Let’s first ask, is it possible for students to work towards academic and personal success without a wide variety of skills to help manage, understand and express their emotions? Is it possible for students to navigate their way through primary school without gaining the skills it takes to form relationships, adapt to new environments and solve everyday challenges? I’d like to believe the answer is yes, since there are so few schools that have programs to support development in these skill areas, but overwhelmingly I believe the answer is no, at least not to their full potential. Schools who continue to report high rates of student engagement and academic success also have spent a great deal of effort working social and emotional skill strengthening into each school day.
Social and emotional competence includes the ability to cooperatively work with peers, control impulsive behaviors, show empathy for others and take care of our own mental health. A great School Counselor, or primary school Dean will see the importance of supporting their student’s skill development in these areas, but they may be unsure how to do this, or even where to start. Implementing social and emotional skill building techniques in K-12 school classrooms involves more than zero tolerance policies, peer mediation or even having a School Social Worker on staff for students to visit freely.
I’d like to use an example of a student enrichment program I designed for an elementary school to show how seamlessly social and emotional skill development can be woven into the classroom.
For educators, the first day of school brings about excitement and the daunting task of creating a welcoming environment that still communicates order and routine… at least for me it does! We often think the contrary, but kids crave routines, fair rules and consistency. As a type A person myself, it’s my first instinct to plan ahead, to create guidelines and to draw my metaphorical line in the sand when it comes to what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to my student’s behaviors in the classroom and on campus. The problem with this is, my plan, my guidelines don’t have any meaning for my students. If I created them alone, with my students in mind, but without their input, how do my students know that the rules or guidelines are there for their benefit? We are more connected to our campus community when we have a hand in the way it develops and runs, we feel more connected to our community members when we know they respect and care for us. Never the less, we’ve got to have some classroom rules for behavior!
On the first day of school, gather your classroom in a circle, get rid of the desk tops. Sit on the floor, or in chairs in a circle, together, everyone on the same level. This means as the teacher (“group leader”) you’ll need a seat in the circle as well. I’ve found that creating something visual, as a centerpiece to begin to list and organize potential classroom rules is helpful. I have used a tri-fold poster board, post it notes on the classroom whiteboard/wall, and construction paper cut outs of various shapes. I like to explain this exercise to students like this “Share some ideas for how we, as a class, can show respect for each other, or selves and our classroom.” Allow the idea’s to flow from your students, at this point in the exercise no suggestion is a bad one and all input is recorded. During this exercise begin to model how differences of opinion will be handled in your classroom, showing each idea the same respect. You will inevitably get some silly suggestions. Don’t be afraid if there are periods of silence, allow your students to process and come up with new suggestions. If your students are really struggling, try asking open ended questions to help guide their thinking “If you have to use the restroom, how will you let me know?” “What types of things can I or your classmate’s do that will help you in the morning as class is getting started?” “If you forgotten a pencil, what can you do”.
Once you’ve gotten a great list of “ways to show respect”, begin to organize them into basic categories that are more generalized and lead your group in creating goal behaviors for the classroom. Example categories can include:
Showing respect for others,
Using Encouraging words/actions,
Classroom organization, or
I am expected to, and
I expect others to
Now you can begin to weed out the suggestions that don’t fit into these categories, with the help of your students. Engage them in a discussion about why certain classroom rule suggestions may not work out to well, create scenarios and role play if possible. At this point, assist your students in wording the classroom rules in a way that is positive and empowering. For example “I will wait my turn when I want to share in class” vs. “Don’t talk when someone else is talking” or “I will have a calm body when lining up” vs. “No running in the classroom or hallway”.
In setting up classroom rules this way you are communicating respect for your student’s opinions and input. Involving each student in the discussion that begins to build how their classroom will function for the year helps each kiddo feel valued and connected to their classmates and specifically spells out what is expected from them AND you.
How do you engage your students during the first week of class? Share your ideas for welcoming day activities!