Using Poetry to Teach Social-Emotional Skills

By Judy Lalli, M.S., author of I Like Being Me

Using Poetry to Teach Social-Emotional SkillsAfter my father was a victim of a stroke in his late 80s, he could still recite poems he had learned as a child—some of them in a second language! Poetry is a powerful memory hook. We are often surprised at how well we remember beloved poems and favorite songs as if we had learned them yesterday.

For years, teachers and families have harnessed the power of poetry as a memory hook to teach academic skills. Some examples of these mnemonics are:

  • I before e, except after c, unless it says “ay” like in “neighbor” and “weigh.”
  • 30 days hath September, April, June, and November . . .
  • Red sky at night, sailors’ delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning.

But what about using poetry to teach social skills and social-emotional skills? Anti-bullying programs wouldn’t be needed if we could prevent bullying in the first place, and one way to do this is by teaching social skills: celebrating differences, learning from mistakes, sharing, caring, working together, and learning how to apologize.

And what better way to teach and reinforce these skills than through the powerful mnemonic device of poetry!

Shel Silverstein was known for his silly, funny, and outrageous children’s poems. He also wrote quite a few sensitive, delightful poems that stress kindness and harmony. One of my favorites that children can learn easily and love is “Hug o’ War” from Where the Sidewalk Ends. Humor is so important in catching children’s attention. Another of my favorite poems, “I’m Going to Say I’m Sorry” from The Other Side of the Door by the late Jeff Moss, uses humor to make a point about the importance—and difficulty—of apologizing. You can search for both of these poems on the Internet.

Using poems like these is a real “two-fer.” We are exposing children to language and literature and poetry conventions while reinforcing lifelong lessons about getting along with others. This makes our jobs as teachers, parents, and caregivers easier because once a climate of cooperation and peacefulness has been established, we can get on with accomplishing whatever other goals we have set.

I suggest taking 5–10 minutes a day to teach and recite a poem that reinforces a social skill. Ask the children what the lesson of the poem is. Refer to that lesson anytime a similar situation arises (“Remember when we talked about how hard it is to apologize and how important it is to do so?”).

Children can illustrate the poems, or they can come up with role plays and act out the messages of the poems. Best of all, you can help them create rhymes of their own!

Keep poems simple. The more sing-songy, the better. Those are the poems that stick with children and reinforce the lessons we want to convey.

Here’s a rhyme that children can learn in a couple of minutes after only a few repetitions:

I Can’t Move It
I can’t move it,
You can’t move it,
It won’t move an inch.

But if we work together,
Moving it’s a cinch.

From I Like Being Me: Poems about kindness, friendship, and making good choices by Judy Lalli, copyright © 2016.

My father loved poetry, and his favorite poems remained with him throughout his lifetime. Give the gift of poetry to the children who are important in your life.

And if the poems you teach convey messages of kindness, friendship, and making good choices, then you’ve taught social skills in a fun, easy way that works!

Author Judy LalliJudy Lalli, M.S., is an author and a veteran classroom teacher from Philadelphia. She divides her time between teaching online education courses and conducting and writing bullying prevention workshops in schools. She was a speaker at NAEYC’s national conference in Orlando last year and has presented at many local and regional AEYC conferences.

ilikebeingmeJudy is the author of I Like Being Me: Poems about kindness, friendship, and making good choices.

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