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How to Incorporate Social-Emotional Learning in Your Classroom

Once corps member Alexis Achiah (Chicago-Northwest Indiana, '18), a STEM elementary school teacher, wove social-emotional learning into her lesson plans, she saw a tremendous change in her students.

January 7, 2020

Two students sit and talk to one another in a classroom.

For the first two months of my teaching career, I didn't think I was worthy of the title of “teacher.” Even though good grades were rolling in, I struggled to manage my classroom. As a math and science teacher, I didn't think to focus on teaching skills around managing emotions and building relationships. But after realizing how essential these skills were to my students ability to learn and grow, I had a newfound energy to truly embed social and emotional learning (SEL) in my classroom.

SEL refers to the journey a child embarks on towards independently understanding self, showing empathy, regulating emotions, and managing behavior. It’s soul work. It’s a process of ups and downs with many benchmarks along the way, and not just one finish line. And while students cannot reach “mastery” in SEL, when teachers focus on this journey, it can lead to a complete turnaround in classroom culture, engagement, and student personal growth.

While there are many strategies one can use to teach SEL, these five beliefs guide my lesson planning each week:

1. Be Present and Observant

In order to figure out what my students are struggling with, I have to be present and observant. I listen to the words they use to speak with their peers and their responses to negative situations. Instead of having lunch with co-workers, I go to the cafeteria to sit with students to figure out who they are outside of the classroom setting. The more I make myself available, the more students become open to sharing stories about words that trigger them, peers who hurt them, experiences at home they wish they could change, and even what I can do to make our classroom a more positive environment. Based on trends I see after speaking to several students, I am able choose topics I know my students would benefit from having open discussions about with their peers.

2. Create a Supportive Atmosphere

To create a supportive atmosphere, my students sit in a circle, so we can see everyone. There is one speaker at a time, and students are allowed to step out if they need a moment to collect their feelings. Everyone is asked to be respectful, and accept everyone’s experience as their truth.

3. Share Life Experiences

When possible, I try to share experiences from my life that are related to what we’re discussing. You may not always identify with your students’ life experiences. You might even have a completely different experience based on your upbringing, and you should be honest about that. Give the kids insight into your life, so they can feel comfortable enough to also share.

4. Stimulate Discussion

When I first started teaching SEL, I had to be very structured. I would come in with guiding questions and the students would pass the talking piece around the circle and share their answers. By the end of the school year, I was able to simply ask them to share their thoughts after I shared a personal anecdote. Students would then drive the conversation.

5. Give Your Students the Opportunity to Practice

Depending on the skill, I often give students about 15 minutes to create skits in small groups to showcase what it looks like in practice. This way, when they are at recess or at home, they can implement their new learning. For example, during my lesson on empathy, I had students write words of affirmation for each other and challenged them to be empathetic towards one another for the duration of the week, even if someone’s truth was different from their own.

To see social and emotional development in students, teachers must understand that it is a difficult and ongoing journey, yet so rewarding. In a year I have seen so much growth in the way my students communicate through tough situations, advocate respectfully for themselves, take accountability for their actions, and hold themselves to higher educational standards. Each of them have become true leaders, and are even mentoring younger students. It's been incredible to see!