By Liz Bergren
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is becoming more and more necessary in mainstream curriculum. Not only is SEL valuable in its own right, it also can positively affect learning and achievement. According to an Education Week story about the “State of America’s Schools” report from Gallup, “School leaders should not neglect the social and emotional factors that help students thrive, and they should empower teachers so that they are more engaged and effective in the classroom. The right leadership and the engagement of teachers and students are all one very important ecosystem.”
The big concern, as we know, is that between classrooms overflowing with children and the pressure to meet state standards, little to no time is left for SEL. But there are times during the early childhood or elementary school day when SEL can take place without having to create full lesson plans or units. SEL can become an organic part of the day, not just something that gets squeezed in. SEL helps kids understand and handle their feelings, and it can lead to greater academic engagement.
Here are a few ideas.
1. Greeting Circle Activity
Many elementary classrooms start the day with circle time or a morning meeting. This is a perfect space and time to fit in something that increases engagement and connection among peers. The Greeting Circle is a quick exercise that promotes appropriate greeting, eye contact, friendly exchange, and relationship building. Organize students into an inside circle and an outside circle, facing each other. Starting with a greeting gesture that is comfortable for students, such as a handshake, high five, or fist bump, have them look their peers in the eye and greet them. Then have them talk for 15 to 30 seconds, depending on the age of your students (this activity may not be appropriate for kindergarten or first-grade students), about a topic of your choice. Some good examples for early in the school year might be, “What was the most fun thing you did over the summer?” “What are you most looking forward to in __ grade?” Have the inner circle rotate to the next person after the 15 to 30 seconds and repeat the discussions until everyone has had a chance to greet one another.
2. Read About Emotions
If a morning meeting or circle time is used for reading, share a story about everyday feelings to fit in SEL. A good idea might be to pick one emotion and read about it throughout the week. An appropriate emotion to discuss for the beginning of the school year might be worry because of the natural worries that may accompany starting with a new teacher, new classmates, and so on. A good resource is Feeling Worried! by Kay Barnham, in which the main character, Ava, continually gives advice and tips for how to help her friends with their worries—then seems to forget all the advice she gave when she deals with her own worry. This book uses relatable scenarios you can discuss with your students. Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes is another good book on the topic.
Both of these books can lead to a structured discussion or lesson. One way to build connection among peers and generate discussion is to have students share with the group their own common worries. At times, children can feel ashamed of what makes them worry; sharing common worries might help eliminate the “What’s wrong with me?” feeling.
3. Discuss and Collect Coping Strategies
Coping with difficult emotions is a skill that must be learned, modeled, taught, and practiced. When working with a storybook on feeling worried, for example, take the opportunity to discuss the coping strategies used or offered by a character in the book. When Ava offers advice to her peers in Feeling Worried!, this can be a good time to discuss what it means to cope with worry. After reading the book, it would be wise to use its language so students understand that while some emotions are difficult, they can be eased using certain strategies. In pairs or groups, students could brainstorm how they personally have eased their own worries. Students can collect their and other’s ideas in a “coping bank.” Create one using craft materials or using a worksheet with a vault or bank image.
4. Teach Calming Exercises
Managing anger requires self-control, which is very difficult for some children. During bouts of anger, our brains are physiologically wired differently, making logical and reasonable thought almost impossible. Teaching calming exercises and strategies when students are calm will be advantageous later when students find themselves in fits of anger for one reason or another. As with worry, many books and resources on the topic of anger are available for read-aloud moments. Angry Octopus: A Relaxation Story by Lori Lite, which introduces progressive muscle relaxation and deep breathing, is a good book for elementary students. Feeling Angry! by Katie Douglass is another great read-aloud book for addressing anger.
It’s also helpful to discuss the physical sensations of anger with children to help them understand anger’s impact on our bodies. Turning to strategies for coping with angry feelings is a good next step. Consider using a bulletin board or other open space in your classroom to make a mind map of anger coping strategies in order to provide a visual representation of self-regulation in the classroom and in life.
Emotional regulation is a crucial life skill that is not often taught in the home, especially if the adults in the child’s life struggle with their own emotional regulation. School is a perfect space to work it in, and it can fit into many areas of the school day through teachable moments or intentional time devoted to SEL. An empathic, positive, healthy classroom climate is often the end result of SEL and intentional relationship building among peers.
Liz Bergren is Free Spirit’s education resource specialist. She is a former teacher with 15 years of classroom experience. In addition to being a teacher, she spent five years working for Park Nicollet’s Melrose Institute where she counseled and taught classes to patients who struggled with eating disorders. She has a B.A. in health and secondary education from the University of St. Thomas and an M.Ed. in family education from the University of Minnesota.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.