Social and Emotional Learning: Five Life Skills for the Classroom and Beyond
Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz around social and emotional learning (SEL), which, simply put, refers to life skills like self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
Jessie Erickson, the district assessment coordinator at Grand Forks Schools in North Dakota, has been incorporating SEL into her curriculum for many years—long before it became a fixture in many schools. She recognizes that integrating these skills promotes students’ educational and personal development. It turns out Jessie was on to something. A number of studies demonstrate the benefits of social and emotional learning, including improved academic performance and behavior, stress management, and more.
I connected with Jessie to learn how she integrates the five CASEL competencies into her instruction, and gathered some tips along the way! Whether she applies SEL to imagined scenarios or real-life situations, Jessie helps students access these skills by “meeting them where they are.” And while she’s happy to tap into SEL-specific edtech content, she also integrates resources like breakout rooms, classroom Twitter feeds, and recent news events to connect these skills to her students’ lived experiences.
Self-awareness is the ability to recognize how our emotions and thoughts influence our behavior, which is essential to building a healthy identity.
In her classroom visits, Jessie recommends that students keep a mindfulness journal to take time to breathe and reflect on their feelings. Third and fourth grade teachers “really nab on to that,” Jessie feels. “It helps start discussions with a gratitude lens,” which supports students as they navigate stressful issues throughout the school year.
To help them develop self-awareness around stressors as the school year begins, Jessie’s students watch the BrainPOP Back-to-School movie. She follows up by asking them to apply what they learned. Students use a Y-chart graphic organizer to identify and help prepare for a stressful event, whether it’s school-related—like an upcoming test—or personal—like a family member serving abroad in the military.
With younger students, Jessie supports self-awareness with an activity that recognizes differences. She notes that “my job as a teacher is to find just the right fit” for each student according to their individual needs. To accomplish this, she sits in a circle with her students and compares how different each person’s shoes are from those of the person to their left. She then encourages each student to try on someone else’s shoes. She asks, “Is it comfortable? Could you wear it for a bit, or would it hurt?” This exercise helps students recognize that we all have different growth rates and needs—something that works for one person might not work for another, and that’s ok!
Self-management is the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, and to set and achieve personal and academic goals.
Jessie incorporates digital tools, like Google surveys, where students can articulate issues they find challenging. Using the results, she helps them understand what they can control: their own behavior and perceptions.
“We do surveying and ask kids about their likes and dislikes. Once we do that deep dive, we like kiddos to have a personal goal, not always academic.” Students experience a variety of common stressors, while others are unique to their personal situations. Creating self-management goals based on their unique circumstances enables students to recognize their personal agency.
But what about those academic skills? “If we want to improve in math, we discuss what we have to do to bring up our math skills.” This means establishing and following a schedule that reflects their strengths and areas for improvement. Jessie keeps students focused on progress, not perfection. If something in their schedule doesn’t work, students can assess why and change it.
It’s essential to remind students “to integrate self care” into every goal-setting process. Jessie is a big proponent of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and knows that if a student isn’t getting the basics, like sleep and nutrition, learning will never feel like a priority.
Social awareness focuses on gaining perspective and showing empathy for others. It also allows students to recognize important family, school, and community resources.
Since social awareness is often connected to social media awareness, Jessie asks students to address what she calls “digital envy”: considering how a post on social media has been glamorized, and thinking about what has been left out of the message. “Remember you’re not getting the full lens on social media. You’re getting the story and the lens people want you to see.”
Jessie asks students to discuss who has control of the narrative. “If you are behind the camera, you are filtering the lens,” says Jessie. She asks students to think about what’s really happening in that image. What aren’t we seeing? Tapping into this combination of digital and social awareness brings students’ imaginations to life—and that creative spark can ignite empathy as well. When kids ask themselves who or what isn’t being represented, it prompts them to think about who is not being seen and how they might change that.
Breakout rooms are an effective strategy for nurturing social awareness skills. In a breakout room, “if you don’t work together you don’t solve the problem,” Jessie notes. She describes how social awareness skills flourish anytime we work with others to solve a problem. “We have to use each others’ strengths, and also slow down to help others.”
Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships requires clear communication, resisting social pressure, managing conflict, and offering and asking for help when needed.
Jessie recommends an activity she calls “Thinking Caps” to help students practice peer communication skills. She assigns students a cap color that determines their role in a team project. All cap colors are arbitrary and equally important, as each student must contribute. Blue caps are responsible for coming up with ideas. Green caps consider how to manage the project and offer creative options. Yellow caps brainstorm the advantages and benefits of each suggestion. Red caps discuss feelings related to the project. Black caps thoughtfully assess pitfalls. White caps look at facts, figures, and data.
These personas guide students to find new ways to relate to each other that might be unfamiliar to them, and help them find new ways to view their role within a group. Students must think carefully before speaking, and be thoughtful about asking for input from the relevant team member when that input is required.
For real-life relationship challenges, Jessie encourages students to think of the STAR acronym: stop, think, analyze, react. “I like to tell them, whenever you find a situation, find a STAR. I want you to stop and analyze before you react.”
Kids’ lives are complex and fast-moving, but they often don’t understand how just a little time and space can change perceptions. “My favorite thing to say to middle school and high school kids is that tomorrow will be a different story,” explains Jessie. This means reminding students that if they’ve messed up something today, they can correct it and also forgive themselves. Jessie notes that students need to remember that “it’s ok to get stressed and it’s ok to fail.” The priority is “finding the solution that solves the problem today because tomorrow will be different.” Focus on that growth mindset!
Making constructive, respectful choices about personal behavior is based on realistically evaluating how these decisions affect ourselves and others.
“Decision-making is about ethical choices to take care of the whole being—emotionally, socially, and academically,” Jessie notes. Responsible decision-making can be as simple as students becoming clear communicators: “If you’re reading a book that’s too simple for you, you need to tell me.” Jessie offers students several examples of ways to advocate for themselves. “Even making a decision in the lunchline: Which is healthier, chocolate or regular milk? Particularly if a student is diabetic, these decisions matter.”
Using ad hoc opportunities to present decision-making issues, and conscious, thoughtful ways of dealing with a problem, can be very effective. Jessie describes a time when a parent wrote something inappropriate on her 5th grade classroom Twitter page. “Instead of a knee-jerk reaction, we thought, ‘How do we problem solve here?’ Everyone makes a bad decision at one point or another. The question is, how can students learn and do better?”
Make the Leap!
In a world filled with unprecedented stressors and permanent digital footprints, teaching social and emotional learning–at home and at school—is vital. Jessie Erickson’s creative use of digital tools, classroom conversations, inventive games, and real-life scenarios offer a range of opportunities to integrate meaningful lessons throughout the year.
Dana Burnell is a production manager on the BrainPOP Professional Learning Team.