What are the most important skills that a person needs to increase their future success, economic standing and overall happiness?
A growing body of research, collected over the past two decades, indicates that those skills are collected into a single category called “social and emotional learning (SEL),” and these skills have a profound and measurable impact on our whole lives!
If you want to begin implementing social and emotional learning in your classroom—or if you’re just curious about what all the fuss is about—read on to learn about the most important life skills we’re starting to explicitly teach our students.
What Is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a fundamental part of human development and is already involved, to some extent, in most classroom curriculums.
SEL is the process of acquiring and applying all of the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to develop a healthy identity, manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, build positive relationships, feel and show empathy for other people and make caring and responsible decisions.
All of this can be learned by most children intuitively via immersion and with effective modeling from adults, but SEL as a formal methodology takes it a step further.
Rather than just modeling the expected behavior and reactively correcting children after the fact, intentionally focusing on social and emotional learning skills primes students with the information needed to come to the right conclusions.
This is a process that will continue through a student’s entire academic career, from elementary school to high school and beyond. It relies on authentic partnerships between the schools, families and communities to establish learning environments and experiences built on collaborative relationships, meaningful lessons and instruction and ongoing evaluation.
SEL relies on educational equity and excellence to address different forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools that will contribute to safe, healthy and just communities.
Social and Emotional Learning in Children
Children have the ability to understand their own emotions, thoughts and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. This includes recognizing their own strengths and limitations with a realistic sense of confidence and purpose.
Children have the ability to manage their own emotions, thoughts and behaviors effectively in different situations to achieve their goals and aspirations. This includes being able to delay gratification, manage stress and motivate themselves to accomplish personal and collective goals.
Children have the ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including people from diverse backgrounds, cultures and contexts. Social awareness is being able to feel compassion for others, understanding broader historical and social norms for behavior in different settings and recognizing family, school and community resources and support.
Children have the ability to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and effectively navigate different settings containing diverse individuals and groups.
This includes being able to communicate effectively, listen actively, cooperate, work collaboratively to solve problems, navigate settings with different social and cultural demands, provide leadership and seek or offer help when needed.
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Children have the ability to make caring and constructive choices about their personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. This includes being able to consider ethical standards and safety concerns to evaluate the benefits and consequences of various actions for personal, social and collective well-being.
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Why Is Social-Emotional Learning Important for Young Learners?
The benefits of SEL are numerous. People with well-developed social-emotional skills are better at coping with everyday challenges, which leads to success in school, in the workplace and in managing strong and rewarding family and social bonds.
SEL is a crucial foundation for young learners, as it helps them build positive, long-term strategies for both their future selves and their future communities. Social-emotional learning strengthens society by supporting children to have better mental health habits that ripple outwards through their schools, their families and their future workplaces and communities.
Over 20 years of research, including meta-analysis studies performed in multiple fields (including neuroscience, health, employment, classroom management, psychology, learning theory and economics) are able to show a correlation between SEL programs’ core skills and positive behavior, healthy life choices and improved mental health habits.
Simply put, giving students the tools they need to manage the more challenging aspects of everyday life helps them become better able to build themselves up and pursue their dreams without stumbling over life’s roadblocks.
These skills can—and should!—be learned and practiced at every age, and teaching them early on gives young learners an invaluable advantage later on in life but also for having a more positive, confident and stable childhood experience.
How to Implement Academic Social and Emotional Learning into Your Curriculum
For the best outcomes and for social-emotional learning to be most effective, you need authentic cooperation from schools, families and communities. Ideally, your state, region, school and district should be committed to implementing the principles of SEL across all curriculums and disciplines.
Parents and other community members should also actively participate and model effective social and emotional competencies in everyday interactions and their interactions with their children.
This sounds like a lot on paper (and it is!), but mostly what it takes is creative thinking to identify opportunities to implement SEL principles and a little bit of extra time to communicate with students in a two-way dialogue to practice and reinforce the crucial life skills they’re learning.
First, at the school level, build a foundational support plan by establishing a collective goal for SEL, ensuring aligned resources and ongoing commitment.
Next, strengthen adult SEL competencies by cultivating a community that enhances teachers’, staff members’, and families’ abilities to be competent professionally, socially, emotionally and culturally, effectively helping them build their own SEL skills so they can better model those skills for students.
Then, promote SEL for students by coordinating your approach across classrooms, schools, homes and communities to ensure consistent, responsive and developmentally appropriate opportunities for students to enhance and apply their SEL skills on daily tasks and challenges.
