Using Social and Emotional Learning to Connect With Middle School Students
Activities that help students examine their thoughts and feelings and those of others can lead to stronger bonds with peers and teachers.
In certain spaces where I coach teachers, some students struggle to connect, interact, and socialize appropriately with peers and their teachers, even in the latter part of the second semester. These struggles can significantly disrupt the learning process, making effective teaching impossible when unchecked or unremedied.
Some of the disruptions to teaching and learning I’ve encountered this school year include the following:
- Interruptions where teachers are unable to facilitate entire lessons
- Vulgar verbal aggressions
- Prevalent bullying, causing some students not to participate in classroom discussions or seek assistance from their teacher out of fear of being ridiculed and harassed by peers
- Decreased focus and motivation levels for learning due to vaping and various forms of substance abuse
Some root causes found in the literature for youth exhibiting difficult behaviors suggest the following:
- A lack of positive relationships with family, friends, and other adults
- Exposure to traumatic events
- Untreated mental health conditions
- Lack of opportunities due to poverty and racism
Unfortunately, teachers in some communities across the United States have reported increasing levels of frequent opposition and social and emotional disconnection among students in recent years.
This type of behavior burdens teachers by putting them under enormous pressure to support kids in ways beyond teaching—especially when dealing with problematic students lacking parental or caregiver involvement. Sometimes these situations can seem hopeless, but we can take steps to improve relationships to empower willing students and appeal to those who may not immediately see a need for change.
Concerned about her students, my collaborator, the principal of William Wirt Middle School, Rhonda Simley, expressed, “Our kids are hurting. Many are using substances to numb their pain. We must provide hope and begin planting the right seeds immediately. We know it’s hard for our teachers to implement SEL [social and emotional learning], but modeling for them with students may give them needed perspective.”
Together, we created a youth empowerment SEL program at the school. We meet with the student body twice a month during enrichment time to engage them in meaningful discourse about issues relevant to them. We also use these sessions to strengthen their student portfolios with a kit of SEL tools and other life skills resources we model and teach them to use. Then we give them time to practice using the tools and provide feedback and emotional support as needed.
Our program prioritizes two powerful activities that help learners begin to develop essential SEL skills. First, we have them compose personal narratives to explore knowledge of self and develop better self-awareness. Second, we use empathy mapping to have them cultivate social awareness and begin to put themselves in a classmate’s or teacher’s shoes.
Here are some general guidelines and student handouts for implementing these two activities.
Developing Introspection by Writing Personal Narratives
Encourage learners to focus on understanding and appreciating themselves through a personal narrative—doing so will make it easier for them to make better efforts to understand others. Emphasize that having knowledge of self means having insight into one’s identity, and self-awareness means comprehending the reasons for our actions.
Students compose an original personal narrative of about 250 words describing things they know about themselves or a particular event or hobby they enjoy (e.g., a sport they play, an artistic skill, or their special talent). They may also include aspects of their culture at home (e.g., music, food, holidays, languages they speak, religion, etc.) or a future goal. The narrative should also provide the following:
- Adherence to good grammar and sentence structure.
- Clear organization with a start, middle, and end.
- Takeaways on what they know better about themselves.
When we introduced this activity, my colleague Ezekiel Valenga and I wrote and read our own personal narratives to inspire and motivate students. One class needed external inspiration, so we had them read the lyrics to 2Pac’s song “Keep Ya Head Up.”
Developing Social Awareness with Empathy Mapping
Students can create an empathy map as a helpful tool for being kind and connecting better with others by understanding how they may feel.
Students may choose a classmate, a teacher, or someone else in their life as the subject of their map. Some may not feel comfortable choosing a person, and that’s OK. In these situations, I request them to choose a literary character or one from their favorite movie or television show. To create their empathy map, students will consider something the other person said and did in a particular situation and then imagine themselves as that person and think about what they might think and feel.
Begin by explaining the importance of social awareness for fine-tuning relationship skills and providing students with a completed example of an empathy map. The teacher then pairs students and introduces a template with the following four quadrants:
- What I heard _____ say.
- What I saw _____ do.
- What I think _____ thinks.
- What I think _____ feels.
Using sticky notes or free-handing on each quadrant, the learners will pay close attention to what their subject says and does. The “What I heard” quadrant should have actual quotes from their classmates. For example, a peer may say, “I like to complete my work by myself.” By paying close attention to behavior and actions, the learners should state only what they saw done in the “What I saw” quadrant. Doing so will give them context for what they believe the person thinks and feels.
Conclude the activity by allowing students the opportunity to express their main takeaways. For kids unsure of how to initiate speaking their thoughts, consider a good sentence starter by Project Harvard Zero: “I used to think _____. Now I think _____.“
You can learn more about SEL activities in my book Raising Equity Through SEL.
I sincerely thank Rhonda Simley for jump-starting and including me in the Wirt Middle School SEL youth empowerment program, which became the impetus for this work. And special thanks to Ezekiel Valenga for teaching me the “personal narrative” activity.