George Lucas Educational Foundation
Professional Development

Developing Teachers' Social and Emotional Skills

Social and emotional competencies help teachers avoid burnout and increase well-being. By identifying our internal drivers, we use our emotional intelligence to improve our craft.
Photo credit: Chicago 2016 via flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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Emotions are at the heart of what teachers do and why they do it. Educators come to teaching with dreams of changing the odds for disadvantaged children, inspiring a love for learning, or developing critical thinkers. Unfortunately, research shows that 40-50 percent of teachers will leave the classroom within their first five years. Stress among teachers has reached unprecedented levels, and according to the latest MetLife Survey of the American Teacher (PDF), over half of teachers reported "great stress at least several days a week." Teaching is an emotional practice, and teachers need support in strengthening their social and emotional skills to manage the stress that comes with teaching and stay in the profession for the long term.

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Social and emotional competencies (SEC) are critical to avoid burnout and increase teacher well-being. Being able to connect with our own emotions and feelings before reacting to student misbehavior, finding ways to unwind after a busy day, or identifying our internal drivers are all ways of using our emotional intelligence to feel better with ourselves and the world around us. Since these competencies aren't generally taught in mandatory professional development courses or teacher preparation programs (there are a few exceptions like San Jose State University in California or The University of British Columbia in Canada), we cannot assume that all educators have them in equal measure. Some of these skills might come naturally to some teachers, while others might require more attention and additional development. Like our students, we all have strengths -- and some challenges!

Research has found that students learn better in safe, supportive environments. The same is true for adults. SEC are influenced by context. If your work environment is full of gossip and complaints, you will tend to display more negative behaviors; while if you work in a supportive, welcoming school, you will be more inclined to successfully manage stress and ask for or offer help when needed. Think about your current workplace. How is it affecting your behavior and the ways in which you relate to students and colleagues? Are you able to show your "better self"? Being aware of how your work environment affects your behavior will help you make different choices if necessary.

Why Should Teachers Develop Their SEC?

Based on current research, there are three ways in which teachers' SEC affect students and the learning environment:

1. Teachers’ SEC influence the quality of teacher-student relationships.

Teachers who are calm, positive, and content are more likely better equipped for treating students warmly and sensitively, even when students behave in challenging ways.

2. Teachers model SEC for students, intentionally or not.

Teachers navigate stressful situations every day -- and students are paying attention! They learn from how their teachers manage frustration, deal with conflicts, or maintain control in the classroom.

3. Teachers' SEC influence classroom organization and management.

Teachers must maintain a sense of calm, be organized, and develop social trust if they want a well-organized classroom that encourages creativity or student autonomy.

How Can Teachers Develop Their SEC?

Six Seconds, the Emotional Intelligence Network, has an action plan for using emotional intelligence (EQ) in daily life. This EQ model begins with three important pursuits: to become more aware, more intentional and more purposeful.

Know Yourself means clearly seeing what you feel and do, knowing your strengths and challenges, and recognizing your behavior patterns.

Choose Yourself means proactively responding to situations instead of reacting on autopilot.

Give Yourself means putting your vision into action, knowing your purpose, and doing things for a reason.

We experience emotions all the time, but we rarely pause to reflect on what emotions are or how they affect learning. In this EQ model, the first step is to develop and cultivate self-awareness. Emotional awareness starts with our ability to identify how we feel, not only the surface feelings (those that are obvious), but also the ones that are hidden.

Try this. Choose a recent situation that was emotionally charged and reflect on the following prompts:

  • How did you feel during this situation? Name the specific emotions that you felt. Dr. Dan Siegel, well-known speaker and author of The Whole-Brain Child, often says, "Name it to tame it," as naming emotions reduces their intensity.

  • What were your emotions telling you? Emotions are data, providing information about ourselves and the world around us. Exploring the meaning of our emotions is an important step toward developing self-awareness.

  • What did you do about these feelings? We often hide, ignore, or deny uncomfortable feelings, such as shame, fear, and anger. But ignoring these emotions won't make them go away! Emotions drive us to take action, and we might feel the urge to respond to certain situations in non-constructive ways. Taking time to name our feelings and explore their meaning will help us make better decisions.

  • Based on these reflections, what would you do differently the next time you're faced with a similar situation?

Teachers’ social and emotional skills are important in helping them avoid burnout, increase well-being, and create a positive learning environment. Teachers can start developing their emotional intelligence by cultivating self-awareness. When we are mindful of our emotions, we feel more in control and make better decisions.

How do you cultivate self-awareness in your daily life? Please share in the comments below.