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Student Well-Being Opinion

Social-Emotional Skills Should Be an Integral Part of Every Lesson We Teach

September 06, 2017 4 min read
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By Lyon Terry

As social and emotional learning has come to the forefront in education, what teachers worry about is another initiative piled on our already crowded desks. Rarely is anything taken off, so teachers tend to view any new initiative with caution.

But as I have come to understand and teach social and emotional skills (SEL), I’ve learned they can’t be—indeed, should not be—viewed as something separate from our lessons, or something to be taught one hour a week. These skills are part of everything we do. Many teachers know this already and are ready and willing to bring this instruction out in the open. It’s time to embrace SEL as an integral part of every lesson, because these skills support students in learning academic content AND in becoming the citizens we want them to be.

In Washington State, we define social and emotional learning as “a process through which people build awareness and skills in managing emotions, setting goals, establishing relationships and making responsible decisions, leading to success in school and in life.” Last year, I was part of a group of teachers in the Seattle Public Schools who pilot-tested a literacy curriculum provided by the Center for the Collaborative Classroom. This year it was adopted across our 52,000 student district. We now have a reading and writing approach that incorporates goals for social and

emotional learning into every lesson. Both teachers and students will benefit.

The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development is taking a similar approach, stressing the need to truly integrate all types of learning. The Commission has released a case study that explores different curricula that can help teachers attend to all of these dimensions of learning, including the Center for the Collaborative Classroom lessons that we’re teaching in Seattle.

What does this look like in practice? The 9- and 10-year-olds in my 4th grade classroom are taught during a reading lesson to be good communicators. Kids talk with one another about the content, but I teach them to face each other during a conversation, to take turns talking, and to respond in a way that continues the conversation. Some of the prompts in the curriculum include:

“In addition to what _____ said...”

“I agree with ____ because...”

“I disagree with ___ because...”

We also practice techniques for respectful interaction in class, using a “fish bowl” exercise where a volunteer students model how to talk and listen and how to be a good partner and solve problems together. These integrated lessons help students know that when they share an idea or an opinion, it won’t be immediately shot down or laughed at. They know what it means to play games fairly and by the rules, because I teach these skills. This specific instruction calms emotions during games and group work and allows students to focus. When we establish classrooms in which students communicate well and have positive mindsets, then they will be more open to new ideas, to making mistakes, and to learning from them. This is important in literacy, math, science, and every content area. (See my conversation with Bill Gates about this.)

Respectful classroom talk also takes place when we’re studying science and doing any group task. “How can you break the task apart so everyone participates?” “How can you ensure that each voice is heard?” “Can you monitor your ‘airtime’?” Before kids set off to their investigations, they respond to these questions. At the end of the lesson, these are the questions I ask students to reflect on. They know that being a good group member is valued, recognized and important.

“Why do you think that?” or “Can you add on to that?” These are phrases and skills we all need in our daily lives to participate in our world, so we should explicitly teach them in classrooms. Think about your workplace: Don’t you appreciate people who effectively collaborate? We need to teach our rising citizens how to do this.

Integrating social and emotional skills with our content lessons helps our students see others as thoughtful, engaged people. These skills give them the ability to interact, create knowledge together, and understand an individual’s role in group dynamics. Social and emotional skills are also the roots of love and empathy, emotions that are needed today more than ever.

If we don’t teach to the heart, we will never reach the mind.

Lyon Terry, NBCT, is the 2015 Washington State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). He teaches 4th grade in the Seattle Public Schools and is a member of the Council of Distinguished Educators for the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Follow him on Twitter @lyonterry.

Source: Image by Laurie Calvert. Reused with permission from National Network of State Teachers of the Year.

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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