What does social emotional learning look like in the elementary school classroom? How do students develop the mindsets, essential skills and habits necessary for success in school, and in life? Social emotional learning is everywhere. It is all the time. It is invisible, yet you can see it everywhere you turn. And it is essential. Social emotional learning unfolded during the first 20 days of the school year for me and my 3rd graders in Wilmington, Delaware in many ways.
Monday morning arrives. Victor approaches the classroom door with a scowl on his face, his hands balled into fists, face tensed with stress. I greet him with my usual eye contact, firm handshake and cheery “Good Morning”. I am not surprised when he is unable to return the greeting. I let him enter the classroom without belaboring the point, understanding that he is in a difficult place and that getting into a struggle over anything at the moment would be counterproductive, even damaging. Slowly he walks over to a small container filled with different colored rubber bracelets with a sign on it that reads, “How are you feeling today?” Choosing a red one, he slides it onto his small wrist and stomps around the classroom as he places his folder in the collection basket and shows me his agenda. I now understand he is on “red”, the most difficult emotional state he can non-verbally communicate to me first thing in the morning. Students continue to stream into the sunny classroom. Some notice his red band and have a look of concern on their faces. A few moments later I ask Victor if he is ok. Stomping his feet, he firmly says “NO OF COURSE NOT”! I ask him if he can tell me about it, and the story unfurls quickly as tears well up in his eyes. “I forgot it was dress down day and came in my uniform and I don’t have a blanket for the summer reading picnic. AND I ate breakfast early with my dad so now I am STARVING!” I nod, relating that all of that would put me on red too. I ask him if he would like to go out into the hallway to get breakfast and restart the day. He nods tentatively and walks towards the door slowly. In a few minutes he returns with a bag breakfast and starts to eat at his table. Morning work stays unfinished but that is OK because in this moment, I know my biggest job is to help Victor recognize and navigate his big emotions. We start morning meeting, he finishes his breakfast quietly, as others do in the circle, seeming to relax with every bite and each passing second. When it is his time to participate in an activity with another student, he is able to do so. At the end of the morning meeting, we move into mindful breathing for a few moments to set the tone for the day. Watching, I see the stress leave his face and comfort move in and take over. Pride for Victor swells inside me.
A few days later we gather on our large, brightly colored carpet to celebrate Criselle’s birthday. Students are giddy with excitement. Why? They know the routine and are gathering their thoughts, ready for our ceremony. After our birthday call and repeat cheer, 21 eight and nine year old children settle down quietly. “OK, who is ready to tell Criselle why we are grateful for her?” More than 10 hands immediately go up waving and students share around the circle, facing the birthday girl as they share sentiments such as “Criselle, I am grateful for you because you are kind and funny” and “I am grateful for you, Criselle, because you always take care of everyone when they need help” and “I am grateful for you, Criselle, because you asked me to play with you at recess today when I was lonely”. The gratitude continues around the circle until all 20 students have spoken, sharing their positive and gracious comments with Criselle who is now grinning ear to ear as she soaks it in. Her mom is next, telling all of us why she is grateful for Criselle…it’s hard for her to stop at 5. Then…the best of all…Criselle tell us why she is grateful for 3rd grade and all of us. Beaming, she tells us, “I am grateful for 3rd grade because I have so many friends here and I can be myself with all of you”. She speaks of acceptance. My heart is full as I see my students expressing gratitude for this student on her special day. Some struggle but eventually they all come up with at least one reason why they appreciate Criselle on her special day. They know what the moment means for the other, they understand their power and the impact their words will have on their fellow student. They know.
At the end of the week, our chapter book read aloud brings me to tears in front of my students. One of them brings me a tissue while I read. I bravely apologize and tell them I am feeling my emotions…that it is ok to feel your emotions in front of other people. We are taking the journey of August Pullman together. We read, discuss and digest some of the award winning and best-selling novel Wonder each and every day. The beautifully crafted story of a 5th grade boy with a severe facial deformity makes us wonder. We wonder why it happened to him, wonder what will happen next, wonder why the characters do and say what they do, wonder why the cover illustration is just so, wonder why the author wrote the book and most importantly…..we wonder what we would do if Auggie Pullman walked into our classroom. Up and down the hallways, other third and fourth grade teachers are doing the same. Working to help students understand and embody empathy is one of our goals this school year. In my heart I know that students who can embody empathy, who can put themselves into the shoes and situations of others, who can relate to what others are going through, will be more successful in school, and, more importantly, more successful in life.
This is social emotional learning in the elementary school classroom. Everyday occurrences. Small moments. Intense situations. Shared experiences. Emotional regulation. Developing a lens of gratitude through which to view life. Having empathy. Helping my students develop the mindsets, essential skills and habits they need to succeed in life starts every day in my classroom. As it must. Many students spend more waking hours at school than in any other single place. The potential for social emotional learning is enormous. The work essential. I believe that in order for students to access their academic potential, they need to understand themselves and know how to relate to each other, first. The work can never start too early or happen too often. For in life, they will never see a multiple choice test on a social or academic topic. Rather, our children will face a series of never ending decision points, chances to navigate difficult moments or opportunities to stand up for themselves or others. I said many years ago when I first became a teacher after I changed careers, that part of my job was to teach my students, above all else, to be successful human beings.
Victor changed his rubber bracelet to yellow before lunch.
Birthdays continue to be a time of celebration and gratitude we all look forward to.
I wonder what is next.
This is the work. This is social emotional learning in the classroom. I am grateful.
**Student names have been changed to protect identities.