has to make it across the carpet to win. This activity always challenges students to determine how to work together to get everyone across the carpet!
Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship- Students pair off to play a game of rock, paper, scissors. When they lose, they become a cheerleader to the person they lost to. The winner will then find another opponent. By the end, there should only be two players left but they each have a TON of cheerleaders! It’s such a fun way to cheer each other on and have fun!
Something really important after completing activities like this is to have a debrief but what we thought and why we do this. You can Think Aloud “I really liked”…. or “I thought”….. “What Did You Think?” and have students share as well. This fosters more effective communication and great social skills.
Knowing when and how to apologize in a meaningful way is a crucial communication skill that must be explicitly taught. How many times have you encountered a kid mumbling, “sorry.”? This is where we step in by teaching them what it looks and sounds like to apologize. I like to use this poster to help students effectively apologize in a way that matters. Then, we MODEL and PRACTICE. We must create a safe space for students to express themselves and we do that by setting expectations for peers to communicate, problem solve and apologize when they’re wrong. We must teach them how to do these things and why it matters. Take the time to act out scenarios and role-play. If you spend ample time at the beginning of the year, you will be amazed at how students are able to effectively communicate and solve their problems.
These gatherings are the perfect way to kickstart your day! Morning Meetings can help you gauge how students are doing each day, have important discussions about social and emotional skills, reminders of expectations and goals, or just to talk about the exciting things you’ll learn that day. There are tons of different prompts out there for you to have deep and meaningful conversations. They don’t need to be long and it’s a great way to continue to strengthen your community. Morning Meeting Book is a wonderful resource to learn more about the impact of these gatherings.
Connection Circles are an amazing way to….you guessed it- CONNECT! It’s a part of our morning meeting and we have one at the beginning of each day. We set the tone for our classroom that each morning we will come together to be heard. This shows students that ALL of their voices are valued and it also sets the expectation for communication and collaboration. While I never force students to speak on a topic, I do prompt to give the opportunity to do so twice. We may discuss things such as favorite things, how we’re feeling, or would you rather scenarios to talk through some things. By having a consistent daily time, it gives students a structure and routine where they can interact respectfully.
Restorative Circles are much different than your daily connection circle. These meetings are a wonderful tool to use when behaviors have disrupted the safe space of the classroom. The goal of these circles are to restore the trust and confidence to share about their feelings. So what might this look like? Let’s say that someone has been stealing from classmates. The restorative circle is a way to communicate that the displayed behavior is not tolerated in our classroom. It also gives those affected a way to share how it has made them feel, without singling anyone out. We give students the language to express themselves. For example, “My new brush was stolen from my backpack and it really makes me sad.”
Restorative circles can be used to manage lots of different types of conflicts between students. They can be used with the whole class or even just two students. To learn more about Restorative Justice Practices, this article is a great place to start. If you would like to learn more about having a Responsive Classroom and Morning Meetings, check out this post HERE.
Even when we know how to express ourselves, sometimes our feelings are too big for the moment. What happens when our students are SO upset that we are not ready to learn? How can we teach them to handle our big emotions in a safe way? Two words: Chill Zone. It could also be called the Peace Place, Calm Down Corner, etc. No matter what you call it, this is a designated space students can go and learn how to manage their feelings.
When introducing the space to students, I love reading Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns It’s Ok to Back Away and Little Monkey Calms Down. Both books are great for learning to understand when our bodies are tense. After reading, we create a Signs of Tension Anchor Chart, discussing that when our body feels this way, we need to use strategies to regulate our bodies. Check it out below!
Our “Chill Zone” is also equipped with different calming tools that can be used. Just like everything else in our classroom, how to use this zone should EXPLICITLY taught and modeled. We also must learn how to time ourselves and how much time we spend calming. And of course we PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. One thing to note here is that this space is NOT a time out or punishment. This area is a tool for self-regulation so students learn to recognize when they need to calm down. Of course as teachers we can help students recognize if they are upset, but we do not force students to use this place. If ample time is spent practicing and modeling, this space becomes a very effective way for students to learn how to manage their own big emotions. I love this Calm Down Spot kit found HERE!
Learning to express yourself, apologize, and calm down are all really tough skills and a growth mindset ensures that we’re confident enough to pick yourself up and try again if you get it wrong the first time. There are ENDLESS books that cover having a growth mindset that really helps students connect and understand what it means to have one. In addition to great literature, one of my FAVORITE tools to teach growth mindset is with The Class Dojo mini series! These are 5 short videos that can be watched over a week’s time that can lead to some great discussions about having a growth mindset.
I also love using this anchor chart pictured below that goes great with lessons about goal setting! The two topics really go hand in hand and help students recognize that we are ALWAYS learning and growing. My favorite is when students start to learn about having a fixed vs growth mindset, and start to recognize it in themselves or each other! Teaching students this vocabulary, while creating a supporting environment, can really help students grow in their social and emotional health. It allows them to push themselves and others to continue to get better. It is truly a beautiful, magical thing that can be created in your classroom.
Simple mental health check-ins are an easy way to gauge where your students are at emotionally and can help you plan how to address feelings that need support. Maslow must always come before Bloom. If students aren’t having their basic needs met, how on Earth could we expect them to be ready to learn? Check-ins can be conducted at the beginning and/or end of the day and can be as simple as having students mark their feelings on an emotion board. Keeping it simple and consistent is what will make a huge impact. They’ll know you always keep their wellbeing at the forefront.
If you have a student who is really struggling, check-ins could be required more often. Sometimes you might also need outside resources to check in. Maybe your student doesn’t feel comfortable with you yet or maybe they have a really strong connection with another adult in the building. Collaborate for the sake of your student’s mental health. Direct them to a trusted individual so they can feel safe and supported. As educators we know that we are ALWAYS better together. USE your resources. Reach out to colleagues to give a helping hand with students who are really struggling or ask them to help you if you’re ever struggling to make a connection with a particular kid. Help foster those other relationships and help your students be comfortable sharing their feelings with someone, even if it’s not you.
Other Social Emotional Resources
Ample practice is the key to truly building these skills. There are some really great resources to help form these habits. Boom Cards are a super engaging way to practice skills such as How to Be a Good Friend , Making Good Choices and Big and Little Problems! If you would like any other SEL skills for Boom Cards please drop a comment below! Another great resource that supports SEL in the classroom is Random Acts of Kindness. It is an amazing FREE curriculum that can really make a difference with your students. Lastly, The Responsive Classroom is a wonderful tool to use while teaching Social Emotional learning to your students. Check them all out to find out what works for your students best!
I hope it shines through how passionate I am about social emotional learning. This is a LIFE SKILL that students need to know. Of course we need to teach them to read and how to do math, but it is also just as, if not more important, to teach them how to build social and emotional health. They need to learn how to communicate, how to ask for what they need, how to manage their emotions and learn how to solve their problems. If you utilize these strategies, you will see just how amazing your students are at becoming masters of their emotions and social relationships!
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