Creating a Social Emotional Learning Classroom

How to Create a Social Emotional Learning Classroom

Social and emotional learning (SEL) supports learning environments that help diverse children, teens, and adults reach their full potential. Creating a social emotional learning classroom leads to improvements in students’ skills, behavior, academic achievement, and relationships. It’s also linked to a decline in anxiety and substance use.

As adults and children continue to grapple with the trauma, anxiety, and uncertainty of a global pandemic, SEL classrooms are more necessary than ever before. In this post, I’ll explain what a social and emotional learning classroom is, and how you can create a classroom culture that meets every student’s needs—academically, socially, and emotionally!

What Is a Social Emotional Learning Classroom?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) coined the term SEL in 1994. CASEL defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

CASEL lists five key competencies associated with SEL:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

Social emotional learning classrooms are safe, supportive, and relationship-focused learning environments. Students learn vital skills like conflict resolution and the ability to manage their emotions.

Learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum. When students come to school from stressful or traumatic environments, or when they don’t know how to manage their emotions or resolve their conflicts, it’s difficult to focus on learning. In the nurturing environment of an SEL classroom, students feel safe and supported enough to learn. They also have the social-emotional skills needed to focus on academics and truly thrive in the classroom.

Tips for Creating a Social and Emotional Learning Classroom

Creating an SEL classroom doesn’t have to be extremely time-consuming. In fact, as students learn to navigate their own conflicts and feelings, you’ll find that teaching time increases.

Many SEL activities can be integrated into academics and daily interactions. Try these simple tips and ideas to create your own social and emotional learning classroom!

Foster a Safe Classroom Environment

Students need to feel safe in the classroom. Otherwise, they won’t want to ask or answer questions, try new things, or persevere through challenges. When a classroom feels unsafe, learning is impaired.

To feel safe, children need clear expectations and consistent rules and routines. They need to know what to expect. Daily schedules, visual routines, and assertive communication from adults are all helpful ways to communicate safety to children.

Fostering safety also includes maintaining your composure during conflict and discipline scenarios, so your response is calm and consistent. When you feel triggered in these situations, give yourself a moment to take a few deep breaths before addressing students.

Finally, create safety by ensuring children feel accepted rather than judged. Tell students that your job is to keep them safe and help them be successful. Encourage participation, effort, and progress, rather than focusing only on outcomes.

Prioritize Connection

Prioritizing connection is a key component of creating a social emotional learning classroom. This includes not only your relationship with students, but the relationship between students too.

Incorporate simple connecting rituals into your daily routines. This can include the way you greet students at the door and the way you say goodbye at the end of each day. As a class, you can create rituals to celebrate success, welcome back students who were absent, or simply share about your weekends each Monday.

Create opportunities for partner work, group work, and team-building games. You may also use quick partner activities as “brain breaks” during lessons. For example, students can choose or be assigned “High Five Partners” at the beginning of the year.

When kids need a brain break or a moment of connection, say, “Go give your High Five Partner a quick high five!” or, “Get with your High Five Partner and share the most interesting thing you learned so far today.” Rotate these partners monthly or quarterly to encourage more connections.

Talk About Feelings

Teach kids to notice, identify, and manage their feelings. Depending on the age of your students, you may wish to have pictures of “feeling faces” in your classroom. These images help children identify what happy, sad, angry, and scared look like. As children learn to recognize emotions in others, it becomes easier to recognize their own feelings, the first step to managing them.

Explain that there are no “bad” emotions. All emotions give us important messages about ourselves and the world around us. Responses to emotions can be unhealthy or unsafe, and we need to learn healthy, safe ways to respond to our feelings.

Teach kids simple ways to regulate big emotions, like deep breathing. Other options include squeezing a stress ball, writing in a journal, reading, drawing, or hugging a stuffed animal. It’s helpful to have a designated area of the classroom where children can spend a few quiet moments shifting from upset to calm. This Cool-Down Corner download includes everything you need to set up a safe space in your classroom.

Once children are calm, they’ll be ready to return their focus to learning and problem solving!

Encourage Kindness

Encourage your students to treat themselves and others with kindness, and you’ll have a social emotional learning classroom where everyone thrives.

Talk about the importance of kindness, and model it through your behavior and interactions. Give children concrete ways to treat each other with kindness too. For example, talk to kids about what they can do when another student is having a bad day, or give them helpful words to say to a student who is struggling. Consider having a way to celebrate kindness in your classroom, like adding marbles to a jar or leaves to a tree when you witness a kind and helpful act.

Finally, tell your students that it’s important to treat themselves with kindness. If we don’t know how to be kind to ourselves, we can’t possibly be kind to others. Having a Self-Care Corner is a great way to help children improve their self-esteem and self-image. It includes posters, worksheets, positive affirmations, and self-care activities.

Create a Sense of Belonging

Feeling a sense of belonging is critical to students’ ability to learn in the classroom. Start by calling your class a “Class Family” or your school a “School Family.” As you emphasize empathy, kindness, and connection, your students will learn to look out for and support one another.

It’s also helpful to give each student a job. Jobs allow children to contribute to the overall success of the classroom, so they feel like a meaningful part of the whole. During the first three weeks, spend time getting to know your students so you can learn about their skills and interests. Then, assign jobs accordingly. With older children, ask for feedback on the types of jobs students would like to be responsible for in your class.

Teach Conflict Resolution

Finally, a social emotional learning classroom should teach students healthy ways to resolve conflicts. Educate students about being assertive, setting boundaries, and navigating conflicts respectfully.

If a student tattles about another student calling them a name, for example, give them the words to use to resolve the conflict themselves: “I don’t like it when you call me names. My name is Andrew. Call me that instead.” If the student feels apprehensive about standing up for themselves, you can accompany them to talk to their classmate.

You can also set up a Conflict Resolution Corner with step-by-step posters for resolving conflicts, posters for I-Messages, Apologizing, and Accepting Apologies, conflict resolution tips, and more. I’ve also created a Self-Regulation and Self-Care Bundle that includes the Cool-Down, Self-Care, and Conflict Resolution Corner materials all in one.

Final Thoughts: Creating a Social Emotional Learning Classroom

Creating a social emotional learning classroom is less complicated than you might expect. It’s all about providing an environment where students feel included, safe, and supported. You can teach SEL skills like self-regulation and conflict resolution through daily interactions, and you can also incorporate them into academics. For example, read and write about feelings, or track and graph kind acts over a week or a month in your classroom.

SEL doesn’t take time away from academics; it makes it possible for students to reach their full academic and prosocial potential. In your social and emotional learning classroom, kids will become the best student and person they can be!

I am Kirsten Tulsian, an elementary educator with 18 years of experience as a teacher and counselor. My passion lies in empowering students to discover their inherent brilliance through the use of engaging, rigorous, and meaningful activities. I look forward to connecting with you!

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