Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Integrating SEL Into Writing Instruction

A writing unit for first grade can help develop prosocial classroom behaviors, a reliable indicator of future academic success.

November 18, 2021
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

Social and emotional learning is gaining traction in schools across the United States as educational organizations and inquisitive teachers rethink, adapt, and reinvent traditional classroom practices to find ways to integrate SEL into academics. There’s still large-scale work to be done; traditional curricula that teachers have access to and are routinely expected to follow often don’t offer comprehensive support for developing emotional awareness or social skills. Nor do they scaffold strategies for emotional regulation or how to resolve conflicts.

With creativity and research, however, and the gumption to back it up, teachers can integrate SEL into virtually any lesson.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is at the forefront of helping to make research-based social and emotional learning an integral part of education from preschool through high school by working with schools, districts, teachers, families, communities, and legislators. On the federal and state levels, CASEL engages with policy makers and promotes legislation that supports evidence-based SEL policies. CASEL works directly with educators in partner schools, offers workshops, and provides a plethora of free resources for schools.

SEL: A Base for Academic Success

For some perspective on why integrating SEL into academics is so important, consider the following. For our youngest learners, research shows that prosocial behaviors in the classroom are a better indicator of future academic success than students’ early reading levels.

As a first-grade teacher in a Title 1 elementary school in Central Los Angeles, I witnessed this dynamic firsthand. Some of my brightest students and highest readers had the most meltdowns that prevented them from completing work, accessing lessons, or participating. Where might they be academically in three or five years with the same behavior? Fortunately, my school believed in the value of SEL and encouraged teachers to incorporate this learning as we saw fit.

CASEL provides a framework for educators to reference and use as guidance for implementing age-appropriate SEL in their classrooms. The CASEL framework “addresses five broad and interrelated areas of competence and highlights examples for each: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.” Educators take the stage of their students’ development and skill level into account in applying the framework to lesson design.

A Writing Unit for SEL Integration

I designed a writing unit incorporating the CASEL framework, focusing on the self-awareness competency: the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. As a school, we used Lucy Calkins’s Units of Study in our English language arts curriculum. These units include reading and writing workshops that are essentially inquiry-based and interwoven with state literacy standards.

Carefully swapping out books and altering writing prompts while maintaining the structure of literacy skills development (reading comprehension, phonics, writing components), I designed a four-week-long narrative unit to explore emotional awareness.

During our Writer’s Workshop block, we read four different picture books from the acclaimed Trace Moroney’s Feelings Series (also available in Spanish) that explore emotions一how to identify our or others’ emotions and strategies for changing how we feel. We read When I’m Feeling Happy, When I’m Feeling Sad, When I’m Feeling Angry, and When I’m Feeling Nervous. Our week began with a read-aloud and opened into days of discussions, writing, and art. Through those weeks, I watched my students’ writing come alive and their relationships blossom.

Earlier in the year, I had already introduced my students to Zones of Regulation, a curriculum that educators use to teach students about emotions and emotional control, which set the foundation for some emotional vocabulary and more academic exploration. We discussed which feelings zones our emotions fall into and the times we felt these emotions. I was amazed by how passionate my students were in their verbal sharing and writings. Everyone was bursting to participate.

Validating Emotions

“When was a time you were angry?” I asked during our Anger week. “Have you ever gotten in trouble for something you didn’t do?” My students poured out stories about being framed and blamed by siblings, about being embarrassed by a parent; they listened to each other intently and even laughed at the right moments. It was important to me to give them space to share their own stories, for them to not feel that they had to give me a “right” answer.

Once we exhausted sharing about what made us feel a certain way, we discussed what made us feel better either at home or at school. My students described taking a break at the Calm Table, focusing on their breathing, talking to an adult or friend, coloring, being alone, reading a book, and more. Midweek, I initiated a Shared Writing lesson, and we made a book together about our “emotion of the week” based on student responses. I also added their ideas to a Strategy anchor chart that was filled with ideas for regulating emotions in the classroom.

To conclude the week, students wrote and drew independently about the emotion. I collected their writings each week and bound them into a big book that stayed on our Calm Table for students to read. When I presented the books to them, students glowed with pride.

I began noticing that when my students needed a break to calm down when frustrated or when they needed cheering up, they would often read through these books on their own to get support from their classmates’ stories. Interestingly, before our unit there had been a culture among my students, most notably the boys, that talking about feelings was taboo or babyish. As our unit unfolded, all my students began talking to each other about how they felt, and there was a softer tone in the classroom.

In tandem with our other SEL work, my class transformed over months from a space rife with meltdowns and arguments to a more friendly, functional place. I watched my students use the strategies they generated together in the classroom when they needed them. References to this work showed up in our morning circles of emotional check-ins. My students also began helping remind other students to use strategies to cope when they could tell someone was upset or sad.

It can be intimidating for educators to deviate from standard, traditional curricula, and some schools won’t allow teachers to do so. However, if teachers understand state learning standards, the skills that students need to master, and effective teaching strategies, there is room for creativity. Often, teachers do versions of this regardless; veteran teachers know that the exact lessons and activities that worked for a class of students one year may not work at all for their next year’s students. Why not redesign certain lessons with SEL goals in mind?

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Trauma-Informed Practices
  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary

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