George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Encouraging Achievement in Math While Supporting SEL

Tasks like collaborating on the perfect paper airplane help elementary students develop both math and social and emotional learning skills.

September 5, 2023
Otto Steininger / Ikon Images

Now that schools are back in full swing, how can educators encourage academic achievement while also skillfully supporting the social and emotional needs of students? Capitalizing on students’ interests and promoting collaboration in class are two ways that educators can promote social and emotional learning (SEL) while also focusing on academic achievement.

SEL shouldn’t feel like a special event; instead, it should be interwoven into the teacher’s daily routine, including in math class. Teachers can often accomplish this by introducing meaningful math activities that are both motivating and engaging for students.  

Geometry and paper airplanes

In a second-grade classroom recently, the teacher and I asked students if they had ever seen or flown a paper airplane. The reaction was positive and immediate. Students were eager to chime in about their experiences. The teacher facilitated an informal discussion about different geometric figures, using a ruler, and other ideas related to measurement that are important when creating the perfect, high-flying paper airplane. When an “interest springboard” was created for engaging mathematics, students became immediately invested in their learning. 

The role of interest in learning mathematics is important. On a basic level, as with the initial conversation that the teacher encouraged about the geometry in flying airplanes, the learning seems effortless when academic interest is encouraged as part of the lesson. Interest, included as a component of the way math is taught, offers teachers the opportunity to positively affect students’ math achievement and self-efficacy and lessen anxiety about learning mathematics curriculum. From an SEL perspective, setting students up for success by creating a motivating platform for learning also creates a growth mindset, critical as a catalyst for academic achievement

As the project progressed from initial whole class discussion to making the actual paper airplanes, students shared ideas with their classmates. After facilitating the class discussion, teachers modeled step-by-step instructions about how to make a paper airplane and sample word problems that they added as decorations. Finally, students built and decorated their own original airplanes.

Working together

Collaboration took center stage when it came time to fly the planes. In small groups, students flew the planes outside and practiced measuring and recording their partners’ distances. Class environments like this where students have a chance to learn by communicating in a relaxed, social setting offer opportunities to collaborate and problem-solve authentically and with real-world scenarios that are relatable to elementary school students. 

Back in the classroom, students recorded measurements from each team into one data set. In the discussion that followed, teachers asked students to problem-solve about how to best organize the distances from least to greatest and then how to best represent findings using different types of graphs. Participation was encouraged, and all students, regardless of ability level, chimed in proudly about the best way to represent class findings. 

As educators, we acknowledge that SEL is important. But what’s the best way to get there? Approaching SEL from the perspective of students’ interest and collaboration provides educators with some direction about how to effectively include social and emotional learning while also adhering to the mathematics curriculum. The paper airplane activity demonstrates how both interest and collaboration play a critical role in teaching and learning second-grade mathematics skills related to measurement. 

When designing your own SEL mathematics classroom activity, I suggest the following strategies.

Create your own Interest Springboard

Begin with a class discussion: As the teacher, you have the opportunity to gather background information about what students know and are excited about related to the activity. For example, when initially talking about the above second-grade activity, students who had previously designed and flew planes became immediately engaged and were able to share their own experiences, regardless of ability level or how anxious they may have felt about learning mathematics in general.

Create interest: This motivates students to participate and engage in the lesson. Moreover, the idea of focusing on interest subsequently ends up serving as a platform for students’ investing in their learning mathematics. From an SEL perspective, students may feel less anxious and take risks when they have a positive (self-efficacy) outlook about the familiar topic and the engaging, interesting task.

Discuss math skills: Creating interest offers an opportunity to informally discuss math skills. The paper airplane activity can easily be adapted to the mathematics curriculum, grades two through six. Identify skills from various domains along with appropriate Standards for Mathematical Practice to add to class discussions. 

Encourage collaboration

Look for opportunities for student collaboration: Throughout the activity, purposefully design ways that students can work together. This may include, for example, a turn-and-talk with a partner during informal class discussions or more planned student teams during the data-collection part of the lesson.

Ensure that students team up with a variety of classmates: Provide opportunities and set rules and procedures for choosing partners ahead of time, and practice those routines if possible.

Give guidance and positive feedback: Offer positive feedback about the collaboration that you’ve included in your activity. Highlight positive SEL learning opportunities.

Mathematics achievement is possible for all students when educators consider and include SEL techniques such as introducing students’ interest into academic topics and encouraging collaboration.

By collaborating to build the perfect paper airplane, these second-grade students grew both social and emotional learning and elementary math skills.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Teaching Strategies
  • Math
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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