How many of you are familiar with the term, “emotional intelligence”? To be honest, when I first heard about it, I thought emotional intelligence was something teachers had made up to make struggling students feel better; a Participation Award for human acumen. I wasn’t alone either. There are plenty of jokes circulating today about students getting an A+ for feelings or a gold star for positivity. Deep down, we all know real intelligence has a 4.0 GPA, attended an ivy league university, and earns a six-figure salary. For everyone else, there’s emotional intelligence.
At least, that’s what I used to think.
Following graduation, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with several prominent figures in the field of “real intelligence”. These were scholars, lawyers, and scientists, people who had long distinguished themselves by their intellect. Yet, for all their knowledge, many proved utterly hopeless when it came to basic interpersonal skills. The brilliant academic could never read the room. The celebrated lawyer was always alienating his colleagues, and one Research Director spoke three languages but had no idea how to communicate.
It turns out emotional intelligence is very real, and as educators, it’s important we learn to foster these skills within our classroom.
What are SEL Skills and Why are They Important?
According to the CASEL website, social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. That’s a lot to cover. Thankfully, most social-emotional learning can be sorted into one of five groups:
- Self-Awareness: Identifying emotions, accurate self-perception, recognizing strengths and weaknesses, self-efficiency.
- Self-Management: Impulse control, stress management, self-discipline, self-motivation, goal setting, organizational skills.
- Social Awareness: Empathy, appreciating diversity, respect for others, perspective taking.
- Relationship Skills: Communication, social engagement, relationship building, teamwork.
- Responsible Decision-Making: Problem solving, evaluation, reflection, ethical responsibility, analyzing situations.
These qualities form the groundwork of a healthy social life. We use them to build relationships, establish trust, open dialogues, and mature as individuals. That alone would make them vital to student development, but SEL skills can have academic benefits as well. Research has shown that students with strong SEL skills perform better scholastically and persevere through adversity. To put it simply, before students can learn, they first need to know how to learn.
Strategies to Support SEL in Your Classroom
So how do we facilitate social-emotional learning within our classrooms? Well, much of it begins with our day-to-day interactions. How we model ourselves in front of students can have a profound effect on their emotional growth. Social exercises and group projects can also help students become more comfortable in a shared setting. Here are just a few SEL strategies to try in your classroom:
- Cultivate Self-Awareness: Ask students how they are feeling and why. This is a useful technique to use when studying literature or art. Help students connect with their own emotions and wonder if their peers feel the same way.
- Grow Student Responsibility: Set students a task, but don’t give them step-by-step instructions. Instead, have them puzzle out the solution on their own. Another possibility is to assign them a weekly chore, such as taking care of a class pet or collecting trash. A little responsibility can do wonders when building character.
- Demonstrate Kindness: To enhance relationship skills and build a positive classroom culture, it’s important to show kindness when speaking with your students. This can be tricky, especially when they choose to misbehave, but kindness isn’t about ignoring disobedience. Rather, it’s about how you frame your words. For example, if a student is loudly tapping their pencil, try saying, “Show me what a good listener you are.” Instead of, “Stop tapping that pencil!”
- Utilize Cooperative Learning: Like all skills, relationship building requires practice. Giving out group projects is a good way to teach teamwork and cooperation, and maybe consider assigning the groups yourself. Students will often work with their friends or people they know. A group project is best at developing relationship skills when students are encouraged to meet new people.
Building A Positive Classroom
Social-emotional learning can seem intimidating at first, but with patience and time, your students won’t just become better learners, they’ll become better people. The maturity gained by SEL skills will support them long after they’ve left the classroom. For an educator, that type of knowledge is priceless.
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