Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is now seen as a critical component for school success. It is not just one more add-on to your curriculum. It turns out to be an important foundation for students’ ability to learn and apply their learning to their lives. Emotional intelligence is strongly linked to staying in school, avoiding risky behaviors and improving health and happiness in life. Like all learning, growing emotional skills takes practice. Unlike other school curricula, much of this takes place outside the classroom. Yet it is still critical to build the skills and practice creating a community inside the classroom. Schools and educators can promote emotional intelligence by:
- Help students build their emotional vocabulary. Have students generate lists of feelings words. Make a feelings word wall of their ideas.
- Help students recognize feelings. Have them take pictures or draw faces of people experiencing different emotions. Make a feeling faces quilt.
- Use your reading and writing to explore feelings. Engage students in naming the feelings characters might be experiencing. “How do you think the character is feeling?”
- Invite reflection on learning. “What does this mean to you?” “How are you feeling about that?”
- Help students make connections between emotions and actions, and then engage them in problem solving.
- Teach self-regulation. Have a discussion with students about strong emotions like anger, disappointment or frustration, and generate a list of things they might do to calm down e.g. deep breaths, mindfulness, a cool-down space.
- Teach repair. Model making mistakes and fixing them. Encourage students to repair their own mistakes.
There are many resources for teaching these lessons in Positive Discipline in the Classroom Teachers’ Guide: Activities for Students including lessons on teaching feeling words, making a feeling faces quilt, problem solving, self-regulation and repairing mistakes.
There are many kinds of knowing. Research over the past 20 years tells us that knowing and understanding our emotions, emotional intelligence, is just as important as our intellectual intelligence. It involves understanding and being able to name our emotions as well as being able to use them productively in problem solving. Want to encourage this in your child? Here’s how:
- Acknowledge your child’s perspective and understand their feelings. This doesn’t mean you have to agree – it just means you understand your child’s take on a situation.
- Listen for the feelings underneath when your child is telling you about an experience. Often children tell us the “stuff” of the story without the emotions. Try saying, “Wow, you sound really excited about the field trip,” or “You are disappointed that it’s raining out and we can’t go outside.” This helps children become aware of and understand their own feelings.
- Allow expression of feelings positive or negative. Denying, disapproving or minimizing your children’s feelings communicates shame.
- Connect before you correct. You can say, “You are really mad at your brother for taking your toy, and its not ok to hit. How else can you let him know how you feel?”
- Teach problem solving. Allow children to experience strong emotions and move through them by sharing, talking, drawing a picture of them. Then, when they are ready, help them to come up with some solutions.
- Use your reading time. When you and your child are reading pause and wonder about what a character might be feeling. Did your child ever have similar feelings? How might the character solve his or her problem?
- Bedtime rituals. Invite your child to share something that made him feel frustrated or disappointed in the day and then something that he enjoyed or invited him to feel proud. Share your own set of stories.
Happy New Year! Transitioning to a new year is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on what you appreciate about your family over the last year and to think about the kinds of connections you want to nourish in the coming year; with yourself, with those you love and with your community. Different cultures celebrate the New Year at different times but often with similar rituals of reflection and looking forward. Here are some ideas for beginning this new calendar year:
Reflect on the past year as a family.
- What are your children’s favorite memories? What are you proud of, or happy about?
- Who are the people that made this year special for you?
- Are there any mistakes that still need to be fixed? Make a phone call, write a card or have a conversation.
- Make some notes or collect some pictures about 2016 in a small book, a family journal or a picture collage.
What are your hopes and dreams for 2017?
- Who are the people who you want to spend more time with this coming year?
- Set some small family goals about how you will stay connected. These might include regular family dinners, weekly family meetings, or a fun activity together once a week.
- What would you like to do this year to connect or contribute to your friends, family or community? This might include plans to visit friends and relatives, volunteering or a community service project. What you do as a family when your children are young is a model for them as they grow into adulthood.
Take care of yourself.
- Treat yourself with compassion and hang out with people who have kind hearts.
- Relax more. Schedule time for weekly quiet time by yourself.
- Make sure you and your family get enough sleep. New brain research shows that sleep is very important for “brain cleaning,” for learning and for preventing dementia long term.
Take small steps.
- Keep your goals reasonable and achievable.
- It is encouraging to have small goals you actually accomplish. They lead to bigger things later.
