Growing Strong Learners with Social-Emotional Skills

By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room

Growing Strong Learners with Social-Emotional SkillsUsing a garden as a metaphor for education is nothing new. German educator Friedrich Fröebel (1782–1852) coined the term kindergarten in the 1830s and described school as a place where children might learn together and grow to their potential. He stated that “children are like tiny flowers; they are varied and need care, but each is beautiful alone and glorious when seen in the community of peers.” In this post, I’d like to expand the school-as-a garden metaphor to examine the state of education today and to prescribe some ways to improve it.

Assessing the Current Garden
While admittedly there is variation in “yield” among individual gardens (classrooms, schools, school districts, and states), things are not looking all that promising in general:

  • Teenage depression and suicide are on the rise.
  • School shootings, once a shocking aberration, are now—while still rare—frequent enough that some don’t even make the national news, or when they do, they are soon forgotten in the wake of the next tragedy.
  • Graduation rates in general are unacceptable, hovering around a dismal 50 percent in large urban districts.
  • In a recent report published in Education Week, researchers assigned American schools an average grade of a C on the Achievement Index. The index uses “18 indicators in all, with a strong emphasis on data such as test scores and graduation rates” to assign grades to individual schools and states as well as a national average.

These findings are certainly not aligning with our goals to make sure “No Child [is] Left Behind” or that we are in a serious “Race to the Top.” Instead, it seems as if more children are being left behind than ever and that we are racing to mediocrity. Despite the efforts and resources America has expended to raise standards, our gardens are not thriving. (Picture a weed-choked, disease-infested, struggling crop.)

What Do Successful Gardeners Do?
To gain some insight into what educators might do to improve our “yield,” let’s take a moment to consider what successful gardeners do and don’t do.

  • They consider the climate. It would be absurd to try to grow a palm tree in Maine or a cactus in the Everglades. Before planting, smart gardeners learn what plants thrive in their climate zone and what plants will likely fail.
  • They provide what plants need: nutrient-rich soil, the proper pH, sunlight, water, fertilizer, and nurturing, remembering that different plants have different needs.

What Successful Gardeners Don’t Do
At the risk of seeming facetious, smart gardeners do not:

  • Staple an F to the stem of a struggling plant.
  • Yell at the garden.
  • Just keep watering and watering the plant, hoping for better results.
  • Place uncooperative plants in a windowless room until they learn their lesson.
  • Give only the thriving plants rewards, like more fertilizer, water, or sunlight.
  • Threaten to send the plant to the compost pile.
  • Measure the plants once a season and evaluate their success based on that one measurement.

Making the Connection
Understanding that children and adolescents, like plants, are organic and have physical and, unlike plants (as far as we know), psychological needs, educators can follow the smart gardener’s approach and provide the optimal classroom and school climate—one in which students can grow and thrive physically, academically, socially, and emotionally. Psychologists, economists, sociologists, and evolutionary biologists all agree. Students (people) need a learning and working climate in which:

Growing Strong Learners with Social-Emotional Skills1. They feel safe, both physically and emotionally. Most school districts have adopted school-safety plans that help ensure students’ physical safety, but students also need to feel a sense of order and emotional security in the classroom. Teachers can do this by:

  • Providing clear academic and behavioral expectations
  • Developing and teaching (to 100 percent mastery) effective procedures that accomplish practical goals like entering and leaving the classroom, using the restroom, obtaining materials, getting help from the teacher without disrupting others, and so on
  • Developing and adhering to a routine
  • Addressing every incidence of rude or mean behavior

2. They feel accepted and connected to their teachers and their classmates. Teachers can make this happen by:

  • Engaging the class in team-building games and activities (especially at the beginning of the year, but throughout as well)
  • Letting students know them personally—their outside interests and hobbies, their families, their values, and so on
  • Being vulnerable—admitting mistakes and failures and modeling a growth mindset (how they’ve learned from mistakes)
  • Attending extracurriculars
  • Holding regular community meetings
  • Avoiding judgment; you never know what’s going on inside a student’s mind or heart
  • Having a clean-slate policy (no matter what happened yesterday, today we start with a clean slate)

3. They feel a sense of personal power and importance. Teachers can grow this by:

  • Providing students a voice and really listening to them
  • Involving them in problem-solving and decision-making regarding problems and decisions that affect them
  • Letting them teach each other
  • Teaching them how to achieve social status without resorting to bullying or put-downs
  • Using proficiency- or mastery-based learning; giving students more than one chance to succeed
  • Giving them classroom jobs and responsibilities
  • Teaching emotional and social skills (self-regulation, growth mindset thinking, how to hold a conversation, the gift of diversity)

4. They experience autonomy and independence. Teachers can help this happen by:

  • Providing choice whenever possible (in assignments, learning buddies, choice time activities, and so on)
  • Infusing novelty into your routine
  • Letting student questions guide some of the curriculum
  • Allowing students to choose what they publish or post
  • Giving them opportunities to follow their individual interests

5. They can laugh and play. Teachers can create an environment where this happens by:

  • Playing games with students; there are dozens of short, noncompetitive classroom games, including mental games, drama games, physical games, or just-fun-and-games games, that can reduce stress, build relationships, and give students a reason to come to school.
  • Laughing with them; consider showing funny video clips, telling jokes, sharing embarrassing moments, and inviting students to bring in (appropriate) jokes

While attending to students’ physical and psychological needs may seem time consuming, in my experience, and in the experience of great teachers I’ve met all over the world, it is time well spent. Like the gardener who takes the time to research what his flowers or plants need and to prepare and nurture his garden, you and your students will reap the benefits of this work. By providing your “flowers” with what they need, you will get what you want: more responsible behavior and higher quality learning and achievement. Happy gardening!

Author Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A.Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, a professional development specialist, a college professor, and the director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.

The School Climate SolutionJonathan Erwin is the author of The School Climate Solution: Creating a Culture of Excellence from the Classroom to the Staff Room.


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