Many routines have been affected this past year due to precautions surrounding the global pandemic. These changes have resulted in greater anxiety and depression for some children and adults. Because of this, as schools and activities open up this fall, social and emotional learning skills need to be a special priority.
We know that children who are socially and emotionally healthy are generally happier. They also do better academically. Specifically, they have a more positive attitude toward school and a greater motivation to learn. They are more eager to participate and have higher academic performance. Here are a few suggestions for incorporating social and emotional learning into your curriculum.
1. Be a Positive Example
The greatest teaching tool you have is your own example. Be intentional about modeling principles of socialization. Smile. Be cheerful in greeting children, and generally use a calm and relaxed tone of voice. Compliment children’s efforts. Be quick to admit your mistakes. Be truthful but encouraging in your interactions with children. Be flexible in your plans and remember that you are teaching children, not merely academics.
2. Build and Encourage Caring Relationships
Children who have trusting relationships will benefit socially, emotionally, and academically. Take time to acknowledge appropriate behavior, and make caring comments. Talk to children at eye level. Appropriate touch, such as a pat on the shoulder, a hug, or a handshake, can help you connect with a child and will enhance the child’s sense of security. Children who feel safe are more willing to ask questions, problem-solve, express themselves, and try new things.
Also, arrange your activities and space so that children have plenty of opportunities to chat and socialize together. While this past year has been full of social distancing, children need connectedness. And though we, as adults, like to maintain control over every aspect of the school day, a great deal of a child’s learning and fulfillment comes from other children, and it’s important to allow unstructured time within your structure.
3. Be Intentional in Teaching Principles
Three important areas of social and emotional learning involve communication, play, and empathy. Within these categories, children learn valuable skills like listening, talking assertively and politely, sharing and problem-solving, perspective-taking, controlling emotions, understanding how others feel, acting kindly, and reaching out to help others. You have limitless opportunities to teach and demonstrate gentle conversations, interactions, and problem-solving.
Children’s books are a wonderful teaching tool. You can ask questions during or after the story to help children personalize the concepts. Ask children to identify how characters feel in the situation and how children might feel. Read the book several times to the class, or an individual child, and put it in the class library. Then read it again when a particular challenge arises.
You might focus on topics such as sharing or listening based on the needs you see in the classroom. Or, you might take a more organized approach and discuss one principle each week or month. Besides reading and asking questions, follow up your teaching with activities like hands-on crafts, role plays, games, and songs.
Social stories are widely used for children with autism, but they can be used to teach social skills to any child. Social stories explicitly identify a social situation and show how the child in the story works through it appropriately. The Learning to Get Along, Learning About Me & You, and Being the Best Me series by Free Spirit are examples of modified social stories. They also supply follow-up questions and activities at the back of each book.
Role plays with puppets or dolls can help a child process a skill after you’ve introduced it with books. Children learn receptively first. So, start with simpler activities that children can observe, like watching you conduct a puppet scenario with both puppets. They can respond to simple questions with a thumbs-up or a nod. As they become more proficient, children can demonstrate their knowledge expressively, by telling you or acting it out themselves. After using puppets, move to role plays. Children can first act out a scenario you’ve demonstrated and later come up with their own responses.
4. Prompt, Coach, and Shape Behavior as Needed
While children learn by observing you and their peers as models, they can also learn from their own behavior. One way to do this is by recording a child (with proper permission). Reviewing the video together is a very helpful way for children to see what worked and what didn’t in the situation. Praise children, but also try to draw out what they think went well. Then coach them on how they can improve other aspects.
You can also shape behavior by prompting children and giving reminders to make positive choices. Because you are influencing them to make more appropriate decisions, they are more likely to experience the naturally occurring positive consequences. This reinforces those socially appropriate behaviors.
5. Reinforce Positive Behavior
Give meaningful feedback. Be specific about exactly what you see and what you like, and do it sincerely. Compliment children not only for accomplishments, but for their positive efforts and kind actions. A great way to incorporate this is to use the three-to-one rule of thumb. If you need to make a correction, find at least three instances that day to say something positive to balance it.
As children gain trust in you, they will feel more confident and empowered and will want to act in ways that have been successful and encouraged. They may begin to reach out to their peers with this same type of enthusiasm and kindness. This atmosphere of caring will uplift everyone.
May this coming school year be rewarding for you and your children as you together develop and hone skills that will build bonds of trust, respect, kindness, and a sense of belonging.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband David have six children and enjoy the company of their lively grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.
Free Spirit book series by Cheri Meiners:
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