Finally, reflect on information for continuous improvement by establishing an ongoing process to collect and use implementation and outcome data to inform future decisions and drive improvements.
Actions taken at federal, state and district levels can impact outcomes at school and classroom levels, so it is important to get as much support as possible to see sustainable results from SEL.
Classroom Activities that Utilize Social-Emotional Learning
Beginning the day with daily greetings is a good way to ensure students feel connected from the start! These can be as kids are coming into the classroom or at the beginning of class. Students can choose their own greeting from a list you make up or you can have different greetings according to themes. The point is to make that first positive connection of the day.
The purpose of a class meeting can be for the class to encourage each other, help solve problems and plan class events.
Meetings can be anytime during the day, whether they’re in the morning or before students go home or whether they’re daily or weekly, but consistency is important. Having a little bit of dedicated community space will help promote a more positive environment for all kids.
Use daily or weekly journal prompts to help students think about SEL skills in different areas by relating prompts to skills you want them to focus on.
Here’s an example. “Write about a time when you set a goal and accomplished it. How did you achieve your goal? What would you do differently next time?” This will get them thinking about self-management and responsible decision-making. After writing, have them share with a partner or with the whole class.
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Talk About Emotions
Kids of all ages need to practice managing their emotions, and it’s a great skill to build early, so they can carry it into adulthood. The key is to practice emotions from a slight distance by talking about the emotions of a character in a book the class is reading or a show everyone is watching.
Ask how the character felt during the last big interaction of the story, how the character managed their emotions and whether the method he or she chose seemed like a healthy response. It can also be helpful to give the kids tips on ways to manage their emotions in the future.
If students have challenges to overcome and they need your help, encourage them to try and work it out themselves first. Ask them to work on the problem for 10 minutes by themselves (or with a friend!) and then, if they still don’t have a solution after 10 minutes, you can step in.
This helps kids build confidence, self-reliance and a network of other students to help each other solve challenges next time.
Encourage Positive Self-Talk
Getting caught up in a negative mindset can be an easy habit for students who are dealing with big emotions, but luckily, it’s also an easy habit to break. The sooner you catch it the better. Positive self-talk means rejecting negativity in favor of affirmations and reminders of positive outcomes in similar situations in the past.
Model this to students and have them write down their favorite positive phrases to hold onto for the next time they need some good words.
Promote a Growth Mindset
This helps kids to learn that we can reach our goals with hard work, good strategies and persistence over time. Sometimes when kids get frustrated, they can feel like they’ll never achieve a task that’s challenging them at the moment.
Teach them to think about things differently and turn their frustration around with growth affirmations like “Math is challenging, but I’m going to study, work hard and ask for help, so I can get better at it!”
Teaching kids how to use mindfulness techniques can help them learn to ease anxiety before a test, manage their emotions when they’re upset and just focus on joy to feel more happiness at a given moment.
Teaching habits like breathing strategies, how to focus on one thing at a time and how to relax their bodies can lead to more effective emotional management and help kids stay calmer when feeling big emotions.
Calm Down Town
Speaking of big emotions, sometimes simple breathing techniques aren’t enough. Set up a small area in your classroom with a comfortable chair, a few books, fidget toys and anything else that’s calming. Students who need this space can sit, use coping strategies and return to class when they’re calm again and ready to participate.
After students are done with an assessment, a task, an assignment or a project, encourage them to reflect on their progress. This is a critical skill to help improve goal-setting and achievement, and it can be used across all subjects, from math to reading to writing to science.
People being kind to each other helps to build a more positive and caring community, especially when the kindness is unexpected.
Set up a place with some blank paper and markers, so that students can write a note when they see someone in class doing something kind or helpful. Post the random acts somewhere where everyone can see them and watch your classroom get kinder over time.
The outcomes of implementing social-emotional learning into your curriculum can be immense, so use your SEL skills to talk with other teachers about working together to help students develop this fundamental skill set.
Once you start thinking about it as an essential skill set that students will use throughout their lives, it only makes sense to teach it intentionally and explicitly with the help of your community. Here at Studentreasures, we are huge advocates of social-emotional learning.
Our free classbook publishing kits promote collaboration in the classroom, as each student has to contribute work to the book in order to make a fantastic final product. These classbooks serve as excellent mementos and reminders of the fun times had in the classroom that year.