Social emotional learning is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. I had a reminder this week of why the explicit teaching of these skills is so important for our kiddos, especially in these crucial younger years. During the quarantine, my son switched to an older preschool room and we were not allowed in the building. A staff member would come to get him and contact was strictly email, conference calls, or texts through an app. When he switched classrooms, we also had to deal with no longer having outings to museums, parks, or libraries because of the “virus”. Add on top of that, 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. And this week, for the first time in MONTHS, I was able to meet his teachers. And of course, all that teaching paid off.
We sat in this meeting to hear that our son is such a caring and compassionate child. We were told that ANYTIME a friend is hurt he goes right over to check in with them. Anytime he does something to hurt a friend intentionally he immediately apologizes for his actions and checks in. This. This is why we teach social emotional learning. After leaving that meeting, 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, and even throughout high school and college, it is our responsibility as educators to ensure we are taking time to teach children how to interact and problem solve. We must spend the time helping children build empathy for one another and being a kind human to ALL. I walked out of that meeting today feeling so proud of my son for being a kind human. I also walked out of there knowing how important this work is and exactly how much children need this from us, especially now. This made everything finally feel worthwhile.
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 to show the importance of the type of teaching it took and the benefits we reaped. We as educators owe dedication to social and emotional learning to every tiny human we have the privilege to have in our class. Most days it feels like we get nothing in return. It feels like we are not doing enough and that we are failing as parents but we’re not. These social emotional skills are crucial in the classroom, even if you are learning digitally, because no matter where your students are they need you and your support. Think of all your students and what they’ve gone through these past few months as well. My son has a loving home with two parents who care deeply for him and he STILL struggles SO much on a daily basis. Unfortunately, many of our students might not have this same set up and some of these babies have been through so much. Without the right supports, they probably can’t even begin to understand how to effectively navigate through all their emotions, feelings, and behaviors. I hope this post can give you some ideas on some great ways on how to add this necessary piece in your classroom. First is by building a loving community with your class. I’ve talked in a previous post on how to virtually build your classroom community and you can read that HERE.
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, model, model, and model some more. And then provide opportunities for them to practice what we’ve learned. Just like practicing routines, we practice our social emotional routines as well. We must allow ample practice time for students to work through these skills in order for them to become successful at doing it. You also want to show what it doesn’t look like so that they see when they need to redirect. While students are practicing what it looks like, they get to watch YOU practicing what it doesn’t look like. This is always the fun part because they love watching you make mistakes or be silly and they love to correct you. But you NEVER want students to practice what it doesn’t look like. We want them only displaying the modeled correct behavior. Doing this from a distance is definitely going to be a challenge, but what’s a teacher’s job without challenges right? Here you’ll read about ways to bring forth discussions, important topics to explicitly teach when thinking about all that encompasses these social and emotional skills, and some strategies and resources to utilize with students. I hope these ideas can help inspire you to take this challenge head on for the benefit of all the tiny humans in your class!
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.
Reading books can help provide students with language they can use to express themselves effectively. 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? 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. So how do we begin expressing ourselves in conversation? One of my favorite ways to teach young learners how to let someone know that something has upset them is by reading, A Bug and a Wish by Karen Scheuer. This book is also a great way to introduce the concept. 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 before a meltdown or seeking an adult. A great lesson I facilitate with students at the beginning of each year is about Big and Little Problems. We discuss the difference between Big and Little Problems and ways we can independently solve our little problems. If you have taught primary students you know exactly how exhausting it can be to help solve ALL those little problems they have throughout the day- “She’s looking at me.” “I lost my pencil.” “My crayon broke.” The list goes ON and ON. I love using this lesson HERE to help work through problems and learn to be independent problem solvers. By 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.
Another crucial communication skill is knowing when and how to apologize in a meaningful way. This has to be explicitly taught. How many times have you encountered a kid doing something to upset someone else and their way of apologizing is by 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. Just like everything else, we MODEL and PRACTICE. We must create a safe space for students to express themselves. Setting expectations for an environment where your peers are communicating, problem solving and apologizing when their wrong is how we create that safe space. We must teach them how to do it and why it matters. 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. Take the time to act out scenarios and role-play.
