When I started middle school, I was, like most kids starting middle school, a bit nervous. Okay, I was plain old scared. Of the bigger kids, the bigger building, the challenge of finding a new classroom every hour, the question of whether I’d ever master my locker. Most of all, though, I feared whether I would fit in. I don’t have a lot of clear memories from those first days and weeks, just a generalized sense of anxiety. It was a few decades ago, after all. But one thing I do remember clearly is my first class with Mr. Giampapa.
Mr. G. taught a communications class, and let me tell you, he was a communicator. His words came at you quick and witty, peppered with jokes and clever observations. He paced the room and gestured with his hands. He used funny voices to represent the characters in his stories. His entertaining style eased our nerves and demanded our attention. Perhaps more important than that was what he was talking about—that fear that all us seventh graders were feeling. For example, he painted a comical image of a big, stereotypical bully stuffing a seventh grader into a locker, and in describing that imaginary situation, he defused it by showing just how ridiculous it really was. He gave advice for navigating the halls and managing our lockers. He even made a joke at his own expense: he was not a tall man, and he told us that he often felt like a little seventh grader in a world full of big eighth graders.
I don’t know if Mr. G. knew the phrase “social and emotional skills,” and his class was not focused on SEL. But by using humor, he taught us to have empathy for one another, to believe in ourselves, and to use positive self-talk on our negative thoughts—as well as a few hard skills like “stay away from the fish sticks in the cafeteria.” That one class period went a long way toward helping me approach the scary new middle school world with confidence.
I think most of us know that humor is a great way to engage students, and when students are engaged, retention goes up. Research has shown that laughter improves learning outcomes. Not only that, but humor also reduces stress and makes school more fun—something that kids might look forward to. Humor can be especially effective when teaching social and emotional skills, a subject that can be prickly at times since it’s a lot more personal than math.
But what if you’re not exactly a standup comic?
That’s okay. You don’t have to be. The goal isn’t to get kids rolling on the floor and clutching their sides. You just need to engage them. Here are a few guidelines and ideas to get you started.
No Laughing at Other People
This goes without saying, but it’s always worth reminding ourselves. Students will need an occasional reminder too. Humor should be fun for everyone.
On a related note, it’s also a good idea to stay away from sarcasm. Sarcasm is easy, and many of us turn to it instinctively, but it is by nature critical. It’s abrasive, even when it’s not directed at anyone in particular. What’s more, kids don’t always pick up on sarcasm, which is usually conveyed by saying the opposite of what we mean. “Wow, I love getting homework on a Friday.” Some kids might understand that what is meant is, “I hate getting homework on a Friday.” But others might not.
Laugh at Yourself
Nothing relaxes kids more than seeing that it’s okay to let your defenses down. If you make a mistake or are—gasp—less than perfect, point it out with a joke. “Now, my drawing of a bean plant might look more like the Loch Ness Monster, but I’m hoping you can see how photosynthesis works.”
Self-deprecation can be its own lesson in SEL, showing kids a healthy way to deal with mistakes and the value of resilience. But you can also use it in social and emotional skills lessons more directly. Can you relate a personal, perhaps embarrassing story about a hard time you went through? Think about stories from when you were your students’ age. Did you make your best friend furious after you dropped the full, poopy cat litter box on her new shoes? What were the ingredients of your apology that finally saved your friendship?
Or how about this: Did you ever feel like a little seventh grader in a world full of big eighth graders?
Use Your Words—And Your Voice
Language is a blast. Many words are just fun to say, like sasquatch, hotshot, finagle, and rope. (Seriously, say rope a few times—it pops from the back of the mouth and ends with that puff of the lips. Fun!) Rhymes are so alluring that they’ve been the backbone of poems and songs since ancient times. And then there are metaphors, similes, and puns. All these can be easily incorporated into lessons.
Like Mr. G., you can use voices to tell stories. If you do role plays or storytelling to support your SEL lessons, let go and get into it. Kids naturally respond to fun language and voice.
Share Funny Stories
Speaking of stories, it’s always fun to read funny books that address social and emotional topics and discuss them as a group. Be sure to dwell a bit on the funny parts and share a laugh, as well as address the book’s lessons. Free Spirit’s Laugh & Learn and Little Laugh & Learn series are built for this, with books that help kids learn to slash stress, give cliques and rude people the boot, get organized, behave becomingly, and in general hugely boost their coping skills.
Here are a few more suggestions:
- Don’t Think About Purple Elephants by Susanne Whelan (anxiety)
- Alan’s Big, Scary Teeth by Jarvis (bullying)
- Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes (teasing)
- My Mouth is a Volcano! by Julia Cook (social skills, taking turns)
- After the Fall by Dan Santat (resilience)
- The Way I Feel by Janan Cain (naming feelings)
- Diary of an Awesome Friendly Kid by Jeff Kinney (friendship)
- No Fits, Nilson! by Zachariah OHora (controlling emotions)
You surely have other ideas, so use your own favorites. And if you have a story that isn’t all that funny, share that one and ask students for ideas to add a silly detail or twist that would make it goofier.
Eric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons. Say “Hey!” to Eric at heyericbraun.com.
Free Spirit books by Eric:
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.