Student Well-Being

Can Bite-Sized Lessons Make Social-Emotional Learning Easier to Teach?

By Arianna Prothero — September 10, 2019 6 min read
Second graders shake hands with classmates at Hagginwood Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif. The school uses small lessons to build social-emotional learning skills.
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Teaching social-emotional skills in class sounds great, and the idea has a broad and growing following in K-12 schools.

In practice, however, executing evidence-based strategies to teach skills like empathy and self-control to students can be challenging for schools, and prohibitively so.

Comprehensive SEL curricula on the market today can be expensive, putting them out of reach for lower-income school districts. They are complex and can be difficult to graft onto existing curricula and school day routines. And they may not be culturally relevant to all students.

Enter kernels: a cost-effective method to teach social-emotional skills in flexible, bite-sized lessons being pioneered and piloted by the Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning—or EASEL—laboratory at Harvard University.

The idea for developing kernels grew out of what EASEL researchers were hearing from educators on why they were holding back from teaching social-emotional skills.

“Folks wanted to do it, but they wanted it to be integrated in the instructional work they are already doing,” said Stephanie Jones, the director of EASEL. “We began to think about the problem of implementation by brainstorming ways to do SEL in little bites, in small, routine, structure-based ways that you could imbed in a school in a way that is harder to do with a curriculum.”

Research has found that strong social-emotional skills are linked to better achievement, attendance, and mental health in students, to name a few benefits. These attributes are also valuable for creating positive school environments and for students’ success in the workforce and life.

'Kernels' for Teaching Social-Emotional Skills

Belly Breathing
What is it? A calming breathing technique
What is it about? Practicing emotion/behavior regulation
Target grade: All grades
What it looks like: Teachers have students breathe deeply through their noses and notice their bellies expand, and then exhale through their mouths and notice as their bellies collapse. Teachers then ask students if they felt a difference before and after the breaths. They ask students to think of times during the day—at school and at home—to use belly breathing to calm their emotions.

Magic 8 Ball
What is it? A discussion strategy
What is it about? Building problem-solving skills
Target grade: All grades
What it looks like: Teachers ask: “If a person does X, what might happen?” Students then “look” inside their magic 8 balls and give potential consequences of the action, as well as the consequences of their prior responses. Teachers can follow up by asking students if they see the consequences discussed as positive, negative, or neutral, and what other situations they might need to imagine an outcome.

Dear Abby
What is it? A discussion that uses scenarios to explore character and citizenship
What is it about? Making responsible, ethical, healthy choices in difficult situations
Target grade: 5th grade
What it looks like: Using a dilemma from a Dear Abby column, teachers ask students to discuss solutions in small groups or to role-play what different dilemmas and their solutions might look like. Teachers then ask whether students need additional information to better understand the dilemma and how they think other characters in the scenario would see the situation.

To make these benefits more widely available to schools, Jones and her team set out to find common elements in existing SEL programs. For example, every curriculum they examined had a strategy for teaching students how to calm down when dealing with big emotions—physiological regulation is the technical term. Then they built kernels around those common elements.

Kernels are also designed to be adaptable. Teachers are encouraged to tinker with the kernels and mold them to the needs and interests of their classrooms. If their students are really into Star Wars, and a particular kernel teaches a breathing exercise in order to help students self-regulate, a teacher could call it “Darth Vader breathing,” said Jones.

“Everyone in the school has agency and ownership over the process,” she said. “But at the same time, the core of the strategy is still grounded in an evidence base.”

To an outsider, kernels may look like ice-breaker activities with a series of questions at the end that get students “thinking about their thinking,” said Christopher Williams. He helped Jones pilot kernels in a couple of elementary schools in Sacramento, Calif., while he was a graduate student. He is now the mental health services coordinator for the Sacramento County Office of Education.

For example, one kernel includes a game of focus called Zip, Zap, Zop. A student will clap their hands toward a peer of their choice and say “zip.” The receiving student will then clap their hands at another peer and say “zap,” and so on. If a student breaks the chain by saying zip, zap, or zop out of order, they’re out of the game.

Then come the questions, said Williams.

