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The Importance of Social and Emotional Learning: How You Can Implement it In Your School

Bonnie Bracey Sutton

Teacher Agent of Change, Power of US Foundation
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Like everyone, I was shaken by the massacre last week at Virginia Tech. It is clear that the shooter had severe emotional and mental problems that could have been addressed much earlier.

This latest incident of mass violence and suicide will certainly focus attention once again on the causes of violence, and will lead to renewed conversations about gun control, our country's broken health care and mental-health systems, and the impact of media violence on the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of children. Dewey Cornell, a clinical psychologist and education professor and director of the University of Virginia's Virginia Youth Violence Project, discussed these issues in a recent conversation with the Washington Post.

How many of us have had children in our classes who were withdrawn, quiet loners? What kinds of indications should teachers be taught to watch out for? How do we learn more about the feelings of the children we teach, and how do we equip them to deal with emotions such as anger, sadness, aggression, loneliness?

GLEF, a vocal proponent of social and emotional learning, has published hundreds of resources on emotional intelligence.

Even if your school has not instituted a formal program in support of social and emotional learning, you can initiate plenty of activities in your own classroom. To begin, recognize that an emotionally intelligent teacher is the first step to an emotionally intelligent class. Consider how your own communication with and treatment of students models healthy emotional intelligence.

Here are some student-centered activities and resources you can use in support of your classroom efforts:

? Institute morning meetings. Starting your day with a morning class meeting provides numerous opportunities to support social and emotional learning: It helps build a sense of community, creates a climate of trust, encourages respectful communication, and much, much more. You'll find information about morning meetings, as well as other strategies for fostering emotional intelligence, at the Web site The Responsive Classroom.

? Introduce journal writing. This familiar activity can be effective in developing self-awareness among students.

? Emphasize responsibility. Formalize tasks in your classroom, such as maintaining chalkboards or whiteboards, bringing papers to the school office, or handing out balls and other playground equipment at recess. Such duties encourage a sense of responsibility among students and provide everyone with the opportunity to contribute to daily management of the class.

? Encourage creativity. Joshua Freedman, director of programs for Six Seconds a nonprofit organization supporting emotional intelligence in families, schools, corporations, and communities, suggests that creativity is most necessary in times of emotional hardship, such as when we're frustrated or angry. By providing your students with ongoing opportunities to express their creativity, you'll also be helping them handle the inevitable curve balls life throws at them. You'll find a helpful article on ideas and activities for using creativity to foster emotional intelligence at KidSource OnLine.

? Use literature to support social and emotional learning. The Heartwood Institute, which has developed an ethics curriculum for elementary school students, has compiled a list of multicultural children's literature (for students in primary and intermediate grades) that explore ethical themes, such as courage, hope, respect, and justice.

What emotional-intelligence resources do you find valuable?

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Comments (18) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Herb Coleman's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After events like this it's all too common an excercise for us to look for "reasons" and thus find ways to prevent a re-occurrance of such an event. Plain and simple there were no "logical" reasons for this. The shooter was identified as "mentally ill" (still too broad a designation in my book) and did receive in patient treatment. When he was released he refused to follow up with out patient treatment. His name should have been flagged on a list that should have prevented him from buying a hand gun at Walmart (however he could have eaisily gotten one at a gun show or through other means). By all accounts, teachers and fellow students made efforts to reach out to this young man. He, for whatever reason, was locked in his own world. We may never discover the "cause" of this incident and I risk creating a climate of fear to say that we might not ever be able to prevent it from happening again. After all Columbine was not the first inicdent of it's kind. It's a real possibility that this, too is just one more example of human behavior that is unpredictable and without the most severe measures unstoppable.

But that's just my opinion...or is it?

Bonnie Bracey Sutton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Actually, I was a loner in school , until I went to college. There are many reasons that people may be loners. I suppose mine was that my family , my mother and father were teachers and they chose to live in a poor neighborhood to help uplift the community. I was a teacher's child. I don't think I was loved by the rest of the kids a lot. We had things, and could achieve, and were
articulate. All the same, it was a lonely path. I was simply saying that it is important
to know more about students. My teachers knew me.. first they were mostly nuns, and I guess it did not help that they had chosen me to be one of them.. but my father dissented.

There is room for loners.. but sometimes there are questions to be asked and knowledge to be gained.

There are introverts and there are extroverts.

Sometimes we change roles.


