Linking Social and Emotional Learning to the Classroom
“When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts.” -- Dalai Lama
Each year a new group of children enters my second grade classroom filled with hopes and dreams for a successful school year. Each year brings new challenges and new triumphs. Over the years, it has become increasingly clear to me how important it is to create an emotionally supportive environment where my students can continue to develop their social and emotional skills and character traits that we know to be so crucial in our work and home lives.
I often wonder why this is something that needs to be pushed into our curriculum. Why isn’t it just naturally happening in the children’s homes and their social environments? Family instability, socio-economic factors, limited ability to engage in purposeful conversation, and increased screen time are just some of the barriers that stunt these valued character traits.
Children need to feel safe and supported at school. When many children come to school, they are emotionally dealing with trauma, feelings of loss, sadness, low self-esteem, or anxiety. For some, school provides them with structure and consistency and allows them to feel safe, cared for, and cared about. Books are another great way to allow children to feel safe and supported, especially when they can see their own emotions reflected in their favorite characters. I hope children will learn that even when times are difficult, we are all here to help one another. Only then will academic learning take place.
Build confidence in kids.
We need to provide children with the tools they’ll need to be confident and successful. Giving them a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and the feeling that everyone’s there to help one another is key. I have been fortunate to be employed in an urban school that has strong instructional support for educators and high academic goals for students, and yet the school remains committed to educating the whole child.
Link social/emotional learning with the classroom.
Two programs that link academic learning with social and emotional learning are used in our school. Responsive Classroom practices are incorporated into our daily routines, such as greeting children, sharing stories, using a “take a break” spot, and creating classroom rules. We also use the Second Step curriculum, which encourages role-playing, prompts children’s discussions, and teaches calming strategies. This program also introduces children to important principles such as compassion, respect, and empathy. Both programs help children recognize their own feelings and the feelings of others and offer strategies to help them respond appropriately when problems arise. For me, these two best-practices curricula provide tools that I can use to support children’s social and emotional learning and enhance their character development.
Bring buddies and an 8-year-old aardvark named Arthur into the classroom.
For almost my entire career, I have partnered with older grade classrooms to create ‘buddy’ partnerships. Sometimes our classes become book buddies and other times they work together on an art project or editing pieces of writing. They have also worked together on a program called the Arthur Interactive Media (AIM) Buddy Project. This supplemental curriculum uses interactive media, the characters and storylines from the PBS children’s series ARTHUR, and cross-grade buddy pairs to help promote social, emotional, and character development in elementary students. Arthur, an 8-year-old aardvark, is an engaging and popular PBS character whose adventures explore everyday issues and challenges that are relatable for young kids.
More than anything, my students need someone to listen to their experiences, stories, or struggles. It’s impossible for me to reach all 25 of my students in a significant way each day, so on ‘Buddy Days,’ I know they have the opportunity to feel valued and important to their buddy. It’s great for them to have another person in the school building who knows their name, says ‘hi’ to them in the hall, and is happy to see them. The more connections a child has in school, the more connected the child is to school. This sense of belonging allows the child to move one step closer to developing a strong character.
Welcome parents and guardians into the learning environment.
It’s important to invite the parents and guardians into the fabric of social and emotional learning in the school. Parents are welcomed to volunteer in the classroom and are invited to poetry slams, author’s chair, and math workshops. These events highlight student successes and encourage a partnership between parents, students and teachers.
Utilize quality children's literature
Another vehicle I use to enhance children’s healthy character traits is quality children’s literature. I use these books for classroom read-aloud time. Books can provide the perfect opportunity for children to learn about characters that struggle and usually choose the ‘right’ way out of their predicaments. These characters (some real and some fictional) become role models for children and offer opportunities for thoughtful and animated discussions about topics like fairness, honesty, bullying, kindness, empathy, perseverance, and patience. Children often see their own emotions reflected in favorite characters and are comforted by these characters’ emotions and dilemmas because they may have struggled with similar ones of their own.
Help children make sense of a fast-paced, fast changing world.
Our world is becoming more technological and more complex each day. It’s hard for us as adults to keep up, just imagine how hard it is for young children. We can help make it easier by building time into the school day (and curriculum) to listen to what the children are saying, sense what they’re feeling, and notice what they’re worried about. Their lives are hurried. We can offer them a place where they can speak their thoughts, have fun, be listened to respectfully, slow down to relax and reflect, and have positive role models to guide them on their path. Hopefully, school is that place.
Why is all of this so important?
I believe that children aren’t able to focus and learn academics if they haven’t learned the social skills of sharing, taking turns, listening to others, and practicing acts of kindness. Children love to work together, whether it’s playing math games or discussing books—but it’s hard to play with someone who isn’t playing fairly or it’s hard to have a discussion if someone is monopolizing the conversation. Role playing, modeling, demonstrating a game or how to deal with a disappointing loss can help children learn these necessary strategies.
Social and emotional learning and character development are critical to a child’s success in school and in life. It needs to be part of our day-to-day work as educators. We must educate their hearts, just as others have educated ours.
Maureen Cronin is a second-grade school teacher at the Winter Hill Community Innovation School (PreK–8) in Somerville, Massachusetts. She has been teaching at Winter Hill for twenty years, ten years as a middle school ELA teacher and the past ten years teaching second grade. She has been a member of the school's Instructional Leadership Team and has worked on curriculum development and family literacy initiatives. She also serves as a mentor to first year teachers. She is passionate about creating a safe, structured and supportive environment in which children can grow, learn and have fun.