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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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How to Effectively Develop Social-Emotional and Reflection Skills

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service

The most important part of any social-emotional learning (SEL) or social-emotional character development curriculum (SECD) is skill development. But the formal lessons only serve to introduce the skills. Whether or not the skills are learned and generalized depends on the pedagogical procedure used.

Here are some tips for building any SEL skill in effective ways:

  • Introduce the skill and/or concept and provide motivation for learning; discuss when the skill will and will not be useful.
  • Break down the skill into its behavioral components, model them, and clarify with descriptions and behavioral examples of using and not using the skill.
  • Provide opportunities for practice of the skill in "kid-tested" enjoyable activities, to allow for corrective feedback and reinforcement until skill mastery is approached.
  • Label the skill with a "prompt or cue" to establish a shared language that can be used to call for the use of the skill in future situations to promote transfer and generalization. For example, in the Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving Curriculum, the skill of self-calming is labeled with the prompt, "Keep Calm." When students hear that prompt, they are reminded to use a breathing and self-talk procedure they were taught in the curriculum. Anyone in a school building should know this prompt and use it in a situation to help students calm themselves down, such as before a test, a class presentation, or difficult social task. "Use Keep Calm" invokes the learned skill.
  • Assignments for skill practice outside the structured lessons. (e.g., be sure to use Keep Calm before your standardized tests next week)
  • Follow-through activities and planned opportunities for using skill prompts in academic content areas, classroom management and everyday interpersonal situations at school and in the home and community.
  • Occasional take-home activities or information sheets for parents so they can also recognize when skills are being used and/or prompt their use.

The Reflective Summary

We have found great benefit in concluding each SECD topic or set of related lessons with a Reflective Summary. The purpose of this is to allow students a chance to think about what they have learned from the topic, as well as to allow teachers/group leaders to see what students are taking away with them. Sometimes, the Reflective Summary can show when students have misunderstandings or uncertainty about what they have learned, suggesting the need for additional instructional activities before moving on in the lesson sequence. Here is the procedure:

"Ask students to reflect on the question, 'What did you learn from today's lesson/activity?' You can do this with the whole group, in a Sharing Circle or related class meeting format, by having students fill out index cards, or other formats as you choose. We recommend that you have some variety in formats. After getting a sense of what the students learned, reinforce key themes that they mentioned and add perhaps one or two that you would like them to keep in mind. Also discuss any follow up assignments or take home materials."

Please share your ideas for reinforcing skills development and generalization, and helping students summarize what they have learned from your SECD-related instruction.

[Dr. Elias discusses the history and trends in Social and Emotional Learning and Character Development in this video.]

Maurice Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service
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