- You don’t have to be perfect to be good enough.
Teaching is both challenging (exhausting) and fulfilling. The time off in December can be a time to breathe, renew your energy and refocus on your passion and vision for yourself as a teacher and what you want for your students. Parker Palmer’s book Courage to Teach is a lovely resource for renewing your sense of purpose, and cultivating your capacity to teach wholeheartedly, for your ability to bring the best of you into your classroom.
Effective teachers have of a strong sense of personal identity and enthusiasm that infuses their teaching with inspiration and challenge.
- What do you love or care about? Share some of that interest or passion with your students so that they know you as a human being.
- What do you love about what you teach? What tickles you and brings you joy in learning? Let your students see that part of you too. It might be what delights you about reading or about solving a math problem. Pause now and then and reflect on the wonder of discovery and learning.
- How do you connect with your students about the delight of learning? It is so easy to focus on what is not going well. Can you make a promise with your self to pause once a day and have a “share the joy of learning moment” in some small or humorous way?
Effective teachers build authentic learning communities and connection. Many of our students come from cultures that are less individualistic and building connections supports their learning as well.
- Continue to build in opportunities for students to share what they are learning. Pair sharing and small group work more powerful at building connections than displaying or presenting in front of large groups.
- Routines and rituals build a sense of connection in the classroom. What is unique about your classroom that your students can identify with? Do you have a chant, a signal, transition music, a ritual for acknowledging mistakes or some other thing that makes your learning community special? Ask your students what they think makes your room special.
- Class meetings and compliment circles where students have a voice and hear others’ perspectives are one of the most practical and powerful ways to build classroom community. We recommend the regular structure of Positive Discipline class meetings 3-5 times/week for elementary classrooms and once a week for secondary classrooms. There are lots of resources for how to teach class meetings and learn more about them.
Effective teachers take care of themselves. You cannot be your best self pouring from an empty pitcher.
- Spend time with the people and things you enjoy outside of school. Get some movement, some quiet time, some time with people you love.
- You could spend 20 hours a day on doing your work and it still wouldn’t be perfect. Learn to let go and be proud of “good enough.” Your students need you – not the “perfect” lesson.
- Collaborate with and get support from colleagues. You can learn time-saving techniques and share work.
- Get enough sleep. Teachers are notorious for thinking they can do with less. Not true. New brain research shows that sleep is very important for “brain cleaning,” for learning and for preventing dementia long term.
Here is another resource from the Center for Courage and Renewal on the Heart of a Teacher.
Cultivating community interest and a sense that “we are in it together” in our children enhances their moral development and broadens their perspective, encouraging them to think beyond themselves. Teaching social responsibility begins with modeling. You don’t teach your children who you want them to be…you teach them who you are. Start early!
- Model sharing. When grocery shopping, help children pick out items to purchase that will be contributed to a food drive. Older children can be given a dollar amount to spend on these items, learning budgeting skills as well.
- Grow and share. If your family has a garden, give your child a small section of their own. Tending a garden takes patience and responsibility. At harvest time consider sharing some produce with a local food pantry.
- Make an offering of what you don’t need. Have your children sort through toys and clothes, picking out items they no longer play with and have outgrown to give to a charity.
- Help at the holidays. As a family, volunteer at a food bank, “adopt” an elderly person at a nursing home to spend time with, or adopt a family through the Salvation Army or another non-profit. Bake good to share with neighbors. Encourage your children to participate and/ or to make cards or gifts.
- Help out on your street. Make time to sit and enjoy a cup of tea with an older neighbor, have your children take an elderly neighbor’s trash bins to the street, or help him or her with garden tasks.
- Research and donate. One family did a family cleanup for 2 hours every weekend and “paid themselves” $25 each week. The monies went on a ledger and they had quite a sum by the end of the year. They put aside $100 for a fun family activity and on the day after Thanksgiving, the children researched and selected non-profit organizations to which they gave the rest.
- Reflect and celebrate together. After the holiday season is over, have each member of your family share which gift was the one they could hardly wait to give.
There is now clear evidence that children learn better when they sense that they are part of a learning community that is safe and respectful. Learning how to participate and contribute to the classroom community is a big part of what builds their skills to be resourceful, respectful and responsible citizens of the larger world as they become adults. When students are taught to apply their energies in a way that is socially useful, in ways that make their part of the world a better place, they develop a deep sense that they are capable and that their contributions matter. A classroom environment that provides these opportunities does not just happen. You build it carefully. You may want to use the list below as a checklist for what you have done, or a place to start now one step at a time. Here are places to begin:
Structures for safety:
- Clear routines that are practiced regularly.
