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October 1, 2015
Vol. 73
No. 2

Social-Emotional Learning and Academics: Better Together

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The Common Core State Standards give us a golden opportunity to teach social-emotional skills and academic skills together.

Only a few decades ago, most people felt that social and emotional skills should be taught primarily at home. Today, the proliferation of character education, antibullying, and social skills programs signals a growing recognition of the important role of schools in promoting social and emotional learning, or SEL.
Too often, however, schools teach social and emotional skills outside the daily curriculum. Consider how much more relevant such skills would be if we embedded them in daily work, supporting students as they learn to cooperate effectively with a lab partner, set realistic writing goals, persevere through a tough math problem, or self-regulate well enough to allow others to speak in a class discussion.
Interestingly—perhaps even counterintuitively—we may find the impetus for this next step in our evolution of SEL teaching in the Common Core State Standards.

Common Core and SEL Together? Really?

Have you ever examined the Common Core State Standards with an eye toward social and emotional skills? As I've worked with schools and districts to help bring academic and social and emotional learning together, I've increasingly been turning to these standards and others (the Next Generation Science Standards, Virginia's Standards of Learning, and so on) to find connections to social and emotional learning.
I tried an exercise that yielded fascinating results. Combing through the Common Core English/language arts standards for grade 5 as well as the Common Core Standards for Mathematical Practice, which cut across all grades, I found an amazing number of places where SEL skills were embedded in these academic standards. Here are just a few examples of connections between the Common Core standards and the five core social and emotional competencies outlined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL):
  • Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary. (Reading/Foundational Skills/Grade 5)
  • Introduce a topic or text clearly, state an opinion, and create an organizational structure in which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer's purpose. (Writing/Grade 5)
  • Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. (Writing/Grade 5)
  • [Mathematically proficient students] monitor and evaluate their progress and change course if necessary. (Math Practice Standard 1)
Social Awareness
  • Describe how a narrator's or speaker's point of view influences how events are described. (Speaking and Listening/Grade 5)
  • Engage in a range of collaborative discussions with diverse partners on grade 5 topics and texts, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly. (Speaking and Listening/Grade 5)
Relationship Skills
  • With guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed. (Writing/Grade 5)
  • [Mathematically proficient students] justify their conclusions, communicate them to others, and respond to the arguments of others. (Math Practice Standard 3)
Responsible Decision Making
  • Come to discussions prepared, having read or studied required material. (Speaking and Listening/Grade 5)
  • Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions and carry out assigned roles. (Speaking and Listening/Grade 5)
It's clear that SEL skills and academics are intertwined. Teaching students how to share ideas respectfully, have empathy for academically diverse partners, push through challenges to meet goals, and control impulses are just as important as teaching them to read fluently, multiply fractions, and write a well-constructed essay. Learning these social and emotional skills is especially important for students who struggle in school academically; these students often lack appropriate social skills and self-regulation, yet interventions often involve pulling them from class to drill them with academic skills, either away from peers or grouped with peers who also lack SEL skills.
Instead of viewing social and emotional learning as tangential—something to fit in around the edges of the curriculum—we should treat it as an integral part of our daily teaching for all students.

Teaching SEL Skills

Once teachers begin to see the connections between teaching for academic learning and social-emotional learning, it makes intuitive sense. After all, we've all seen the powerful academic work that can happen when a group of students work cooperatively and respectfully, and we've all watched even the best-planned lessons and activities disintegrate into chaos when students are antagonistic, irresponsible, or self-absorbed.
Yet many teachers feel that they don't know how to teach social and emotional skills. "I know how to teach math just fine," they might think, "but I don't know how to teach self-regulation. That's a job for the counselor." Actually, the same instructional practices we use to teach academic skills can be applied to teaching social and emotional skills.
For example, like academic instruction, SEL instruction requires the teacher to preplan the key elements of what to teach. What is the skill that students need to succeed? What should it look like in action? How might we break that skill down so we can teach it well?
Another important practice that applies to both academic and SEL instruction is modeling. The same steps we might use to model a new math algorithm can be used to model how to follow group norms during a social studies debate: We model skills so that students see them demonstrated effectively, we explicitly point out the important details of the demonstration, and we give students an opportunity to try the skill out right away. And more broadly, we model social and emotional skill by maintaining positive relationships with our colleagues, keeping our cool when we're frustrated, and apologizing when we make mistakes.
Small-group and individual coaching also work for both academic and SEL instruction. Just as you might pull together a small group of students who all need to practice long division, so, too, you might pull together a small group to reteach and practice setting realistic personal goals.
Finally, both academic and SEL skills require practice. We know that most students can't learn how to balance chemical equations in just one lesson. They'll need several lessons and lots of time to practice and consolidate. The same goes for SEL skills. Managing stress under pressure, regulating one's emotions, empathizing with others, and negotiating conflicts respectfully and effectively are hard skills to master. We should have patience and empathy for our students as they try, practice, make mistakes, and try again.

