10 Takeaway Tips for Social and Emotional Learning

The Louisville, Kentucky, school district demonstrates SEL strategies that work.

The Louisville, Kentucky, school district demonstrates SEL strategies that work.
Elementary school children sitting in circle interacting

One and All:

Every day in morning meetings across the Jefferson County Public Schools, children greet each other by name.

Credit: Nathan Kirkman

Educators in the Jefferson County Public Schools have made it their mission to teach children to be not only skilled thinkers but also successful human beings and citizens of the world. CARE for Kids, the Louisville, Kentucky, district's program for social and emotional learning (SEL), is less than two years old but is already showing signs of success. (Watch the Edutopia.org video A Districtwide Initiative to CARE for Kids.)

The schools that pioneered CARE for Kids (the acronym stands for "Community Autonomy Relationships Empowerment") are experiencing more positive school culture, fewer discipline problems, better attendance, and even higher academic performance. Their initiative combines a set of smart strategies that add up to a comprehensive approach; it starts in the classroom and ultimately infuses the whole school. Here are the strategies they have found to work:

Build Community and Set a Supportive Tone Through Morning Meetings

Every one of the key CARE for Kids practices has roots in the morning meeting. In these 20-minute sessions, teachers and students agree on how they want their class to feel (typically: calm and safe). They practice conflict-resolution skills and discuss meaty emotional topics, such as bullying, friendship, and family struggles, and they play goofy games to get to know each other better. Through these practices, teachers demonstrate that they are present to impart academic information and to show love and support.

Hold Class Meetings as Needed to Address Pressing Issues

As Jefferson County teachers grow more comfortable with CARE for Kids, they might add a shorter, more informal meeting of about 10 minutes at the end of the day to check in with students, or they might call impromptu meetings during the day to sort out class problems when they arise. These meetings, in which students might express concerns, hammer out solutions, or practice constructive communication, allow kids to have a voice in shaping their classroom experience.

Set and Reinforce Expectations -- with Kids' Input

The CARE for Kids philosophy involves making kids owners of their own classroom environment, and of their learning experience. Teachers don't announce rules for behavior; students set the expectations themselves. Each class creates a list of "norms" for how they want to treat each other (for example, "Listen when someone else is talking" or "Keep your hands and feet to yourself"), which is posted prominently in the room.

A key tool for keeping clear expectations is the Y-chart: literally, a big Y on which classes write what a given activity should look like, sound like, and feel like. Teachers will refer back to the Y-chart guidelines before starting each new activity and prompt students to reflect afterward on how well they did. (Download a sample Y-chart.)

Teach Social and Emotional Skills Explicitly

Abilities like empathy, kindness, and self-control aren't typically thought of as teachable; conventional wisdom says they are innate personality traits. But the central proposition of CARE for Kids is that these qualities are entirely transferable -- and can be learned through instruction and practice, just like grammar and arithmetic.

Educators teach these behaviors through role-playing and guided discussions, and even weave them into academic lesson plans. The messages about kindness and respect are repeated so frequently that they can become tedious to the kids. But these lessons stick because -- just like multiplication tables -- teachers and students rehearse them over and over and over again.

Use Supportive, Inclusive Teacher Language

Jefferson County educators say this strategy is the hardest part of CARE for Kids, because it's both subtle and personal. CARE for Kids instructs teachers to use language that reminds and redirects students, rather than condemns them.

The idea is to cause students to reflect on their behavior by stressing the deed, not the doer. This means that appropriate language distinctions can be as fine as the difference between saying, "Walk" instead of "Don't run." Sarcasm is not allowed. (Download a teacher-language chart.)

Practice Developmental Discipline

CARE for Kids promotes a nonpunitive approach called developmental discipline, in which consequences for misbehavior are meant to achieve more than just punishment. The Jefferson County district guidelines explain that consequences should be logically related to the offense and should "allow students to assume responsibility, make amends, and learn from their inappropriate behavior." For instance, a student might clean up a mess she created or write an apology to a classmate she hurt -- not just serve a generic detention.

Teachers and principals say they are increasingly coaching children to solve their own problems. Rather than just meting out punishment, they have conversations with kids and push them to think of better solutions. For children with the most severe behavior problems, these tactics don't always suffice, and schools still use suspensions. But they try to make such punitive measures a last resort.

