The Social and Emotional Way to a Calmer Classroom

By Rayne Lacko, coauthor of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery

The Social and Emotional Way to a Calmer ClassroomHave you ever had a student, or a small group of students, create a challenging environment? Perhaps this happens every once in a while, or maybe it’s a chronic issue. Young people who have something to say but who feel powerless or angry might express their feelings with destructive or disruptive behavior. When a student is mired in doubt, anxiety, or sadness, those feelings can show up in every area of their lives, including your classroom.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) activities can help young people change for the better, and the results can be profound for everyone in the group, helping you find your way toward a calmer classroom environment and greater student success. But SEL provides benefits beyond these; it can have a positive influence on you and your well-being too.

The key to successful social-emotional learning is creativity.

Troublesome emotions can make adolescents restless. But when a student engages in creative SEL and makes something—a reflective journal entry, a drawing, a playlist of songs, or a workable plan to prepare for a test—these emotions have a safe space for release. This release makes room for more positive feelings, leading to more positive interactions with you and their peers.

A useful SEL program can and should bring a sense of calm, relief, playfulness, and self-awareness to both you and your students. When educators immerse in emotional and self-reflective content with students, it supports them in reflecting on and improving their own social and emotional experiences. Engaging with emotional content can offer a more positive effect on the way you think, feel, and behave. Social and emotional learning—particularly when it invites you to create—can have a profound impact on your well-being both in and out of the classroom.

The Power of Peer Group Circles

The most powerful method for building mutual respect and understanding is establishing a peer group circle by inviting teens to leave their tables and chairs and gather in a circle. The circle establishes and nurtures insights and connections that can have a profound impact on every student in the group.

Peer group circles boost acknowledgment from peers and build a sense of community in your classroom. Among peers, the issues teens wrestle with are deeply empathized with by other teens, including conflicts with parents or social groups, issues of gender identity or body image, or stress around homework or time management. Even if a teen is experiencing extraordinary circumstances, adolescent emotions are relatable to other adolescents. But if these are not shared, a teen often believes they are the only one experiencing them.

Circle time is meaningful because it offers a level playing field to everyone, providing the opportunity to be heard and understood. Offering arts-based SEL activities designed specifically for teens gives young people a conversation prompt to share their personal experiences, stresses, hopes, and self-image. Some teens might spend hours ruminating on things that went “wrong” or were embarrassing or disappointing, but relief is possible when these thoughts are directed into SEL activities. By sharing their emotions-centered creations, teens can be authentically seen and understood. It’s also an opportunity to grow in self-understanding and to experience ways to make a positive impact on others.

Arts-based SEL activities can result in profound, positive transformation. Sometimes the most resistant student is sitting on what is to them the most significant, poignant art. When a teen explains the meaning behind their SEL activity, the rewards are many, including:

  • emotional release
  • being authentically heard
  • being valued for one’s true self
  • receiving appreciation and admiration

Positive classroom relationships and cooperation depend on trust. When a teen doesn’t know many—or any—other people who are going through what they are dealing with, it can lead to feelings of isolation. But peer circles are not meant to pinpoint only struggles. It’s equally as important to spend time focusing on good things that happen and helping teens build their lives to go the way they want. Your peer group circle chips away the isolation by celebrating each teen’s point of view, affirming their creativity, and offering a safe place to transform their feelings for success.

Providing ample time and space for students to talk and, just as important, for peers to respond helps establish trust and openness. Teens can empathize with the challenges of adolescence, help peers feel authentically heard and understood, and share practical insights that can only come from firsthand experience.

Change may be the only constant, but isn’t it time for change that decreases stress and trauma—for both young people and adults?

If you need something to change, your students likely need it to change too.

One in four students is experiencing depression or anxiety symptoms, and youth emergency psychiatric visits for depression, anxiety, and behavioral challenges increased by 28 percent in just four years, according to a recent US Surgeon General Advisory. By facilitating regular peer circles, you allow teens to listen to one another, offer support, and provide a safe environment to explore their feelings through SEL activities with the relief of knowing they aren’t alone in their struggles.

Including SEL in your classroom allows you and your students to witness positive change. By exchanging time wasted on emotional stress for creative social and emotional engagement, students learn coping skills and competencies, build resilience, and improve their relationships. Educators reinforce these skills as they teach them and benefit from a calmer, more cooperative learning environment.

You may worry that providing space for SEL to help teens manage their emotions takes time you just don’t have. Consider the time that emotionally charged misbehavior takes up during the school day. Dream Up Now can incrementally replace those incidents with calm, explorative creativity. Consider time taken up by student apathy, emotional distraction, or sadness. Imagine replacing it with playful, self-directed goal setting.

The new Dream Up Now Leader’s Guide is intended for educators, counselors, and other caring adults to support young people using Dream Up Now: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery as a tool to work through fluctuating emotions, know themselves better, and create healthy and meaningful lives.

You can use this free guide to support teens working individually or in a small group. The guide provides background and need-to-know information about Dream Up Now and how it benefits students, offers suggestions for preparing to guide the activities, presents a template for conducting a group circle meeting, and discusses some key considerations for working with teens as they explore and share emotions.

The free guide includes a sample agenda, free printables, and an overview of all the emotion sets and activities. Best of all, it includes information to support you and your creativity too.

Engaging with creative SEL activities can help teens take control of sometimes wild emotions, and the result is a happier, more efficient, and joyful life. And those results are contagious.


Rayne LackoRayne Lacko is a Young Adult author and an advocate for the arts as a form of social and emotional well-being. A teen-writing mentor, she cohosts a youth creative workshop, an annual writing camp, and a teen arts showcase. Through her work, she inspires young people and their families to use creativity to stimulate positive change in their lives and communities. Rayne lives near Seattle, Washington, with her spouse and two boys (a pianist and a drummer), a noisy cat, and her canine best friend.

Dream Up NowRayne is the coauthor of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery.

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1 Response to The Social and Emotional Way to a Calmer Classroom

  1. Thank you for sharing this insightful post on the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) in creating a calmer classroom environment. As a teacher myself, I have seen firsthand the positive impact that SEL can have on student behavior and academic achievement. I appreciated your emphasis on the need to explicitly teach SEL skills, such as self-awareness and self-regulation, and how to integrate them into daily classroom routines and activities. It is also heartening to see schools and districts recognizing the value of SEL and incorporating it into their curriculum. I look forward to reading more from you on this topic in the future!

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