- Classroom agreements (instead of rules) that are co-generated with students. Some classrooms call this the “classroom charter”. Refer to this regularly so that it stays alive. “How are we doing on our agreement to _____?” (Thumbs up/sideways/down). “What can you do to make it better right now?”
- Teach self-regulation. Students feel safer when the classroom tone is regulated. Not all students come to school with the ability to manage their stress. Regular practice, teaching “the brain in the hand” and modeling self-regulation help students grow the parts of their brain that can keep them focused on the work at hand. The picture below was done by Ms. Isakson, a third-grade teacher, as her students learned about their brains.
- Model and teach that mistakes are opportunities to learn. This is not the message that all students bring with them to school. Students need to be able to make mistakes and take risks to be able to learn well.
- Avoid any shaming or public put-downs. This applies to what you say, what you do and your tone of voice. Avoid tracking inappropriate behavior publicly. This increases stress levels for all students.
Create connections teacher to student and student to student:
- Get to know your students. You know how to do this and it is easier for some of us than others. You can have lunch with small groups, use interactive journal writing, or create situations where students can share more about their own lives and cultures.
- Help them know each other. You do this already through pair sharing, seating arrangements and small group work. How might that expand?
- Challenge curiosity. When we are curious about the world and each other, we grow connections and compassion. It is the foundation of becoming a self-motivated learner. Begin to use the word curiosity in different kinds of lessons. “What might this character be wondering or be curious about?” “Before we start learning about (the ocean, spiders, Latin America) what are you curious about?”
- Use class meetings. Positive Discipline class meetings start with compliments. With practice the compliments become richer and students begin to appreciate each other and build better connections.
Expand opportunities to contribute.
- Classroom jobs. Make sure students have social responsibility within the classroom. Create a structure for jobs and rotating jobs. Think broadly. Do you have a welcomer who introduces each guest? Do you have a class “medic” in charge of the bandaids? Older students can write job descriptions and “train” each other.
- Teach problem solving and create a space for problem solving in the classroom. The ability to navigate small problems improves a child’s sense of agency and transfers to solving academic problems as well. Simple tools include using Bugs and Wishes and the Four Problem Solving Steps.
- Use class meetings to solve problems that students experience in and out of the classroom. When students solve problems together they grow their sense of “we are capable.”
- Welcome differences and student voice. Once students are skilled at being respectful to each other, create an “opinion continuum”. Read a statement expressing a certain opinion then have students choose from: I strongly agree/I agree/I’m not sure/I disagree/I strongly disagree. Invite students to explain and discuss.
- Engage the bigger world. Invite the class to do a community service project. What can they do to improve the school or larger community? Ideas include: recycling program, playground cleanup, penny drive, plan a field trip for a younger class. Planning and executing the project as well as reflecting on the experience allows students to see themselves as part of a team and a bigger community.
Resources: For lessons plans to teach setting classroom guidelines, self-regulation, classroom routines, jobs, problem solving and class meetings we recommend Positive Discipline in the School and Classroom Teachers’ Guide: Activities for Students. It is available at PositiveDiscipline.com
Schools can strengthen students’ connections to teachers, schools and communities. Research done since 2006 suggests there is a free, simple, effective practice that can be placed into existing curriculum across subjects and grade levels: teaching gratitude. Here are some ideas for first steps:
- Class meetings. Positive Discipline class meetings start with compliments. Often the compliments are a form of appreciation and gratitude. They build connection and empathy, too.
- A gratitude journal. Have students keep a daily gratitude journal. Studies have shown that this single activity is connected to more optimism and life satisfaction, fewer physical complaints and fewer negative emotions. Journaling ideas might include:
- Write 3 or 4 things and/or people they are grateful for and why.
- Write a specific letter of gratitude to a person they have not thanked or appreciated. They could read or send the letter to the person.
- Respond to prompts, for example, “My day/life is better because __________” or even “I am grateful for chores because ____________”, to encourage them to think more deeply.
- Share how their family practices gratitude.
- A gratitude wall. Invite students to share thing that they are grateful for in a designated space on a wall of the classroom. Join them in writing things you are grateful for.