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How One Elementary School Integrates Social-Emotional Skills in the Classroom

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This post was originally published on May 21, 2019 by Greater Good magazine. It is part of LPI's Educating the Whole Child blog series, which explores research, policy, and practices to support students' healthy growth and development.

At Lakewood Elementary, fourth- and fifth-grade students are reading a book and discussing the plot. One of the students suddenly raises a flag: He is keeping track of how long kids have been sitting (45 minutes). Teacher Kevin Davis says, “Time for a break! That sounds like a good idea.” He projects a video on the whiteboard, and students jog in place while shouting out answers to quiz questions. Once the activity is done, students celebrate: “We did it!”

These types of activities, called “brain breaks” or “energy boosters,” last from one to five minutes and incorporate movement. Since our brains are wired for novelty, these short activities refresh students’ thinking by breaking up predictable, repetitive processes and information. Studies suggest that regular physical activity like this supports healthy child development by improving memory, concentration, and positive outlook—making students less fidgety and better able to focus on learning.

Brain breaks are among the many innovative classroom activities going on at Lakewood Elementary. Located in a small, ethnically and socioeconomically diverse school district in California, Lakewood is one of thousands of American schools that offer social and emotional learning (SEL) alongside academic instruction. Over 90 percent of educators around the country show strong support for focusing on SEL competencies like self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, embracing their role in educating the “whole child.”

But focusing on SEL doesn’t only mean adding separate, isolated lessons. Students need opportunities to develop social and emotional skills throughout their school day, emphasizes the National Commission for Social, Emotional, and Academic DevelopmentLakewood’s example can offer some much-needed inspiration for how educators—facing time constraints and increased academic pressure—can integrate SEL into their daily work in the classroom.

A tool for self-regulation: The Chillax Corner

Twenty children shuffle into their brightly decorated classroom after recess. Most go straight to a rug and form a circle—while one boy, Marco, quietly settles himself at a small table in the corner of the room. Marco got upset during recess because he had a conflict with his classmates. Kindergarten students in this class know that when they are upset, they can visit the Chillax Corner.

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The Chillax Corner offers students space and activities to regulate their emotions. Photograph from Lakewood Elementary School. Printed with permission.

The Chillax Corner is a quiet area in the classroom with a table, a chair, and objects such as stress balls, pictures, and “fidget spinners” that students can use to calm down and prepare to return to classroom activities productively. The Chillax Corner helps to foster self-awareness by providing a space where students can connect with their emotions, away from the situation that generated them; it also encourages students to independently use self-regulation skills, such as taking a break or focusing on their breath, that the teacher had previously taught. In the long run, research suggests that these SEL skills of self-awareness and self-management can improve kindergarteners’ long-term academic success and productivity in the classroom.

Jennifer Concepcion, the classroom teacher, then begins a community circle activity in which children share how they helped others at recess. After a few minutes, Marco rejoins the group. He briefly explains that he had a conflict with his peers at recess but is feeling calmer now. “Remember to keep hands and feet to ourselves,” Concepcion reminds the class. “We don’t want to be the reason someone needs to go to the calming corner.”

Creating the Chillax Corner is one of several strategies that Concepcion employed to meet students’ social and emotional needs. Another is teaching the importance of a growth mindset, the belief that one can succeed in most situations with hard work and persistence—versus a fixed mindset, or the belief that one’s intelligence and abilities will not change. Kindergarteners in her class practice using positive statements such as “I can always improve” or “Mistakes help me learn,” simple practices that in some circumstances can increase achievement. She uses these positive statements during academic lessons and reminds students to apply them while they are working with their partners.

Throughout the school year, and especially in the first six weeks of school, Concepcion spends time directly teaching social and emotional skills using separate lessons. She then reinforces the strategies children learn, including self-regulation techniques, throughout the day.

