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Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: So Similar

Randy Taran

Filmmaker, Project Happiness
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This is part eight of the nine-part series from the Project Happiness curriculum. We are looking at important factors that influence the happiness and social and emotional learning of elementary school age children, helping students learn life skills, manage emotions, and increase empathy. Each blog features one letter of the acronym HAPPINESS:

  1. H = Happiness
  2. A = Appreciation
  3. P = Passions and Strengths
  4. P = Perspective
  5. I = Inner Meanie/Inner Friend
  6. N = Ninja Mastery
  7. E = Empathy
  8. S = So Similar
  9. S = Share Your Gifts

In this post, we will explore recognizing what we have in common.

I recently visited Watershed School in Boulder, Colorado, which specializes in Project-Based and Experiential Learning. Over a brown-bag lunch with students and teachers, I was invited to talk about happiness: how we can learn to take charge of our happiness, and how to increase it to be more productive and engaged both in school and in life. Interpersonal connection is a big part of happiness, and the Project-Based Learning model fosters it well. I was struck by how the students treated each other with:

  • An understanding of what was similar for everyone
  • Respect for their differences
  • Appreciation for other students and teachers alike

Pass the Pulse and Appreciations

After our time together, the students at Watershed School stood in a circle and did an activity called "pass the pulse." Everyone held hands, and as one person received a squeeze (pulse) in their right hand, she or he would move the pulse along by squeezing her or his left hand, passing the pulse to the next person in the circle. It was considered an honor to begin the activity -- the individual who initiated the pulse was someone that the whole group recognized as a positive leader that week. Though the whole thing only took a moment or two, this built a sense of group cohesiveness that was palpable.

Next, both students and teachers did what they called "appreciations," in which they spontaneously spoke of the people or situations that they appreciated during the past week. Consider trying this in your class! It was amazing to witness their positivity, consideration for each other, and teamwork in action.

Social Connections

How we connect socially a big contributor to happiness and productivity. What contributes directly to the feeling of connectedness and acceptance is the understanding that, on some very core human levels, we are more similar than we may know. At the same time, we are also different; and not only is that OK, but it's also something to respect and even honor.

In The Whole-Brain Child, Drs. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson explain, "Just as its many different parts are made to work together, each individual brain is made to relate with the brain of each person we interact with." They use the phrase "interpersonal integration" to describe the process of honoring and nurturing our differences while cultivating our connections with one another.

Global Literacy

As modern technology creates an ever more connected world, we are all becoming more interdependent. For students to thrive with 21st century skills, it can no longer be an "us vs. them" conversation. Universal traits are important to recognize. This is true in our own back yard right now with issues like bullying, and equally important as students enter a more global workplace later in life. If they are taught from a young age that, at their core, people everywhere share a desire to be loved, to belong, to matter and to be respected, they will have a basis for better and more compassionate relationships. Further, their acceptance of others will increase as they learn that it's a good thing there are many variations in people (such as hair color, eye color, type of food or sports we prefer, holidays we celebrate, etc.). The benefits of teaching students that, now more than ever, it's time to honor our differences while acknowledging our shared humanity include:

  • An understanding that they are never alone in their feelings, because all humans are "So Similar" at our core
  • Promoting diversity consciousness so they are less resistant to or afraid of people who are different
  • Fostering the values of cooperation and teamwork, as a student in a classroom and a citizen of the world

Happiness, Teamwork and Productivity

On the subject of teamwork, happiness is an important advantage in creating successful group activities. Because happiness, like all emotions, is contagious, it can permeate a group, a class, or even an entire school community. Studies of sports teams have found that even "one happy player was enough to infect the mood of the entire team, and that the happier the team was, the better they played." By focusing on positivity, recognizing our similarities, and honoring our differences, we set the stage for kids to thrive in a myriad of settings. I was inspired to see these principles in action.

Find lesson plans and additional resources at And please answer these questions in the comments section below: What have you tried in your class? What obstacles have you faced? What changes would you like to see?

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Project Happiness: SEL Curriculum for Elementary Students
From Project Happiness, this 9-part series includes social and emotional learning curriculum for elementary school students.

Comments (5) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

aburch's picture

As a special needs educator, I firmly believe that building social and emotional skills in elementary students is critical. I agree with the article. I think it is imperative for students to be exposed to diversity and situations that challenge their understanding of reality; however, I also think is important for students to know that they are not alone. The social and emotional coping skills a child develops at an early age serves as the foundation for future success. Through team work, goal setting, social stories, group acceptance, and personal acceptance, children will be able to use a variety of skills as stepping stones for future endeavors. I liked the "brain analogy" that was used in the article. "Each part of an individuals brain works together. Likewise, each brain is made to interact with the brain of each person we interact with".

Kids need a balance when it comes to support and independence. As teachers, it is our job to teach students accordingly.

American College of Education's picture

Great article. The need to develop social skills not only provides students with more opportunity for basic interactions but also increase learning potential and reduces the threat of bullying.

Here at American College of Education (ACE), we offer educators the Certificate in Effective Classroom Management developed with Dr. Howie Knoff, a nationally renowned expert in classroom management. To learn more about this program, click here:

Debora Wondercheck's picture
Debora Wondercheck
Executive Director, Founder of Arts & Learning Conservatory

i think for better development in kids outdoors camps are really important because it teaches them how to develop oneself alone with out anyones help Separate the process of art from the product of art. Children enjoy both the process and the product of art. One of the main goals of your program is to help children experience the joy of creativity and the satisfaction of mastery. While adults focus on the process of art, children are often concerned with the product. They want their project to look good and be worthy of admiration. So, it's important to keep both the process and the product in mind when you offer an art activity to the children. You can do this by providing a variety of arts and crafts materials that are stimulating, age-appropriate, and easy to be successful with, and by providing just the right amount instruction and inspiration.

Shannon's picture

I really like this concept. It is so important to teach children to relate to one another, especially because our world is so global these days. This idea helps all children learn to connect to one another regardless of ability, gender, race or other attributes. It goes beyond multiculturalism and helps students "see" each other on a human level. Pass-the-Pulse seems like an excellent bonding exercise for students, where they are all sharing in this special moment together, this is something that I am planning on implementing in my own classroom full of preschoolers. It is such a universal experience that all children can participate and benefit form it.

Wendy's picture

Respect. Appreciation. Cooperation. Teamwork. All words that I emphasize the importance of in my classroom. This was a quick and easy read, yet it packed a punch full of important reminders. The daily demands on teachers in today's classrooms aren't always realized by non-teachers, and sometimes not by administrators either. With the academic curriculum at the forefront of our day, we must also make time for the social curriculum too. Teaching students to respect that others are different is key, but showing them how to appreciate those differences is often missing. I make an effort to build a strong classroom community in my 2nd grade homeroom of 28 diverse learners and friends. We make time for daily "thank you's" and recognitions between classmates; similar to what the author referred to as "appreciations". I spend more time in the beginning of the year doing team building activities, and getting-to-know you exercises, but I recognize that these activities have their place in the classroom throughout the year. My version of "Cross the Line" is called "Just Like Me", and is a quick way for students to see which of their friends have similar interests or concerns. I like the quick "Pass the Pulse" activity, which the author described and plan to implement that into my weekly routines next school year.

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