These gatherings are the perfect way to kickstart your day and continue to grow together and learn more about each other. Morning Meetings can help you gauge how your students are doing each day and have important discussions about social and emotional skills, expectations and goals, or just to talk about the exciting things you’ll learn that day. I would suggest beginning each morning with a meeting together. There are tons of different prompts out there for you to have deep and meaningful conversations. These meetings don’t have to be long but it’s a great way to continue to build those connections and be a community together. Morning Meeting Book is a wonderful resource to learn more about the impact of these meetings. As overwhelming as it is to think about how to make all these classroom moments happen virtually, try not to let the digital aspect of your teaching stop you from what you know is best practice. I have seen SO many amazing digital resources for Morning Meeting so be sure to do some research!
Connection Circles are an amazing way to….you guessed it- CONNECT! This is a part of our morning meeting and we have one at the beginning of each day. Once we’ve created our safe haven, we can all begin to truly connect with one another. This is a sacred time together that MUST happen everyday if you are committing to build the classroom community best for learning. By beginning your day with a group meeting, you’re setting the tone for your classroom that each morning we will come together to be heard. This gives students time to know that ALL of their voices are valued. This 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. Everyone still sits in a circle but in this circle, but this is to help regain calm in the classroom. These meetings are a wonderful tool to use when there have been behaviors displayed that have disrupted the safe space of the classroom. This helps to restore the trust and confidence to share about their feelings. 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 the victims a way to share how it has made them feel without singling anyone out. We give students the language to express themselves again. For example, “My new brush was stolen from my backpack and it really makes me sad.” This way the student states how they feel about what has happened to them and lets the person who stole know how that made them feel. 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 the feelings are too big for the moment. So what happens when someone or something makes us angry or sad and we are SO upset that we are not ready to learn? How do we handle our big emotions in a safe way? Two words: Chill Zone. There are lots of different names for it: Chill Zone, 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. There are a few books I love to read when I introduce the calming space to students. Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns It’s Ok to Back Away and Little Monkey Calms Down are great for learning to understand when our bodies are tense. After reading, together we create a Signs of Tension Anchor Chart. We discuss that when our body feels this way, we need to use strategies in our space to regulate our bodies before we are ready to learn again. You can see the anchor chart below. You can also see different calming tools I have in my “Chill Zone” that can be used. How to use this zone is another piece that is EXPLICITLY taught and modeled. Because there are lots of “fun” tools that we can use to calm our bodies, expectations MUST be taught. We also must learn how to time ourselves and how much time we spend calming. And of course we PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Now we have a designated space and strategies to manage our feelings and calm our bodies to be ready to learn again. Remember though- This space is NOT a TIME OUT or PUNISHMENT. This is a tool for self-regulation so students learn to recognize when they need to calm down, and as teachers we can help students recognize if they are upset, so 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 along with 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 and 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 and magic thing that can be created in your classroom.
All of these skills tie into our crucial mental health. Simple mental health check-ins is a great easy way to gauge where your students are at and 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 on a board their feeling. If you have a student who is really struggling, check-ins could be required more often. You also might 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. Educators 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 connections and help your students be comfortable sharing their feelings with someone, even if it’s not you.
Virtual Emotional Support
Support shouldn’t stop inside the classroom. If you’re totally virtual or using a hybrid model, you still must facilitate that support while they’re at home. Doing this could look like designated SEL office hours for students to check in if needed. You could create a separate support room for students to log on and help each other. Whatever you do, I think this will be CRUCIAL to ensure your students are feeling supported while at home. Set expectations and boundaries for kids to understand that feelings and emotions should be felt and expressed but in a positive way. Are they struggling with the new classroom? Hop in the support room and we can talk about it. Are they sad that they can’t see their friends? Invite some kids to the digital office and hang out. Are parents feeling stressed and the kids can tell? Invite the entire family in there to relax, talk and collaborate on some ways to relieve stress. Creating this specific time of support is bound to have students feel safe and they’ll learn so much more throughout the year.
Other Social Emotional Resources
As we’ve talked about, ample practice is the key to truly building these skills. There are some really great resources that open the space to form these habits. Boom Cards are a super engaging way to practice skills and I have created two different sets of SEL Boom Cards: Kids can engage in activities such as How to Be a Good Friend and Making Good Choices. This week I’m introducing a brand new set: 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 a great and FREE curriculum that can really make a difference with your students. The best part is they now have distance-learning lessons!! I have used the lesson ideas along with my own resources to support students. The Responsive Classroom is an additional wonderful tool to use while teaching Social Emotional learning to your students as well.
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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