If you had told me a decade ago that I would have have been writing about social emotional learning in the elementary classroom, I would have had two main thoughts –
- What is THAT?!
- Oh, that. Nah. That’s not important.
And then I had kids of my own. I really started to pay attention to how they “ticked”. I saw that my methods of parenting were ok, but not great. I knew there had to be better ways of reaching my own children. So I started researching, and I started trying new things.
And those new approaches worked.
Then I realized just how much I would have loved to have had these tools in my classroom when I was teaching. And while I knew I couldn’t go back in time to improve how I taught then, I could make myself better going forward. Plus I could share the tools I was learning in a way that would help other teachers feel they were making a greater impact with the elementary students they were teaching.
My blog tagline is Fun, Engaging, Impactful Relationships and Learning. And while I stand by that, for far too long I haven’t focused on the relationships side. I knew they were important, but I didn’t really know how to teach the relationship building skills that I had with other teachers. It was just a skill that came naturally to me, and I would shake my head at teachers who didn’t seem to have that same knack.
But with SEL, I have found some tools that I know can be shared with others. Below I will share my eight tips.
Please do not take this post to mean that I think I am an expert. Rather I have learned a few things in my own home through trial and error, learned some things I wish I could change about my teaching years that I believe would have helped me have even better relationships with my students, AND I’ve created a couple of things that may help you. (with hopes of creating more in the future as well!)
Please note their are affiliate links in this post. Click on these means I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. You can read my entire disclosure statement here.
What is Social Emotional Learning?
By now you’ve probably already heard a definition. And I could go copy and paste something from a website, but instead I would rather try to give you my own definition. You may fully or only partially agree with this, and I’m ok with that. 🙂
Social emotional learning (or SEL) is when we honor emotions to bring self awareness and management, help students learn more self control, develop responsible decision making, and give them the interpersonal tools to be successful for life.
I’m sure there is a LOT more you could add, but that seems like a reasonable explanation to me. It’s something I know I can strive to teach my own children, and if I go back into the classroom it’s also skills I can pass on there. Academics are wonderful and necessary, but becoming a responsible human in the 21st Century is equally as important in my book.
And while I think it can be taught exclusively as its own “class”, I think it’s more easily taught through every day life. We will dive into that more below…
My Personal Background
Again, I have had no formal training here. If that’s what you want, by all means click away and go find the experts. But if you want one teacher-mom’s thoughts, keep reading.
For me, it all came down to emotions. I realized that I am an “emotion stuffer”. (No, I don’t think that’s a real term.) But I am someone who often shoves my emotions down – or least I did until the last few years. Don’t be too happy that you seem to be gloating. Don’t cry and cause a scene. Don’t get angry or people may lose respect for you. Stay even keeled and you’ll be respected and people will like you.
That may all sound ok, but it was not. At least not for me. I realized that I wasn’t truly living my own life. I was going through the motions, keeping the peace, and ultimately very unhappy. Since accepting emotions as a normal part of my days, my life has improved. I can feel more deeply. I can empathize more, and overall my quality of life has improved.
Feeling emotions was the first step in my learning about social emotional health. I needed to see emotions were good. This made me more self aware, able to self control better, release better, ask for help more often, make decisions with less anxiety, be more empathetic toward others, and I honestly think learning some Social Emotional tools for myself has made me a better person overall.
My SEL Tips
- Let kids feel. There are times where kids are going to have big feelings. It may be from something that happened at home, something that transpired at recess, or maybe they are just having a rough day. Let them. Know that ALL humans need more grace and understanding. Incorporate ways into your classroom for kids to feel. Maybe there is a special “jar” where they can share with you at any time. Maybe you have kids write once a week or monthly about their feelings. I think a LOT would come out if we gave students some type of outlet.
- Build Relationships. This one seems so obvious, yet I have learned it is not. We all know teachers who show up, do the bare minimum, don’t really connect with their students, and simply collect a paycheck. Yes, it takes me more work to build those relationships. Yes, it may be harder to get your students out of your mind when you go home. But the best teachers build relationships that extend outside of school hours.
- Ask questions. I think many times we look simply for the right answer. We expect no -or very little- higher level thinking, even if the tests claim that they want those higher level responses. This will help make students more aware of their own thinking, which in turn makes them more aware of all around them.
- Give students buy in for the classroom rules and expectations. I think as a general rule, kids know right from wrong. We all have a concience. We all know how it feels when someone else is rude to us. Even as young as toddlers, my kids were starting to verbalize what they did not like. And I think listening to that inner voice is a good thing. Plus I truly believe they will be able to better self regulate their day-to-day actions when they know they were part of the decision making process.
- Allow opportunities to work in partners or small groups. If we truly want kids to get better at socializing, they need the opportunities to practice. My goal it to allow students to do some type of group work – even for just five minutes – a minimum of once a day. (More is often better, but some situations make this harder than others.)
- Create some type of calm down signal. Maybe you can create a literal space in your classroom where students can calm down. Maybe you have 3-4 “Kalm Koalas” in your room that students can set on their desk as a visual that they need a little time. Maybe you ask parents to send you a “handle with care” message if their child needs a little extra love and support today. Even these small things can make a big impact for a child who is struggling.
- Teach mindfulness. Even two years ago, I would have scoffed at this one. I thought this was basically sitting in silence, which I wasn’t good at. It was honestly painful to me because my thoughts would race. But then I realized there are different types of mindfulness. You can search online for a variety of styles of mindfulness, but my favorite BY FAR is choiceless mindfulness. This is simply sitting and focusing and being aware of whatever comes to you – physical sensations, breath sounds, thoughts, noises around you, emotions, or whatever else. It has truly helped me calm myself and feel more grounded many times!
- Keep trying new techniques. I remember as a student our teachers used to ask us to visualize in the classroom. I never understood it and honestly got frustrated by it. I still do as an adult. But the choiceless mindfulness I mentioned in #7 above has worked wonders for me. Ideally you will teach a variety of SEL skills to your students. Some will work for a few students, others will work for a few more, and it may be hard to find a good fit for others. Keep trying. Our kids and their futures are worth a bit of time, research, PD, and discussions with colleagues. The more tools we can put into our students’ SEL toolkits, the better equipped they will be to find success emotionally and socially in life.