Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Curriculum for Emotional Awareness

Learning to discuss their feelings on subjects like culture and diversity helps students develop empathy and grit.

September 15, 2016


"You can't learn if you're not well," explains Amy Gaunt, a Year 3 teacher at School 21, a London-based public school. And while that's a good reason to teach wellbeing, it's not School 21's only reason. "It's an opportunity where children get to discuss their feelings, thoughts, and negotiate their attitudes and views on the world," adds Gaunt.

Wellbeing also increases students' confidence, voice, and problem-solving skills. "Through giving pupils an opportunity to discuss how they feel about different things, it makes them more capable of explaining the barriers to their learning," says Gaunt. "If they can identify, 'I'm not able to do X because Y is happening,' that means that they can access that learning."

If you want to develop a wellbeing program at your school -- or learn how to incorporate it into your classroom -- read about how School 21 developed their curriculum and created opportunities for discussion.

How It's Done

Start With a Wellbeing Framework

When creating a wellbeing curriculum, start with an existing framework, and customize it to your students' needs. School 21 uses a U.K.-based wellbeing framework called Personal, Social, Health, and Economic (PSHE) education. "It's a great basis to go to for ideas, but we take from that what this group of children needs," explains Gaunt. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a similar, U.S.-based resource.

Throughout the year, School 21 covers six big topics -- one per a six- to eight-week term:

  1. School as a community
  2. What makes me special?
  3. How can I be a responsible citizen in the world?
  4. Diversity
  5. Healthy lifestyles
  6. Social skills

Throughout the term, teachers delve into a subtopic each week. For example, within the term on Diversity, they will spend a week exploring Why are we unique? Through discussion, students explore these subtopics further with questions like:

  • What makes us the same and what makes us different?
  • Is it OK to be different?
  • Should we all be treated the same?
  • What is prejudice?
  • How can we respect each other?

At the beginning of each week, teachers introduce the wellbeing topic at an assembly consisting of two year groups [grade levels]. Then, in their weekly wellbeing class, they use a grounding text to further explore the theme with students, and at the end of the week, they gather in a smaller, one-year group assembly to wrap up the topic. Throughout the year, they assess their students using the wellbeing progression chart.

Discuss the Needs of Your Students to Create Your Curriculum

At the beginning of each year, School 21 teachers gather and create a wellbeing curriculum specific to their students' needs. "Get together with other teachers and think about what the needs of the children are," advises Gaunt. "Start from there."

Last year, these educators noticed that their students were blaming their peers and parents frequently. In response, they spent a term focusing on responsibility. "We looked at how children can take responsibility for their actions and different tasks," remembers Gaunt, "and what their own, their teachers', and their families' responsibilities are."

Create Opportunities for Discussion

A core element of the wellbeing curriculum is the idea that discussion and speaking lead to wellbeing. If students have the opportunity to discuss their feelings -- and hear how others feel -- it contributes to feeling seen and heard, and it develops their understanding and empathy of others' experiences. Discussion (or “oracy” as it’s called at School 21) is central to wellbeing curriculum.

School 21 schedules daily assembly periods to discuss wellbeing topics. If your school doesn't have daily assemblies or a weekly wellbeing course, the important factor is that you're giving your students opportunities to discuss their feelings and beliefs, emphasizes Gaunt. You may be able to do this in advisory or homeroom, or through incorporating intentional discussion throughout your classes -- such as picking a particular book to explore in English or an event in history.

The following exercises can help you promote discussion:

Give your students concrete ways to discuss abstract ideas. "Culture is quite an abstract idea," acknowledges Gaunt. "It's something that's all around us, but if you say to a six- or seven-year-old, 'What is culture?' they're not going to have an idea. We wanted to give them concrete examples of how we might see culture. So we looked at clothes, music, food, and stories." In their assembly, they grouped in smaller circles and were given an artifact that represented a specific culture (like an article of clothing) to talk about. "They had to identify what it was, explain why it's important, and who it might be important to, and then as a larger group, they compared the different cultures being discussed."

Use controversial statements. If your topic is culture, have your students debate a statement like, some cultures are better than others. To develop empathetic responses, start by scaffolding with simpler questions to help build students’ ideas around the theme before getting into more controversial statements. "Have students pair up and take each side of the argument before they find common ground," recommends Oli de Botton, School 21's co-founder and head teacher.

In an assembly, Eysha, a Year 3 student, shared her opinion in response to the statement about culture: "If everyone from one country was for one culture, and another country was for another culture, we wouldn't know about any cultures except our own. There's lots of cultures in London, and if all these cultures weren't here, it wouldn't be a colorful place."

Incorporate drama techniques to engage students in discussion. School 21 invented a fictional character -- Colin Chaos, played by a teacher -- who appears during assemblies to act out different scenarios. "It's easier to communicate key school messages through character and humour," advises Peter Hyman, a co-founder and executive head teacher. Through forum theater, a drama technique "where the audience decides what the actors should do next," explains Hyman, they'll discuss topics like responsibility, and have the students take on roles (like Colin's mother) to act out and communicate how to work through and discuss different issues.

Initiate discussion with a stimulus, such as a grounding text. Provide your students with a video, image, or written text, and use that as a starting point for a student-led discussion. School 21 has weekly 40-minute Philosophy for Children (P4C) classes, a framework that helps students generate their own questions and circle discussions around a particular topic (like diversity or responsibility) using a grounding text.

"We want our children to have power and control over their lives, a sense of belonging, and to feel that they can grow here," adds de Botton. "We want to give them experiences and support to do all of those things."

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Communication Skills
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.