Linda Locklear's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The recent tragic events at VT will surely elicit a "knee-jerk" reaction and teachers will once again be mandated/encouraged to teach more "anti-bullying" classes. This is not realistic as we will all be bullied someday, somewhere, whether in school or over a parking space at the grocery store.
The focus must turn not be on the victims of this event but the shooter who was obviously mentally ill as are all of those who take the lives of others. What should be addressed is the need for more help for these individuals and more accountability for those who treat them.
I teach students who are in mental health crisis, ages 7-17 and one of our most basic classroom goals is to teach these students the coping skills that they do not have, for various reasons and we try to do this through academics.
As was stated is other post2 above, it is not the general personality that determines whether or not one is a potential threat to others, it is the way we react to or cope with situations.

Helen Otway's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a classroom teacher I have found that students do not readily say or are able to explain how they are feeling. For our morning talk sessions I ask the students to not only tell about what they have done or experienced, but how they felt about it or what impact it made on them or someone else. We record words that the students use in their morning talk on the whiteboard. As the words are recorded students become more aware of expressing their feelings in their morning talk or share time.

Students are invited to choose an emotion word from the board (or one of their own) to record onto a card and decorate to match the emotion. For example, if the word is 'excited' they may use bright colours and images of people jumping up and down. The cards are laminated for durability and then used during morning talk sessions.

The cards are spread out onto the floor with the children sitting in a circle around them. Children are asked to pick up at least 2 or 3 cards and use them in their morning talk. As new emotion words are introduced more cards are added.

I have noticed that in time my students become better reflective thinkers and communicators of their feelings as well as more aware of the emotions of others.

This is only one little step in opening up communication and trust in my classroom.

Bill Dunsay's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many classrooms if not most in the US are organized that way and have been for some time. Character Ed is big right now. Children have been doing class jobs for over 40 or 50 years. Back in the 1950s we had chalkboard washers and eraser clappers (you went outside and banged them together to release the dust) so class jobs are not new. The real problem is that we don't place enough value on children and education. Our economy has changed but we have not put enough resources into educating students for today's world. In fact our heros and those we admire earn gazillions of dollars and youth are directed to emulate them. The government passes legislaton that requires high stakes testing and also promises tons of money to support our efforts but then doesn't keep their end of the bargain. So that's the best example of cheating. Our celebrities are high on criticism and low on values. They don't hesitate to accept 20 milllion to play act and how much goes to contributions to education or hospitals and medical programs. The tabloids highlight important issues like which celebrity is in rehab, gained or lost weight, has a particular sexual preference or just redid their face and body. And we eat this junk up! If those issues are imporrtant to us is it any wonder that the shooter was ignored. The problem is about the values of our society not about making the schools to be solely responsible to solve societies problems. If that is the real case then build the dormitories. This is a complex problem and educators can only be part of the solution. It begins at home, the White House and congress.

Mary Utne O'Brien's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

GLEF has provided educators with terrific resources on emotional intelligence and SEL. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) exists to promote the science of SEL (what works best? with what impacts? etc.) and to provide information and resources so that educators are well-equipped to help their students develop to their fullest--socially, emotionally, and academically. GLEF readers can find SEL resources at

Rose's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I absolutely love the idea about emotion cards. It is so hard for younger children to fully understand emotions. Most of my kids are either happy, sad or mad. I think it would be a wonderful lesson to understand that they may not be mad, but actually hurt or disappointed in a friend's actions. I am going to totally use emotion cards before we begin our daily journal writing. This would also be a great set up for narrative essay writing.

Jennifer Simpson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are so right. Teachers need professional help in their classrooms. The blaming game has to stop. The special education teachers I know are spread thin. I teach preschoolers that are living in turmoil. It is impossible for the classroom teacher to address these issues alone.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a thought-provoking post. I agree that the shooter of the Virginia Tech Massacre was most likely not "fitting in" somehow with his peers. That is why it is imperative that we meet our students social and emotional needs early on.

I teach kindergarten, and I do an activity called Teddy Bear Talk, where we meet in a circle as a sponge activity, when time allows, to talk about what is important to my students. It builds that sense of community in support of that those critical emotional and social needs of students. All students must feel a sense of belonging and community. Afterall, nobody wants to feel shunned or picked on. This causes anyone to want to act out.

What do you think?

Leighton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is a fantastic idea to use in the classroom! I taught Pre-K for one year and I found that students had difficulty expressing themselves in a positive way. Have you found that your shy or withdrawn children respond better in morning meeting using these cards?

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