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Teacher to Teacher: Fostering Social-Emotional Learning

by Lynne R. Dorfman

As young people’s bodies and brains are changing rapidly, they’re also trying to wrestle with who they are and who they want to be. Today’s students have a tougher time than ever, in part – thanks to technology. They’re growing up on Instagram and Snapchat—braces and voice changes and acne breakouts and bad haircuts and fashion pressures and  first crushes for all to see –-and face-to-face communication is almost nonexistent because everyone (sometimes, parents as well) are glued to their phones and various devices.

In today’s classrooms, social-emotional learning practices have found a prominent place. Everywhere, we find educators and our communities talking about raising self-awareness and focusing on kindness, empathy, and the interpersonal skills that help us navigate through school, work, and relationships with family and friends.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) can be defined as the process through which children and adults alike understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. It stands to reason that if you help children develop strong social-emotional skills, then they will be able to cope with everyday challenges.  SEL provides a foundation for positive, long-term effects on kids, adults, and communities.

SEL practices help build a foundation that supports students’ success academically. When kids are equipped with social-emotional skills, they can learn and contribute to a positive school climate. There are many simple things we can do in the beginning of the year to promote social-emotional learning.

With elementary school students, start a card file to record the things you are learning about them. Josh has a new baby brother named Jonathan. Aliyah went to the shelter with her mom, and they rescued an older dog named Cooper. Jamal will be on a traveling ice hockey team this school year, and Cado (Carlos Eduardo) just moved here from Portugal. These notes come in handy during writing workshop when students are trying to think of a topic to write about. They also are great ways to welcome students to class. “Aliyah, how is Cooper adjusting to his new home?”

A good place to begin is to ask a lot of questions. Then listen. A successful teacher probably does more listening than talking. Make some notes. Use positive nonverbal communication and give positive feedback.  In our reading and writing workshops, we can develop thriving communities by fostering social-emotional practices:

  • Creating safety in our workshop. We can do this by giving students the time to talk about what makes it safe or unsafe for students to ask questions, share their writing, or show their confusion. Agree on classroom norms that allow all students to engage in classroom learning. by establishing classroom norms to live by (such as “Criticize the writing or idea presented, but never criticize the person” and “Do not interrupt” and “Eyes on the speaker”).
  • Sharing our ideas during discussions and sharing our writing
  • Sharing writing and reading processes, anxieties, problems, and solutions
  • Noticing and appropriating classmates’ ways of problem-solving, writing, and encouraging others to contribute their thinking


You must feel comfortable with your approach to SEL learning practices. Children can  be taught through modeling and coaching to recognize how they feel or how someone else might be feeling. For middleschoolers and high school students, t’s important to connect students’ sense of purpose to what they’re learning. How can they use their learning in the real world?  Are they studying social issues that matter to them?  Can they make a difference in the world as tweeners and teeners?

We all want to be treated fairly and with respect, so it’s important to establish a school environment that fosters these qualities. Brainstorm a list of traits they consider to be their strengths – their superpowers. Have students choose one strength to focus on for a week’s time. Ask them to describe that strength in writing and discuss several different ways they might use it each day. Then invite them to act on that strength throughout the week.

Many teachers use class meetings where students can practice group decision-making and create class norms to live by. Students can learn cooperation and teamwork through participation in games, team sports, and group work where students can choose an area of interest to research or become involved in a school or community project. Cross-age mentoring is effective in building self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and enhancing academic skills. I have observed several effective pairings in elementary school to provide new audiences for writing. When Mrs. Costello’s second graders paired with Mr. Monaghan’s fifth graders, the student conferences were both joyful and productive. These conferences gave students in both grades a sense of greater independence.  Teaching students how to be good listeners is key. Ask one member of a pair to describe a situation to his partner and have the partner repeat what he or she heard or be ready to share a partner’s thinking in whole group is an effective tool in teaching reflective listening.

In order to have students who are increasing in their social-emotional competencies you need to also have teachers who feel like they’re available to teach – that they are “in the present” for their students. As you return to your classroom, make sure you are doing things to insure your own well-being and mental health. Keep a gratitude journal, build in time for exercise or meditation, take walks, read. Here’s something else you might enjoy. Join the KeysLisa Lucastone State Literacy Association Brandywine Valley Forge reading council on Sept. 11, 2019 at the Chester County Intermediate Unit from 4:30 to 6:30 pm. Stenhouse author and West Chester University professor Dr. Lisa J. Lucas will speak about “Practicing Presence: A Mindful Approach to Teaching, Learning, Leading, and Living.”


Throughout the year, look for more posts on social-emotional learning practices on the Teacher-to-Teacher posts by Lynne Dorfman.

Lynne Dorfman is a PAWLP Co-director and an adjunct professor for Arcadia UniverLynne and Einsteinsity. She loves to work in classrooms as a literacy coach and to model writing lessons. Lynne often presents at local, state, and national conferences. She is currently president of KSLA (Keystone State Literacy Association) Brandywine Valley Forge council.


2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for the important reminder to make sure we take time to ensure our own well-being! I will plan to attend the talk on the 11th.

    Liked by 1 person

    August 16, 2019
  2. Sandy L shacklady-white #

    Excellent posting that shows how simple it can be to embed SEL in what we do as teachers. And I especially like the comment “and listen”. Kids need to have time to share their thoughts, have us validate those thoughts and value them for what they have to say that comes from their point of view. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    August 14, 2019

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