A Look at Tim's Classroom

Tim's 6th graders are about to begin working together in literature groups to learn and practice skills from the Common Core State Standards, including analyzing the way plots unfold, understanding how authors develop a narrator's point of view and create believable characters, summarizing, and expressing opinions about the texts. They will also practice Common Core speaking and listening skills through their collaborative conversations.
In years past, Tim might have simply assigned students to groups on the basis of what he knew about their interests and abilities and then encouraged them to cooperate and be respectful as they followed their discussion protocols. This year however, Tim has been working at setting students up for success with social and emotional skills through their academic work. He uses several strategies to help students get the most out of these book groups.
  • Planning. Tim looks through his curriculum standards and identifies specific SEL skills that are built into the academic standards his students will be practicing (such as engaging in collaborative conversations with diverse partners and following rules for collegial discussions). He also envisions what these groups will look like if they're operating successfully. This helps him list other SEL skills his students might need to practice, such as making eye contact with a speaker, sharing air time with other group members, and disagreeing respectfully.
  • Choice. Students choose from five different fantasy or science fiction novels they might explore in book groups. Tim helps them examine various characteristics of each book, including reading level, basic story line, length, and even genders of main characters. Having a choice empowers students, boosting motivation while helping them build decision-making skills (a key set of SEL skills).
  • Thoughtful grouping. Each student submits his or her top two choices, and then Tim creates groups with an eye to diversity, grouping students who have different interests and personalities, while also separating a few students who often struggle to stay focused when together.
  • Group norms. Once groups are together, Tim leads them through a process for creating group norms—rules that will help guide their discussions. Although each group's set of norms is slightly different, they all include similar ideas: Respect others' opinions, make sure everyone participates, treat one another kindly, and come prepared for book discussions.
  • Direct teaching and practice. Each day, in addition to teaching and having students practice academic skills, Tim also teaches social and emotional skills. For example, to show what it looks like to disagree respectfully, he has another student role-play a scene with him. The student shares an opinion, and then Tim gives a respectful counteropinion using the prompt: "I can see your point of view, and I have a different idea." After he shares, he asks students to describe how he disagreed respectfully. He then challenges students to try this strategy using the prompt he demonstrated. As groups work together, Tim coaches and reinforces them when they disagree respectfully.
Tim noticed something interesting as he embedded SEL skills in the context of academic work. At first, he feared that teaching these skills would take too much time; after all, like nearly all teachers, he has an insane amount of content to cover. However, in past years when facilitating book groups, Tim would often have to stop to unravel disagreements and hurt feelings that resulted from students' lack of social and emotional skills. These interruptions in the academic work made Tim reluctant to try book groups again.
This time around, although there were still some behavior challenges, groups didn't tend to fall apart. And when Tim saw challenges arising, he simply wove the new skills that students needed right into the next day's academic lessons or coached individual groups as needed. For example, on Tuesday he saw several groups getting derailed when one of their members with a powerful voice took over, so on Wednesday, he led a brief class discussion on how to share "airtime." Tim and his students worked more efficiently and enjoyed the work more, and the students were more academically engaged than he'd ever seen them before.

Not Just One Lesson

We wouldn't expect that one academic lesson, no matter how good, would result in students mastering a new concept or skill. We know that using one intervention wouldn't ensure that students who struggle academically will suddenly catch up to their peers. Good academic learning takes time and practice.
The same is true for social and emotional learning. Tim might teach a great lesson on how to use a calm and respectful tone of voice when disagreeing with a group member, but he knows it will take time and practice for students to master this skill. (Heck, if he's honest with himself, he recognizes how hard this skill still is for him when he disagrees with a colleague in a meeting.) He also knows that some students will require more coaching, support, and patience than others do. Fortunately, the integration of SEL skills into the new standards now gives teachers like Tim a framework and structure to provide the time and practice students need to master these life skills.

Getting Started: A Few Action Steps

Here are some steps your school, grade-level team, or department can take to get started in integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) with academic instruction.
  1. Develop a common understanding of SEL. It's almost impossible to collaborate with others without a common understanding of SEL. You might explore the <LINK URL="http://www.casel.org">CASEL</LINK> website together or read a book or a couple of articles together. Discuss these to make sure you're all on the same page about what SEL is and why it's important.
  2. Identify skills your students need. Look through your academic standards and identify the embedded SEL skills. Observe your students in action and look for strengths and skills that are missing. Share these together and identify a few priorities. What skills are most important for your students?
  3. Identify what you're already doing. Surely, you're already doing some things to help students develop some of the skills they need. What practices and structures are strong across the school or team? Which ones are some teachers using successfully that others might try? Celebrate and strengthen these positive strategies.
  4. Choose one or two next steps. Be careful not to bite off more than you can chew. Instead, brainstorm some possible next steps, and then start small and keep things manageable. Perhaps each professional learning community in the building will take on one skill to teach to their students. Perhaps each teacher in a grade-level team will try one strategy (such as modeling), and share results.

Mike Anderson has been an educator for many years. A classroom teacher for 15 years, he has also coached swim teams, worked in preschools, and taught university graduate-level classes. In 2004, Anderson was awarded a national Milken Educator Award, and in 2005, he was a finalist for New Hampshire Teacher of the Year.

Now an independent education consultant, Anderson works with schools in rural, urban, and suburban settings across the United States and beyond. A bestselling author, he has written nine books about great teaching and learning. In 2020, Anderson was awarded the Outstanding Educational Leader Award by NHASCD for his work as a consultant.

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