A few times a year, second-grade teacher Michael Dunlea asks his students to fill out cards identifying classmates they’d like to work with. “That lets me know who is slipping through the cracks. Then, I can work on helping the marginalized kids get better integrated into the class,” says Dunlea, who teaches at Tabernacle Elementary School in New Jersey.

The strategy is one of several Dunlea uses to build a positive classroom culture through an emphasis on social-emotional learning (SEL). The term refers to the development of a host of nonacademic skills, such as how to identify and manage emotions, relate to others, show empathy, make good decisions, and set and achieve goals.

Teachers have always focused on helping students improve in these areas, but perhaps not quite as explicitly as right now. Social-emotional learning is getting a lot of attention because of a mounting body of evidence showing it works: Students exposed to SEL programs have healthier attitudes and behavior, improved social and emotional skills, and better academic performance, as compared to peers, according to research by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.

“There’s really robust science behind it that has coalesced over the last five years,” says Harvard School of Education professor Stephanie Jones, who is on a panel advising the National Commission on Social and Academic Development at the Aspen Institute.

Principal Alexandria Haas credits SEL instruction with improving behavior and academic achievement at her school, McMicken Heights Elementary, outside Seattle. She says the emphasis on social-emotional learning creates a “ready-to-learn” atmosphere. “If we’re not hitting that, we can do all the most wonderful, standards-based, pedagogically sound lessons, but they will fall flat,” Haas says.

Here are some things you can do to create a more positive classroom community, at all grade levels.


Grades K–2: All Are Welcome

At the start of the year, Dunlea suggests leaving a desk empty with a blank nameplate on it for any child who joins the class later in the year. He says this is a visible reminder to young children that being inclusive is an important value, and it helps new arrivals feel welcome.

He also uses video conferencing to connect his students with children who live outside their community. For example, he holds Skype sessions between his class and the class of a good friend who teaches in Memphis. Dunlea’s students are mostly white, and the Memphis students are predominantly African-American. Dunlea notes that being able to talk and work with people from diverse backgrounds is a crucial life skill.

Dunlea’s colleague, Andra Gerst, who teaches kindergarten at Tabernacle Elementary, also emphasizes building SEL skills in her students. She employs a strategy called “Zones of Regulation,” in which children use colors to identify their feelings. So, a child who says he is in the green zone is probably feeling calm and happy. Blue means he might be feeling sad or lonely, and yellow is associated with feeling anxious. Red usually describes feeling angry. A poster has images of tools kids can use to help them deal appropriately with negative emotions. These include doing wall push-ups, taking a deep breath, or taking time out to play with and focus on pleasing things like a colorful “glitter jar.”

“It’s so important for kindergartners to have concrete and visual ways to be able to think about and express how they’re feeling,” Gerst says.


Grades 3–5: Working With Others

Kadie Scofield De Lucia, who teaches third grade at Grady Elementary in Tampa, Florida, suggests weaving social and emotional lessons into reading instruction. Students this age can participate in complex conversations about books they’re reading and connect central ideas to real-life issues.

“When I read to them, I preface the reading by talking about the characters,” De Lucia explains. “So I might say, ‘The characters in this story are learning a lesson. Let’s pay close attention to what they’re saying, and let’s learn from the lesson they learn.’” De Lucia often asks students to explain how something in a book makes them feel to help build self-awareness around emotions.

Lyon Terry, a fourth-grade teacher at Lawton Elementary School in Seattle, says bullying can crop up at this age, and it is important to address it right away. “I define it, we discuss how to solve it, and we talk about standing up for yourself and how to be assertive,” he says.

Terry, a former Washington state teacher of the year, says building collaborative work skills is vital at this age, too, and he offers explicit instruction on how to work well with others. For example, when his students turn and talk to reading partners, they can review posters on the wall that include sentence starters such as “Can you tell me more about that?” and “To add on to what you said….”

Terry also suggests starting off the year by creating a class “charter.” In developing the charter, kids first say how they want to feel during the school day. For example, Terry’s students all said that they wanted to feel welcomed. Then, they talked about how to achieve that. His students agreed one way would be to greet and talk with one another in the morning as they arrive.

Goal setting is also very important at this age, and Terry suggests asking students to brainstorm and write down monthly goals and then tape them to their desks as a daily reminder. He requires a few to be SEL-related. So while one goal might be to do well on a persuasive essay, another might be to make two new friends.


Grades 6–8: Getting to Know You

Middle school students are less likely than younger kids to tell teachers about social and emotional problems they’re having, says Amber Chandler, a seventh- and eighth-grade ELA teacher at Frontier Middle School in upstate New York. She spends much of September getting to know her students. “Anything else is secondary to who is in your room. You have to know who they are,” she says.

One activity Chandler does early on is task students to work together to build a straw tower. “I’m not interested in the tower [itself]. I’m looking to see who is not participating, who took the lead, and who might be pushy. I’m getting my roster of who is who and how I can help them.”

Tom Conklin, author of Social and Emotional Learning in Middle School, suggests that teachers work with their students at the start of the year to develop a manageable list of self-regulating or coping skills for moments of frustration or anger. And just like you might do with younger students, Conklin says, you can list skills on a poster in the classroom as a reminder when emotions run high. “One suggestion could be to stop, close your eyes, breathe, and feel the emotion but don’t react to it,” Conklin says.

Rebecca McLelland-Crawley, who leads an enrichment program at Community Middle School in New Jersey’s West Windsor–Plainsboro District, says community service projects can help integrate SEL into middle schools. She’s overseen efforts to collect food for those in need and raise awareness about mental health issues, projects that build empathy and problem-solving skills.

Haas, the Seattle-based principal, reminds teachers that they don’t have to do it on their own or all at once when it comes to integrating social-emotional learning into their classrooms. “Small steps are great first steps,” she says. “Find a couple of key strategies and try those, and then scale that and add more to them.”


Photo (children): Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

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