“These strategies help things go smoothly in my classroom,” she explains. She points out that Marco only needed a few minutes of class time before he was ready to reengage—which was not always the case for students. “In the past, I used to pull students aside to discuss an issue, while trying to keep the rest of the classroom engaged. Now students try to figure out things by themselves, which frees me up to focus on academic teaching.”

Building relationships through collaborative academic work

Cooperative learning is an important part of teacher Allyson Guida’s fifth-grade classroom. At the beginning of the year, she focuses on helping students get to know each other during morning meetings and creating a sense of class community through different team-building exercises. These activities prepare students to form positive relationships in the classroom and to work in teams. Once students are able to work together, Guida introduces collaborative academic work.

In one lesson, for example, students are concluding a class project on regions of the world that allows for both self-assessment and cooperative learning. Each group was assigned an article, and students worked together to determine the main idea and most important details, which they later presented to the class. These presentations were videotaped, and students are going to watch the videos to assess themselves. For this class, Guida explains, they will grade their whole team’s presentation on a rubric. “When you’re using the rubric, you want to be thinking of the whole group. Think of yourselves as a unit,” she says. “Just because one person moved and had gestures doesn’t mean you get a five [out of five], right?”

After receiving a hand signal from Guida, students quickly pick up their laptops and rubrics, find their groups of three, and settle into different corners of the room: some at desks, others huddled together on the carpet. The room is soon abuzz with conversation, while some groups listen quietly to videos of their presentations on laptops using earphones.

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Three boys discuss their presentation at a cluster of desks. “I probably got like a 3,” one student tells his partner. “No, I think a 4,” says another. “We demonstrated some knowledge, but we didn’t demonstrate a lot of knowledge. I think it was in the middle.” His partners agree. But, he adds, “We got a 4 on speaking and making eye contact with the audience.” This kind of peer group self-assessment develops students’ reflective skills and encourages them to take ownership of their learning.

One student asks Guida if it would be okay to continue to revise the group’s PowerPoint slides. “That’s definitely a conversation I want you to have in your group,” she responds. Opportunities to revise work are common in her class: a chance to learn from their mistakes and develop a growth mindset. Explaining what happens if she doesn’t get a good grade on her presentation, one student says, “We write it on a Post-it: We have to put what we should do next, and that will help us for the rest of the year … as long as we learn from it.”

The kind of learning experiences that Guida creates in her classroom, such as collaborative academic work, allow students to put into practice a wide array of social and emotional competencies—from active listening and trying to understand others’ perspectives when working in groups, to solving disagreements and making a responsible choice when deciding the group’s scores. These competencies are not only important in the classroom—the World Economic Forum has found them essential to success in the workplace.

SEL is not “another thing to do”

The biggest concern that teachers express when it comes to integrating SEL in their classroom, Lakewood instructional coach Shana Riehl reports, is a lack of time. But a little investment goes a long way. Educators can explicitly teach SEL competencies at the beginning of the year, establishing expectations and routines in the classroom and laying the foundation for a productive term. Then, teachers can focus on reinforcing these competencies during the day and integrating them in their regular teaching practices, without spending significantly more instructional time.

As Riehl tells her teachers:

 It’s not another thing, it’s not another curriculum. It can be throughout your entire day. It’s how we talk to students, how we present information, how we allow students to think, how we allow students to work and trying to get them to start.

Integrating SEL in the classroom ensures that students get plenty of opportunities to learn and practice these important social and emotional skills, so they are reinforced and not forgotten. Over time, SEL becomes the “lens” through which teachers understand teaching and learning. And for students, these skills are the door to becoming caring, contributing, and resilient adults.

Dr. Lorea Martinez is a social-emotional learning consultant, supporting schools and teachers as they integrate SEL in their programs and teaching practices. Read more about Lorea on her website.

Hanna Melnick, M.P.P., is a research analyst and policy advisor at the Learning Policy Institute, where she co-leads the Early Childhood Learning team. She is the lead author of Encouraging Social and Emotional Learning In the Context of New Accountability, and has a focus on school climate and social and emotional learning.