Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Engaging Students with Social and Emotional Learning

And connecting it to content

April 12, 2012

Question: How can you help colleagues integrate social, emotional learning (SEL)-related approaches into existing curriculum and instruction and reconnect with their key role as relationship builders and inspirers of student engagement?

Answer: By making the task as simple and feasible as possible.

Interested? Read on!

When students are disengaged from school and learning, we need to strategically reach inside them and rekindle the natural motivation to learn that all young people have. In fact, they are learning all the time -- just not proportionally much in the school context. And when they are disengaged, there are often good reasons and we have to counter them.

Here are four quick and accessible techniques you can use:

#1) Students' Personal Theories

Carol Dweck focuses on building intrinsic motivation and a great way to do this is to take a moment to have students in secondary school rate their beliefs about questions regarding their own potential. Some examples include: You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can't really do much to change it; You can learn new things but you can't really change your basic intelligence; No matter who you are, you can change your intelligence quite a bit. (Rate from strongly agree to strongly disagree)

One reason for disengagement is, "what's the point?" This needs to be actively disputed and students need to believe that they can learn and get smarter and better. Having teachers lead them in a conversation about this is very powerful because some students have come to believe that their teachers doubt them.

#2) Establish Expectations for Students' Rights

When students participate in and articulate their rights, it begins to re-establish parameters for re-engaging (or continuing to engage) in the life of the classroom and school. Many students fear the consequences of their participation in class or elsewhere in the school, because their contributions do not always seem welcomed. This is especially true when students have run into trouble. Once they have changed, their offerings can sometimes be responded to (based on their reputation versus current intentions).

Once students publicly and collectively affirm their rights and it is made clear to them that there are no exceptions to these then they gain some of the courage needed to re-engage and participate in school life. Remember, though, that not everyone will be welcoming. So we need to talk to students about how to exercise their rights when they are violated. As you can see, this is a great lesson for life, as well, and represents an important step in students' SECD.

Some examples of rights that students have articulated are: "I have the right to be listened to. My opinions count, as do the opinions of my peers"; "I can be counted on to be respectful of others, and I have the right to be treated with respect"; "I have the right to feel safe, and I don't have the right to make others feel unsafe." As you can see, the structure of these, articulate both rights and responsibilities.

#3) Creating Meaning , Building Character, and Inspiring Potential

Sir John Templeton believed that maxims contained the power to motivate and inspire people, including young people. He created his Laws of Life essay concept based on this belief and it has grown to be a world-wide phenomenon of inspiration (and used to turn-around disengaged urban learners).

Educators have identified six themes for students to explore that tend to kindle a sense of engagement in school: perseverance, change, greatness, following hopes and dreams, opposition, and optimism. The activity involves asking students to research quotes that teach about the theme, discuss them, understand the context in which they were generated (where possible), share them, and determine which ones they find most meaningful and applicable to their lives. The latter can turn into writing project linked to the language arts curriculum, which is why it is not demanding to ask English Language Arts teachers to incorporate this into the curriculum (a parallel activity can be envisioned for history/social studies). Alternatively, sample quotes can be provided, perhaps as an initial approach to doing the first theme. And quotes can be focused on students' ethnic groups, groups other than their own, and in different languages. The options, and academic connections, are extensive.

Some examples of quotes related to perseverance and efficacy are: "Without a struggle, there is no progress" (Frederick Douglass); "It's not whether you get knocked down; it's whether you get up" (Vince Lombardi); "Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person" (Mother Teresa); "I've failed over and over again in my life and that's why I succeed" (Michael Jordan); "Perseverance is failing nineteen times and succeeding the twentieth" (Julie Andrews); "The person on top of the mountain did not fall there" (Anonymous).

#4) Character Reflections

Sometimes students connect to material through character before they do through content. Students can rate contemporary, historical, or fictional characters, or classmates or themselves, based on a 5-point rubric: 5 = exemplar with strong conviction, 4 = positive role model, 3 = someone with significant positive and negative qualities, 2 = a poor role model, 1 = someone entirely lacking in this characteristic.

From a 2003 National School of Character, New Jersey's Montclair Kimberley Academy, here's an example of a set of character reflections: respectful, friendly, responsible, confident, temperate, fair, and informed. Each of these was defined with students before they were applied. Applications could take place in different subject area classes, including health and advisories. Providing examples for ratings is important. These ratings can also be used to respond to negative or positive incidents in a school or classroom. Transforming content into relationship-related understandings, as well as providing tools to analyze and respond to what is happening within one's school and to one's self, are all aspects of deep re-engagement or reinforcing of being engaged.


More details about the first three ideas can be found in Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering's The Highly Engaged Classroom, published by Solution Tree in 2011. You can also find more on Character Reflections here.

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