Create Opportunities for Students to Make Choices and Work Collaboratively

This is where kids get out of the practice drills and into the real game. They get to take all their newly developed SEL skills and put them to use. The district's inquiry-based math and science programs provide opportunities for this, but teachers also create them on their own. Beyond practicing self-sufficiency and collaboration skills, students working this way also experience genuine autonomy and responsibility, and get the chance to understand that their ideas matter.

Work Collaboratively and Supportively with Colleagues

SEL works better when the adults model what they're teaching. Members of the CARE for Kids leadership teams at each school are available to coach their colleagues as needed. These teacher leaders even run some of the CARE for Kids professional development.

At Breckinridge-Franklin Elementary School, for example, staff members have a special bowl where they can drop notes of gratitude to each other. The missives are delivered weekly to the recipients so that each person feels appreciated. To get the most impact out of an SEL program, everyone needs to be on board.

Forge Personal Relationships with Students

These relationships are not to be confused with friendship; educators are still authority figures responsible for safeguarding the children's well-being. But a little personal connection can go a long way toward making students feel acknowledged and motivated to learn: CARE for Kids teachers make it a point to inquire about students' activities, families, likes, and dislikes.

Teachers are also encouraged to share with students some aspects of themselves, such as interests and hobbies, through class activities. They then strengthen these connections by creating opportunities for students' personal experiences, interests, and cultures to be reflected in class.

Enhance SEL Lessons through Service Learning

This part of CARE for Kids tends to come later, once a school has mastered strategies like morning meetings and developmental discipline. But some schools, such as Carrithers Middle School, already are engaged in service learning.

And built into CARE for Kids is a way to bring service learning right into the school building, through cross-age buddy activities. Older students meet regularly with assigned younger buddy students to help with reading lessons and other projects. These partnerships weave the fabric of the school community even tighter and show the older kids that they have the wherewithal to teach and lead.

Build Links Between School and Home

Systematic efforts to engage parents are just beginning in CARE for Kids schools in Jefferson County. Recognizing that it may not be possible for many parents to visit during the school day, and that some of them with low education levels may feel intimidated by school, the district has designed activities to help involve them from home.

For example, teachers are encouraged to give kids interactive homework assignments such as interviewing a parent about how he or she chose the child's name. Or the parent and child might create a Venn diagram to compare aspects of the adult's favorite job with the student's favorite classroom responsibility.

Eventually, schools will organize larger community-building events, such as festivals, where children take on some responsibility and play a role in helping others. The district hopes to build these efforts as CARE for Kids grows.

Grace Rubenstein is a senior producer at Edutopia.

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This article originally published on 1/19/2010

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Community Manager at Edutopia

I just want to point out that

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I just want to point out that there's a great discussion about the role of Social and Emotional Learning in schools going on at:


Some good stuff getting shared...

The Parent/Caretaker link

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Let me tell you, this is the one! I had my learners interview their parents about how they chose their child's name. (Many of my students do not live with their biological parents. Those children were to interview their caretakers. Those guardians were invited to explain why their child's name fits him/her perfectly.

The response was overwhelming. What thoughtful, loving responses! I cried as I read through them!

Those are all amazing books

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Those are all amazing books and I have read every single one for in my MAsters program. I am student teaching now and they have all come in extremely handy and I feel have created a community of learners that are working for themselves as well as helping the others in their class. I am sooo happy to see that all my hard work in trying to use this positive language is paying off!


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One point of difference, or distinction, is that I know many high school teachers who use sarcasm and are extremely effective and beloved by their students.

Their success is not solely or even primarily due to their use of sarcasm, but sarcasm is a tool that can be used from either a negative locus or a humorous one. In the mind of a deft communicator it can be used harmlessly and engagingly.


I am a looping teacher (1st

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I am a looping teacher (1st grade to 2nd grade) and I am currently in the 2nd grade phase of the loop. I have implemented this Responsive Classroom approach with my class and am impressed with the community it has help our class build together. Bringing this type of philosophy into classroom, for me, is an important step in creating "21st Century Learners". Enough can not be said about the importance of teaching one another (teachers also learn form our students) how to become positive world citizens. Way to go Louisville, keep up the good work!
I have found the following books as good resources for understanding this type of philosophy and implementing them into the classroom:

"Time To Teach, Time To Learn" by Chip Wood
"Learning Through Academic Choice" by Paula Denton
"The First Six Weeks of School" by Paula Denton & Roxann Kriete
"Classroom Spaces That Work" by Marlynn K. Clayton with Mary Beth Forton
"The Morning Meeting Book" by Roxann Kriete
"The Power of Our Words: Teacher Language That Helps Children Learn" by Paula Denton

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