How To Get Students Talking About Their Own Social-Emotional Learning

Getting students talking about their learning is a valuable strategy across all disciplines, and social-emotional learning is no different. Students learn more as they explain concepts to others, and they reshape and solidify their own thinking when listening to their peers. When students have opportunities to talk about social-emotional learning, they learn the language needed to express social-emotional nuances, and are better able to recognize, characterize and develop these skills in themselves and others. This process of metacognition gives students a model for practicing social-emotional strategies in their day-to-day lives.

While most teachers can think of quick and easy ways to get their students talking about their predictions in reading and their hypotheses for their latest science experiment, finding ways to encourage students to talk about their social-emotional learning often seems daunting. Teachers struggle with how to fit these topics into the curriculum or how to best support these types of conversations among students. Social-emotional learning is foundational to any subject matter, and is the thread that weaves together strong classroom and school communities. The strategies below can be useful ways to begin talking about social-emotional learning in the classroom, with peers and with families.

Talking About It In the Classroom

Begin talking about social-emotional learning in the classroom where students are most comfortable learning and discussing new ideas. The classroom can be a safe space to dig into new learning, and day-to-day classroom dynamics provide ample opportunities for conversations surrounding social-emotional learning.

  • Post a social-emotional learning target in your classroom each day that connects with activities you will be working on. Use simple and clear student-friendly language. Discuss the learning target and what it looks like. Explicit teaching of these skills, rather than the assumption of previous understanding, is integral to social-emotional success in the classroom. (Check out CASEL’s Five Core Competencies as a place to start when designing your classroom’s learning targets.)
  • Using the learning target as a guide, ask students to focus on the goal throughout an activity or day, and then ask them to reflect on their success with that goal. They could assign themselves a 1-5 rating and jot down evidence in a personal journal.
  • Encourage students to identify the daily target in one another when they see it in action. Students could privately share the student’s name and noted trait for an end-of-the day shout-out.
  • As students are first learning to reflect on social-emotional learning and recognize skills in themselves and others, talk aloud as you reflect and recognize these skills. The language you use becomes your students’ inner voice for processing that same information.

Talking About It With Peers

Once students are comfortable utilizing these skills in the classroom, I would suggest that they bridge their learning to practicing with peers. Constructing environments for students to talk about and practice these skills with other students allows them to solidify their understanding and begin building their own toolbox of social-emotional skills.

  • Try including SEL sentence stems on anchor charts for students. This creates a guide for students who are unfamiliar with talking about their social-emotional learning. Include the words and phrases that you are discussing as a class.
  • For young students who require more intensive social-emotional supports, think about ways that older students in the school could play a role. When young students are able to process their day with a peer, rather than an adult, they are exposed to more natural student-friendly language, the pressure is off, and a multi-age relationship is formed. Allow older students to serve as mentors in the classroom. Specifically, utilize older students to start a younger student’s day with positivity and enthusiasm and end their day with reflection.
  • As students are developing the ability to work through conflicts, give them the opportunity to use the skills they are learning. While teachers should support the process of problem-solving, tackling issues for students is not helpful in the long run.

Talking About It With Families

Families are, as we all know, important partners in students’ education. Including families in the conversations around social-emotional learning reinforces the learning at school and extends skill-building to a real-world setting.

  • Homework is one way that teachers and school leaders communicate to families. Assign homework that includes practice with social-emotional skills. This will not only give students practice, but it will communicate that the school believes in the value of social-emotional learning. For classrooms focusing on kindness, assign a random act of kindness. For classrooms focusing on responsibility, assign students a home chore. Then, talk about it in the classroom and prompt students to reflect on how they felt, and how the people affected reacted.
  • Homework can also include conversation starters for parents and children. How did you help someone today? What was something that was challenging for you today? How did you work through it? These questions encourage students to reflect on their social-emotional learning, and the dialogue further solidifies the bridge between school and home. Students might even pose these questions to their parents to extend the conversations and increase opportunities for modeling.

These strategies are simple, but can have a big impact on classrooms, schools and communities. The more that social-emotional learning is talked about in the classroom, with peers and with families, the greater the development of this essential life skill. The act of simply talking about it sets the foundation for a classroom and community culture where all are explicitly striving for and celebrating social-emotional learning.

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Kristen Thorson

Kristen Thorson is a Getting Smart Columnist. She is known for her experience as a teacher, interventionist, and curriculum and assessment developer

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1 Comment

Ravinder Thakur

Thank you for sharing these helpful tips on how to engage students in discussions about their social-emotional learning (SEL). As a teacher, I have found that fostering a safe and supportive classroom environment is key to encouraging students to share their thoughts and feelings about their own SEL.

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