Teaching Opinion

Response: Several Ways To Apply Social-Emotional Learning Strategies In The Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 31, 2012 8 min read
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Glenda Robertson asked:

“What are some highly-effective must-do social-emotional learning strategies that we can immediately incorporate into our classroom culture?”

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is sometimes also referred to as “character education.” It’s been receiving more and more attention recently, both from researchers and practitioners.

I’m a big believer in helping students develop strategies to strengthen their perseverance, self-control, intrinsic motivation, and healthy ways to deal with stress and conflict -- among many other qualities -- and think it’s fairly easy to integrate lessons with literacy development. I’ve gathered related resources and lesson plans at The Best Resources On Social Emotional Learning.

These ideas have also been covered in previous posts here, including in Several Ways To Respond To “Unpredictable” Student Behavior and in Several Ways To ‘Motivate’ the Unmotivated To Learn.

I do have some questions about the push to develop official standards for them, though I suppose you could make a case that those are useful for pushing administrators to provide classroom time for SEL lessons.

I also think it’s an awful idea to actually grade students on these character traits, a practice that some charter schools have begun recently. It seems to me that we tend to “beat” enough intrinsic motivation out of our students with testing and grading now, and that carrots and sticks might not work very effectively if we’re trying to help transform character...Instead, it seems to me that we should focus on encouragement and self-reflection, and help students see how developing these qualities are in their short and long-term self interest.

Two guests with a great deal of experience with Social Emotional Learning have agreed to write responses to Glenda’s question today -- Maurice J. Elias, director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab and Tom Roderick, the executive director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. I also include suggestions from readers.

Response From Maurice J. Elias

Maurice J. Elias is a psychology professor at Rutgers University and director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. He is the author of numerous studies on SEL and a regular blogger on the topic for Edutopia. He is the co-author of Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving:

The point of using lessons from a social-emotional learning/social-emotional and character development (SEL/SECD) is to build a set of skills in children that will generalize without adult reminders. Formal lessons only serve to introduce the skills. Carrying out SEL/SECD lessons is not hard. But whether or not the skills are learned and generalized depends on the pedagogical procedure used and the reinforcement of skill use subsequently. Here are some tips for building any SEL/SECD competency effectively:

• Introduce the skill and/or concept and provide motivation for learning; discuss when the skill will and will not be useful.

• Break down the skill into its behavioral components, model them, and clarify with descriptions and behavioral examples of using and not using the skill.

• Provide opportunities for practice of the skill in “kid-tested”, enjoyable activities, to allow for corrective feedback and reinforcement until skill mastery is approached.

• Label the skill with a “prompt or cue” to establish a shared language that can be used to call for the use of the skill in future situations to promote transfer and generalization. For example, in the Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving Curriculum, the skill of self-calming is taught in a teacher-based lesson and labeled with the prompt, “Keep Calm.” When students hear that prompt, they are reminded to use a breathing and self-talk procedure they were taught in the curriculum. Anyone in a school building should know this prompt and use it in a situation to help students calm themselves down, such as before a test, a class presentation, or difficult social task. “Use Keep Calm” invokes the learned skill.

• Assignments for skill practice outside the structured lessons. (E.g., be sure to use Keep Calm before your standardized tests next week)

• Follow-through activities and planned opportunities for using skill prompts in academic content areas, classroom management and everyday interpersonal situations at school and in the home and community.

• Occasional take-home activities or information sheets for parents so they can also recognize when skills are being used and/or prompt their use.

The Reflective Summary

We have found great benefit in concluding each SEL/SECD topic or set of related lessons with a Reflective Summary. The purpose of this is to allow students a chance to think about what they have learned from the topic, as well as to allow teachers/group leaders to see what students are taking away with them. Sometimes, the Reflective Summary can show when students have misunderstandings or uncertainty about what they have learned, suggesting the need for additional instructional activities before moving on in the lesson sequence. Here is the procedure, which we use in Grades 2-12:

“Ask students to reflect on the question, ‘What did you learn from today’s lesson/activity?’ You can do this with the whole group, in a Sharing Circle or related class meeting format, by having students fill out index cards, keep a reflection journal, or other formats as you choose. We recommend that you have some variety in formats. After getting a sense of what the students learned, reinforce key themes that they mentioned and add perhaps one or two that you would like them to keep in mind. Also discuss any follow up assignments or take home materials.”

