Everyday Social-Emotional Learning

By Molly Breen

Everyday Social-Emotional LearningMost of us know by now the myriad benefits of teaching social-emotional learning (SEL) as a foundation for, well, everything! If you aren’t familiar with SEL, it helps kids with decision-making, building friendships, feeling empathy, and understanding their own emotions. Having these skills in place sets up kids for better outcomes as lifelong learners. (You don’t have to take my word for it. Check out this study from 2017, which uncovers all the benefits of SEL.)

Here are a few examples of everyday SEL that you can incorporate into your current practice.

Perspective Taking Through Read-Alouds
When reading through a story with your learners, pause from the narrative to ask how your children think different characters might be feeling, based on the story and the illustrations. It’s not necessary to consider only the primary characters; take inventory of the supporting characters too. Focus on characters’ facial expressions and body language with illustrated storybooks and help your students develop a more robust emotional vocabulary. For example, suggest disappointed or frustrated for sad or bad, hopeful or eager for happy or good. Extend learning by asking if anyone has ever felt this way before and if they remember why. If you don’t get immediate feedback from your students, it’s always good to leave it up to wonder: “I wonder . . .” You can always come back to revisit the wondering later.

What Would You Do? (WWYD?)
Create a list of “What would you do?” scenario cards for transition times or for use during your regular morning meeting or closing circle. Use a finger puppet or stuffed animal as the character in the scenario to help children project. This depersonalizes the experience for students and helps them project their own thoughts and reactions onto the character. Some examples of WWYD? cards:

  1. You see someone roughly take a toy or book out of someone else’s hands and then shove the other person. The child who gets shoved starts to cry, and the first child quickly gives back the item and walks away. No teachers saw this and the other child is still very sad. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
  2. You have a big, beautiful cupcake that your grandma packed for your snack at the park, and you can’t wait to eat it. Just as you are about to have the first bite, your very good friend from school sits down on the bench next to you and looks longingly at your cupcake. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
  3. You are having a friend over to play at your house and you ask your dad if you can use some tools in the garage to build a fort. Your dad says, “Not right now, but maybe later.” Your friend suggests that you sneak into the garage and get started right away. WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

These are just a few examples of ethical dilemmas. You can create your own that are culturally relevant to your students and your setting. Depending on the traction of the activity, you could ask kids to help you develop new WWYD? cards to add to the mix.

Peace Island or Quiet Space for Self-Regulation
Every learning environment needs a quiet space for kids to retreat from heightened feelings or the busyness of the room, a place where they can find calm. Help your students understand how and when to use these peace islands for self-regulation; add mindfulness mediators like glitter jars, glitter wands, or breathing balls to help kids refocus. The boldest and most profound impression you can make for this purpose is through modeling. Let your learners know that sometimes you need to take a deep breath and center yourself too. Show them how you do it, and use it as a classroom practice. During your morning meeting or other group time, role-play using the peace island with a teaching partner or a student (let the student know ahead of time) to show your group how to use it when they need it.

Pass the Compliments, Please
During snack time, morning meeting, or closing circle, share compliments as you pass a mediator (such as a stuffed animal) around the circle or table. Be sure to explain what a compliment is, and ask your learners for examples of compliments that have been given to them. Help your students become confident with lead-in phrases like “I like your . . . ,” “You are really good at . . . ,” “It makes me feel good when you . . .”

Giving compliments can take some practice, but it’s worth the effort because the results can be amazing! Using a mediator such as a puppet, stuffed animal, or talking wand helps take the focus off the child giving the compliment. Or, if you are passing compliments at snack time, make a ritual out of sharing a compliment as you pass the snack: “I really like the way you serve yourself pretzels!”

Freeze and Feel
Help your students take an internal inventory at different moments of the day and in a variety of settings. Introduce the concept during group time so that everyone knows what to expect, and use a sound or other signal to let your learners know that it’s time to freeze and feel. You can even do a countdown to freeze: “Three, two, one, freeze! Breathe! Feel!” Walk around the room and ask a few children to share one or two words to describe how they are feeling in that moment. Again, help develop a robust emotional vocabulary by providing examples: “Do you feel calm, agitated, anxious, joyful, playful, lonely?”

Return to your regular activity and try freezing and feeling again in a different setting; reflect later with your students on how they felt at different times and why. If you have leadership roles for children during the day, you might have your line leader or other leader decide when you will freeze and feel.

Whether or not these ideas resonate with you for your everyday practice, I challenge you to try just one of these consistently with your student group (daily practice is so important for SEL). Through building social and emotional capacities in our students, we fortify the foundation for all learning. I guarantee you will observe positive changes not only while you practice the activities, but in other circumstances as well. Many of us are intuitively using an SEL framework in our work with children, but by adding intentional and consistent practice, along with an underlying understanding of the research, we can know better and do better.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social-emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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