Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom

student mental health

Trouble concentrating. 
Freezing up when called on. 
Inappropriate outbursts. 
Putting down others or self. 
Incomplete work. 
Physical aggression. 

Misbehavior… or something more serious?

We’ve all seen these behaviors in students at one time or another. Often, we see them daily in a variety of forms. Many times, we label these actions as “misbehavior” and are quick to dole out consequences without also helping the child work through the issue.

In reality, each time a child acts out, there is usually a deeper reason behind it. Fear of failure. Confusion. Stress from home life. Insecurity. Low self-esteem. Traumatic experiences. 

Don’t get me wrong – it can be really hard to recognize this in the moment. When you’re in charge of a classroom full of kiddos and there’s suddenly a disruptive behavior, the frustration is real. Teachers are humans too, and we have our own emotional reactions, stressors, and insecurities.

That’s why I feel so strongly about the importance of Social and Emotional Learning (S.E.L.) – it’s imperative for today’s classroom when more children than ever before are suffering from anxiety and depression. 

Today, at least 1 in 8 children suffer from anxiety disorders, and those stats only include the ones who have been officially diagnosed. Additionally, the Child Mind Institute reports that there’s been a 17% increase in childhood anxiety over the past decade. 

There’s a lot of speculation out there on what’s caused this. Is it the frequent active shooter drills? The high stakes testing? The influence of social media and general screen time? Or simply a heightened awareness and recognition of mental health issues? 

To be honest, I have no idea, and figuring that out is well beyond the scope of my expertise. What I do know is that kids today are struggling, and incorporating S.E.L. into the classroom on a regular basis is one way that we can help. 

Can you imagine how different your classroom would be if every child was able to name their emotions, regulate themselves, and interact kindly and empathetically with peers? Sounds like a dream, right? These are all goals of S.E.L.! 

Let’s look at a hypothetical scenario and see how S.E.L. could help. 

SEL Resource

Just like in the Big Feelings For Big Kids S.E.L. Comprehension resource, it can be helpful to analyze emotions found in relevant scenarios.

Jase is working on a guided reading passage. All of a sudden, he yells “This is stupid!” and crumples up his paper, throwing it toward the trash can. The teacher, alarmed, begins to scold him and assigns a consequence. Jase is required to try the assignment again, but this time, he only completes about 10% of it, leaving the rest blank. I’ll just take the bad grade, he thinks. 

We’ve all experienced moments like this in our classrooms, right? Our knee-jerk reaction may be to get upset at Jase for being disruptive, disrespectful, and disobedient. When we work on naming and understanding our emotions, though, we start to see these scenarios in a different light. 

What’s really going on here? Jase is upset that he doesn’t understand the assignment. He doesn’t have the ability to name his frustrations, and he lacks the confidence to admit to the teacher or to his peers that he needs help. His anxiety begins to rise, and he becomes even more convinced that he’s just not good at school. His self-esteem suffers. Not an outcome we want to encourage for any of our students. ? The teacher also feels defeated, unsure how to help her struggling student. 

In a classroom environment that teaches social and emotional learning, this scenario could play out very differently. 

S.E.L. teaches students (and adults!) how to regulate emotions in some very important ways, including: 

  • Recognizing and naming emotions. I see you are upset and frustrated. 
  • Acknowledging and validating emotions. It’s okay to take a few minutes away from your desk. Tell me when you are ready to refocus. 
  • Offering coping mechanisms, like deep breathing exercises, stretches, or alternative seating/classroom safe spaces. 
  • Encouraging reflection after the initial stressor or triggering event has passed. What will you do the next time you feel this way? 

Do you see how a child with these skills could feel empowered and confident to tackle hardships and frustrations? How amazing would that be?! 

Instead of getting upset at Jase for his outburst, can you see how much more productive it is to guide him through his feelings? 

We have to be competent in social and emotional skills by the time we hit adulthood, right? If we don’t develop them, we are bound to struggle. None of us would get very far in the workplace if we yelled out “This is stupid!” every time we felt frustrated. This ability to recognize and regulate emotions is what S.E.L. is all about – it’s teaching our students to be productive, kind, and confident members of society.

And speaking of preparing students for our society, this is not to say that children don’t need consequences. A lot of the scrutiny I hear about current behavior management programs out there is that there are no consequences for negative behavior. I personally believe we can teach the above coping strategies while also providing follow-up consequences as necessary. I think that being a parent to a toddler has helped me realize this. ?

But, Toluca, how will I have time for that? I have 25 students!

I get it – I really do! As with any skill we teach in the classroom, it’s hard at first. Remember the first time you led small group centers in your class this year? The first couple of times were rough, right? You felt pulled in 25 different directions and started googling how to clone yourself so you could help everyone at once. Then eventually, it got smoother. Kids understood the routine, the procedures, and the terminology. Small groups started to run themselves. You saw progress and teamwork.

Same thing with S.E.L. There’s a learning curve. Your classroom environment and kids’ mindsets won’t change overnight. But little by little, you’ll start seeing the benefits. Your students will begin to adopt the language. They’ll understand the routine of self-regulation. Eventually, a child-like Jase will be able to walk himself through the process, and you won’t need to walk side-by-side with him as he works through his frustrations. 

At a time when more children than ever are facing serious mental health issues like anxiety and depression, I believe it’s essential for teachers to start focusing on social and emotional skills in the classroom. You don’t have to overhaul your entire curriculum – I think a great place to start is by noticing our own emotions and reactions as teachers. Learning coping skills for ourselves is so important. Once we can do that, it becomes much easier to find patience and empathy for our students. 

Resources and Support

If you need a framework to get started, check out my Big Feelings For Big Kids resource. It’s full of scenarios you can use with your students to begin introducing social and emotional skills to your curriculum. And it does so in a way that seamlessly integrates with your ELA block because it’s disguised as reading comprehension. 

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    Hi! I’m Toluca from Markers and Minions, where I help teachers feel more effective and confident with high-quality resources and an awesome teacher community!

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