“Social emotional learning, or SEL, is the process of acquiring the competencies to recognize and manage emotions, develop caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations effectively.”[i]
Several years ago, a Kindergarten student told me, “I have a thunderstorm in my brain”. This was an exciting breakthrough moment for this student. I was happy that he told me how he was feeling with this vivid description. In the past 20 years as a teacher, I have seen a greater emphasis on social emotional learning in schools. I have seen the positive effects of this learning for my students. I have been honoured to teach in schools with diverse populations and work with families facing many challenging situations. Students also come with many different abilities and may have highly individual learning needs. However, in my experience, all students benefit and can develop new skills to help in their social emotional awareness. I, of course, haven’t done this alone! I have found a powerful community of teachers, educational assistants, administrators and experts who share their ideas, experiences and research. I have come to believe that including social emotional learning is as important as learning to read or count. It is important to note that social emotional learning isn’t a replacement for help from counsellors, mental health professionals or programs.
Book, books, books. I love using books for social emotional learning. Picture books provide fantastic opportunities to generate vocabulary around feelings, have discussions about how others might be feeling (building empathy), and talk about what we can do with those feelings. There are no “bad” feelings in the books or my classroom. While there is a growing library of excellent books written with a social emotional focus, any book can provide a chance to talk about feelings. I make this fun! I start by using puppets who are always sad, or angry or happy. I then expand on those feelings and introduce more specific words such as frustrated, confused, or excited. For students who are comfortable, we can act out parts of the book. Once students have some emotional vocabulary, I’m often silly and say that a character who appears angry, is happy. My students quickly jump in and tell me why that does or doesn’t make sense. They are learning to recognize social and emotional cues which can be challenging for some students. I have recently found the power of “wordless” books where students get to “be the boss” of the story, including describing the characters’ emotions.
- A Picture is worth a thousand words. It goes without saying that for students with limited or no oral language, require pictures or “pics”. I found that in social emotional learning, pictures and images are helpful for all my students. When a child is upset, they may not be able to tell me how they feel but they can often point to a picture. This can begin to calm tough emotional situations for students. While you can buy or download images, I find it more powerful for students to create their own “feelings” pictures. I do this when the students are calm. I will put the pictures up in the classroom at student level so they can touch, point or talk about them. I will copy and laminate them for students who may frequently need them. I can also provide copies to the other people that students may work with or to parents who would like to try them at home.
- A soft place to land. I have had the privilege to work in many different classrooms in the past couple years and seen teachers create a variety of safe, calming areas for students. Sometimes there is a tent, or comfortable corner with pillows. Other times it has a mini trampoline or a carpet with a basket of calming tools. It is an area where students can feel “big feelings”, take a break when they are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or sad, access tactile tools, like squishy balls if they are feeling anxious, or find headphones to help muffle overwhelming sounds or activity. Some students find physical activity helpful to manage emotions, therefore they can have a spot to do jumping jacks, run on the spot, or if you are lucky enough to have one, jump on a mini trampoline. Just make sure that children know that exercise is never a punishment. I teach students how this safe place works in our classroom and it may take some time for students to use it appropriately. That is ok, and part of the wider social emotional learning process taking place. You can also add to and change the area as needed. Some of the most powerful ideas for what to include can come from the students themselves. I have learned to listen to my students carefully as I integrate and make social emotional learning more effective in my classroom.
This is a tiny snapshot of what can be done in a classroom and at home to foster social emotional leaning. There is a great deal of research, expertly developed programs and organizations who focus on this area. I am sharing some of the ways that I break down these ‘big ideas’ into useful pieces for my students. Hopefully, students will take the skills and knowledge from their social emotional learning with them beyond the classroom. Ideally, this begins in Kindergarten and continues throughout high school in age appropriate ways. Social emotional learning shouldn’t be a luxury or an “add on”. It allows students to be ‘ready to learn’ and, most importantly, encourages the development of healthy children and future adults.
[i] Educating the Heart as Well as the Mind: Social and Emotional Learning for School and Life Success.” (Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl and Shelley Hymel, 2007)