These instructional suggestions, as well as other related SEL/SECD strategies, can be found in the Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving curricula.

Response From Tom Roderick

Tom Roderick is executive director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, which has been helping New York City public schools foster students’ social and emotional learning since 1983. Tom was a teacher in the NYC public schools and director of the East Harlem Day School, and is author of A School of Our Own: Parents, Power, and Community at the East Harlem Block Schools:

We help teachers foster SEL in two ways: through building a classroom community based on respect, every day of the week; and through weekly lessons aimed specifically at developing students’ social and emotional skills. Here are community building activities we like and are easy to do.

Name games are a good way to start off the year. Kids stand in a circle and toss a soft ball to each other. When a child catches the ball, the class shouts out the child’s name. The game continues till everyone gets a shout-out.

Have a Heart dramatizes the importance of making the classroom a “put-down-free zone.” With a construction paper heart taped to her chest, the teacher tells the story of a child who experiences put-downs throughout her day. At each put-down, the teacher tears a piece from the heart. After a brief discussion (Have you ever had a day like this? How do put-downs make us feel?), she retells the story. But this time the class substitutes put-ups for the put-downs.

Think Differently encourages students of all ages to engage in lively debate while acknowledging that we can disagree--and still treat each other with respect.. The teacher tapes a “Strongly Agree” sign on one side of the classroom and a “Strongly Disagree” sign on the other. The teacher makes a statement and students move to one sign or the other depending on whether they agree or disagree. If they’re undecided, they stand in the middle. Statements can range from the trivial (“Vanilla ice cream is best”) to the more serious (“Kids should only be allowed to watch one hour of TV per day” or “Slavery was the cause of the civil war”). The teacher asks students in each group to explain their view, and students change position if they change their mind during the discussion. If the debate gets too heated, the teacher can ask students to paraphrase the opinion just expressed before putting out their own.

SEL activities are interactive, engaging, and fun for kids and adults--and give students skills they can use for the rest of their lives.

Reader Responses

Andrea Fanjoy wrote:

There are many things a school must do to have significant success with social-emotional learning. If I had to choose one strategy to do first, teach all children how to give ‘I messages’ so they learn how to resolve minor social conflicts well. From the start of grade one, our students are directly taught the names for different emotions, taught to say “I feel sad/mad/etc when you...” They are also taught to listen respectfully, apologise and shake hands. You’ll be amazed how much ability they have if given a simple structure to follow.

“Perpetual Student” made this suggestion:

A block of time should be set aside at the beginning of every year, optimally two or more weeks, when conflict resolution, cooperation and collaboration behaviors, effective ways of communicating, and team-building are constructed and nurtured. After that, it is necessary to keep all of these skills visible and active throughout the school day, regardless of the task.

Lisa S. shared this comment:

I’ve seen very effective instruction in the social emotional realm done through the use of school-wide “class meetings.” These weekly meetings are an opportunity for the teacher to model how to calmly bring up social concerns and problem solve appropriate responses. The buildings where I teach have this directed by the school counselor with her providing training to the teachers and then the teachers training students to “run” the meetings in their presence and with some direction from the teacher. I think if students know that they are going to have an outlet to bring things up to their peers and get some suggestions on how to handle problems, they are less impulsive as they encounter social situations that cause frustration.

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.

Thanks to Maurice, Tom, Andrea, “Perpetual Student” and Lisa for sharing their responses!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a selection of twelve published by Eye On Education.

I’ll be posting the next “question of the week” on Friday.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.