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May 19, 2017 | 2 comments

Five ways to integrate social and emotional learning in your classroom


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By Jillian Ahrens

This blog was originally posted on AFT's Schoolhouse Voices on May 16th, 2017

As a longtime Cleveland teacher, I’ve been involved with our school district’s initiative on social and emotional learning since it began a decade ago. I’m really proud and excited that the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development recently met with Cleveland students, educators, and policymakers to learn how we are integrating social and emotional learning across schools and programs. The Commission’s goal is to help other schools and communities across the nation make social, emotional, and academic development part of the fabric of K-12 education so that all students reach their potential. After participating in the Commission’s visit to Cleveland, I came up with a list of the top five things I’d like my fellow educators to know about SEL.

Students connect to curriculum when they connect to one another and to you.

Our students live an environment where they are connected electronically to online information and friends, but often lack interactions that help build true relationships. Helping students ask questions to learn about one another, and providing time for students to share interests and ideas, can help them feel part of a truly connected classroom. By showing genuine interest in what is happening in student’s lives, you can build emotional connections with your students. This creates trust and lets them know they can ask for assistance or can make a mistake without fear. In turn, this environment enables students to connect to the curriculum.

While SEL instruction needs to be intentional, remember, it isn’t a stand-alone.

When implementing new programs or initiatives, it is easy to pull a binder off of a shelf and decide to spend a period of time each week working on the program. Social and emotional standards and curriculum need to be taught systematically and with intention. However, they’re most effective when the skills are integrated into all aspects of the classroom. The SEL curriculum can be built into core content lessons. You can discuss team-building skills during math groups, for example, or analyze how characters in a story could use “calming-down strategies” for character studies.

Helping students understand their feelings and how to manage emotions can help students focus on academics.

Often, we assume students walk into our doors with full understanding of their feelings and emotions. But we have to take time to discuss and understand feelings and use techniques such as “calming-down strategies” and problem-solving skills so that students have the ability to manage their emotions and focus on their core academic content. So many demands are placed on the classroom environment. In Cleveland, schools have “planning centers,” which are pro-active settings designed to help students problem solve, develop appropriate school and classroom behaviors, and reduce the need for classroom removal. Using SEL strategies can be a key resource and tool to build productive, collaborative learning environments.

Teachers need to practice self-care and mindfulness.

Teaching can be extremely stressful. Finding ways to be aware of our own SEL strengths and areas to improve can help educators enter the classroom in the right frame of mind. By using mindfulness techniques, or breathing exercises, we can focus our energy toward positive interactions within the classroom. To model SEL management skills, teachers can greatly benefit from finding ways to build their own personal SEL techniques for managing stress.

Social and emotional learning goes beyond the classroom.

While much time is spent in schools building academic knowledge, there are other valuable skills needed in the workforce that need to be practiced in the classroom. Skills such as how to work with a team, how to make responsible decisions, how to manage time and be organized, and how to solve problems can extend well beyond a student’s academic career and into their future workplace and life as a citizen. If we want students to be productive members of the community, these skills need to be given a high priority in schools and the larger community. We also need partnerships with parents and community members to achieve these goals for all students.

Photo credit: CMSD News Bureau

Jillian Ahrens teaches first grade in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and serves as the Cleveland Teachers Union’s 3rd vice president for K-8 schools. She is a member of the Council of Distinguished Educators advising the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning.

My Favorite Resources identifies some of the best resources and lessons available to teachers through Creative Commons licenses on Share My Lesson. Teachers from across the country collaborate together to identify the best resources and share them with their colleagues here.

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nmorg25_2226516 June 11, 2017, 7:38 pm

I strongly believe that students should feel safe, happy, be able to trust and experience a sense of belonging before they become the learners we want them to be. Each student is a work of art that we constantly trying to unravel. In order to do so, we as educators should empower ourselves to better understand our students to lead them through fulfilling learning experiences.

Know our students and then we become educators in the true sense.

judithnuss_1773051 May 16, 2018, 3:55 pm

Jillian is a stand-up teacher leader for SEL! A great model for us all!