6 Ways to Improve Social Emotional Learning at Your School
Posted by AVID Center on 11/7/2018
By Colleen Fitzgerald, Science and AVID Elective Teacher, Woodbury Junior-Senior High School, AVID Staff Developer
Seven hours a day, 1,260 hours a year—this is the average amount of time a student is required to spend in school. Wouldn’t it be great if students wanted to be there because they felt cared for, heard, respected, and safe? This is exactly the type of environment I try to foster the moment my students walk through the classroom door, a place where all feel welcome and comfortable to ask questions, share ideas, and make mistakes. It’s paramount to create an environment where my students can learn not only essential academic skills, but also social-emotional skills, like the ones I’ve listed below.
Key Social Emotional Skills
- Positively and productively interact with peers digitally and face to face
- Handle the stresses of daily life
- Manage time in the face of social, academic, and other demands/distractions
- Develop into a mature, contributing member of society
For such growth to take place, students need to feel they’re in a safe environment where they are cared about. Here are six of the many ways we have found successful at our school in developing such an atmosphere.
1.Reach Out to Parents
By reaching out to the parents/guardians of my students at the beginning of the year to introduce myself, share some positive news about their child, and generally let them know I’m here, I’m able to start that valuable home connection on an optimistic note. The students also know I already “see” and care about them early in the year. If they should later struggle, we’ve already begun that family/school support network to help them.
2. Build Relationships with Students
Talking with students, attending their school events, and being present and available for them when they just want to talk builds the foundation for a positive environment. They will feel more comfortable not only in taking academic risks, but also in turning to you for guidance when dealing with struggles they may have, rather than just reacting in the moment. For many students, it’s that connection they’ve made with a staff member that has been key to their academic and social emotional success.
3. Establish Norms
At the classroom level, we establish class norms that all understand and agree upon, and we focus on mutual respect. The key to creating these norms is to have student input, so they have an ownership in the process. At times, I have students individually brainstorm what rules/norms they think we need in our classroom to have a positive learning environment, narrow those rules as a small group, and then share, discuss, and agree upon them as class. I then post them and have all students sign the posted norms. Other times, I may present the students with the class norms and explain why I chose them, but then ask for their input and if they agree upon them. We can then modify as we see fit. I hold my students and myself accountable for upholding them throughout the year. This mutual accountability develops an understanding that this is our classroom, and we all play a part in keeping it a positive place. Although this is ideally done at the beginning of the year, you can certainly do this at any time with the same rationale. It’s never too late to make a positive change. The class norms should be viewed as a living document to be referred to and revised as you and the class feel necessary.
4. Make Time for Team-Building Activities
Sporadically, throughout the year, students will participate in activities in which they share something in writing that they like about their peers. For example, “Positive Petals” is an activity where each student is given a flower cutout with the name of a peer on it, and they share something they appreciate about that person and pass it to another student until all the petals are full. Students’ smiles upon getting back the flower with their compliments are priceless! Of course, this is just one step in building a foundation of mutual respect and acceptance.
Developing that atmosphere of understanding and concern opens the door to learning interpersonal and academic skills. Through Philosophical Chairs and Socratic Seminars, students learn how to be open to others’ ideas, how to listen and not just “hear” their peers, and how to formulate their own opinions on ethical and/or controversial topics.
5. Take It Schoolwide
At the schoolwide level, students are regularly recognized for their conscientious attitudes and gestures through positive referrals and Student of the Month recognition programs. One of our elementary principals even goes to several students’ homes every Friday to recognize them for their efforts, accomplishments, and positive contributions in school that week. At the high school level, students are recognized in the principal’s weekly Thundering Herd newsletter, which is published on our school’s website every Friday.
Furthermore, freshmen and other new students participate in the nationally recognized Challenge Day program each year. Through this emotionally intense day, students get to know each other on a deeper level, from the struggles they share to the hopes they have for the future. In a nutshell, it again comes down to building relationships with our students and helping them build those positive relationships with one another.
6. Build Student Choice into the School Day
To help ensure that as many of our students as possible have the opportunity to participate in clubs and sports, our school adopted a new schedule that provides a slot in the middle of the day for students to get extra help and attend club meetings. That way, those who may have younger brothers or sisters to pick up after school (or other family and work obligations) can still be involved and develop those social skills. It also allows those in sports after school to get the academic support they may need. Furthermore, it provides students an opportunity to start learning how to make responsible decisions as they get to choose where they go and how they spend their time during this period. Many students are never entrusted with this freedom of choice until they reach college. Then, they’re suddenly expected to know how to make responsible decisions about their time, finances, and much more. As a result, almost half of the students who enroll do not graduate with a diploma.
Hopefully, through the activities and opportunities mentioned above, the wealth of skill preparation through our AVID districtwide program, and many other fabulous programs implemented by our district’s teachers, our students will go to college with a full toolbox in hand, ready to meet the challenges they will face.
Want to learn more about AVID's approach to SEL? Take a look!
Colleen Fitzgerald is a biology/AVID Elective teacher and science department chair at Woodbury Junior Senior High School. She is currently in her 28th year of teaching and also serves as an AVID staff developer. Furthermore, she is mom to a wonderful 22-year-old daughter, loves to travel, and is passionate about making a difference in the lives of those she teaches.