“What was the point? Is it important to focus? And then what strategies did you use?” he said. “What are other areas of the school day or your life where it is important to focus?”

These small exercises are showing promising results in some schools.

Suspensions Plummet

One of the early schools to pilot kernels was Hagginwood Elementary in Sacramento, where Gina Pasquini is the principal. Her students bring a lot of stress with them to school. They come from poor families. Many have a parent in jail. And a sizable percentage are homeless.

Students often acted out in school, resulting in high rates of discipline. The school of 380 K-6 students had 120 out-of-school suspensions in 2016-17. That’s when Pasquini launched an effort to turn those numbers around, in part by using kernels to teach social-emotional skills.

The transition from recess back into the classroom was a particularly fraught time in the school.

“Students would really hang onto whatever issue they had with another student, or if they had been reprimanded by one of the [staff on recess duty], they would just bring that into the classroom and not be able to move on from it,” said Pasquini.

So teachers began using exercises after recess that included structured discussions about what took place during recess, and if there had been a problem, how students could solve it and move on. The goal is to help them leave behind the drama of the playground and refocus on their academics.

The school has seen the number of suspensions drop. In 2017-18, suspensions were halved to 66. Last year, the school logged only 25. The number of times students were sent to the principal’s office for discipline also declined significantly.

“The culture here is completely different than it was three years ago,” Pasquini said. “I have way less teacher turnover. … They were completely burnt out. They want to be teachers, not just counselors or crowd control.”

Second graders at Hagginwood Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., play a game in their classroom after recess to help them move past conflicts that may have happened on the playground.

The ease of implementation was a big draw for Pasquini. Kernel activities come printed on small cards that are color-coded for the category of skill they are aimed at developing. Each activity takes only about 10 minutes—with very little teacher prep or training required—and can be done inside and outside of the classroom.

Kernels, said Jones, can be woven through the entire school day, embedded in existing curriculum and executed not just in the classroom, but in the cafeteria, the playground, and in the hallways.

“Sometimes what can happen with SEL is that it gets relegated to a special space,” said Jones. “Like … the school counselor comes in and teaches it on Friday afternoon, and that separates the work into one spot. But SEL is in every setting and interaction. It’s part of being human. If things get separated into one space, the work is not happening as effectively as it should.”

Need for Explicit Teaching

Lawrence Aber, a professor of psychology and public policy at New York University, describes the first generation of social-emotional programs as having positive results but hard for schools to implement because of their complexity. He’s optimistic that the kernels method will bring a purposeful approach to teaching SEL skills into more schools.

Schools, he said, are teaching social-emotional learning, or character development, whether they intend to or not.

“It’s not whether schools have a social-emotional curriculum—it’s how explicit it is and how evidenced-based it is,” he said. “If you hit kids or let them run wild, that’s training kids not to self-regulate.”

But, Aber said, even among SEL advocates, not everyone is sold on the idea of kernels.

“I think there is a variable reception along the lines of ‘leave my programs alone’ to ‘hallelujah for something bite-sized, evidence-based, and easier to manage,’ ” he said.

Joe Aleardi runs a summer academic program for disadvantaged students in Bridgeport, Conn., and he has seen kernels work well in that environment. Horizons at Green Academy was the first testing ground for kernels, and teachers there have been using them for three summers now.

Because they only have students for six weeks, Horizons focuses on a couple of core skills for each grade such as learning how to focus or express their emotions.

To help them practice focusing, they play a game called “My Hat Has Three Corners,” in which students learn a chant and then have to repeat it while replacing certain words with hand motions. To help students build a vocabulary for expressing their feelings, teachers may choose to do what’s called a “feeling circle,” where students are encouraged to explore their emotions in-depth as teachers prompt them with questions like, “What do feelings feel like in your body?”

“Some of these SEL skills that we are teaching don’t always get picked up unless taught explicitly [and] are going to be the difference in allowing our kids to be successful contributing members of society as well as their ability to be able to read and do math,” said Aleardi.

“You can’t have one without the other.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Bite-Sized Lessons Aim to Make SEL Easier for Schools to Teach


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