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Social and Emotional Learning

How to Create a Social-Emotional Environment in the Classroom

4 Min Read
student smiling in classroom

Fostering a community around social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical for student success. It helps them develop self-control and social awareness tools that are valuable academically and throughout adulthood. Students who engage in social-emotional learning can be more empathetic, better able to regulate their own emotions, and have improved relationship skills.

The extensive benefits of SEL include::

  • Helps individuals to regulate emotions and manage stress
  • Improves academic performance
  • Promotes resilience
  • Improves mental health
  • Increases educational equity
  • Boosts student participations rates
  • Helps to develop interpersonal skills

Strategies for Creating Social-Emotional Learning Environments for Students

Perform regular check-ins or host informal chats

Begin each day by simply checking in with your students. Set aside 10-15 minutes to talk briefly with everyone in your class.

These informal talks show students that a teacher is interested in their lives outside of the classroom. It reinforces the idea that a student’s value goes beyond their academic achievement. 

Non-academic discussions also give students important opportunities to learn about one another. In sharing anecdotes about themselves, they might learn about shared experiences that they might not have otherwise known. This builds a sense of community and helps foster social awareness.

As an exercise, try walking around the classroom and holding individual chats with students. You can either make basic small talk and see where the conversation leads you, or you can prompt a discussion by giving the entire class an open-ended question. Go around the room individually and discuss each student’s response with them, or host small groups where you sit with a few students at a time and everyone talks through their responses. 

Pay attention to who your students are outside of guided lessons

You can’t build a social-emotional learning community in your classroom without first understanding what will resonate with your students. 

Take the time to simply observe your students. Pay attention to who they are and how they interact when with their peers. Ask yourself questions like:

  • What do they say when you’re not directing the conversation?
  • What are your students talking about?
  • What kind of language do they use?
  • What experiences do they mention?

Let these observations guide you when hosting daily check-ins with students, presenting materials, troubleshooting problems, and more.

You can also use your observations to find common threads among your students. These similarities can help shape partner projects, group discussions, and other community-building activites in the future. 

Build mutual respect with your students

Both teachers and school administrators can foster a social-emotional environment in the classroom by speaking to students in a manner that is professional, courteous, and encouraging. 

Simply put — be mindful of how you speak to your students and approach them as valued members of your classroom community.

Speaking to them with professional courtesy builds a sense of equity and mutual respect. Students who receive this kind of respect can then replicate the same language and behaviors when interacting with their peers. 

Another important way to boost student empowerment and equity is by not providing them with the answer to a problem right away. 

When discussing a problem or providing constructive criticism, guide a student or reframe the issue in a way that allows them to solve it themselves. Don’t simply supply them with the solution — give them another way to look at the problem and allow them to try again. This lets your students know that you see them as fully capable of solving problems without you providing the solution for them. It also helps to develop critical thinking and responsible problem-solving skills. 

Provide actionable ways for your students to build their social-emotional vocabulary

In addition to modeling social and emotional competencies for students, help them practice these skills by rewording how they speak about issues. 

Instead of Saying:Students Can Say:
“I can’t do it”“I’m not good at math”“What can I do to learn it?” “I don’t know how to do this…yet.”
“I messed up” or “I got it wrong”“Mistakes are chances for me to learn a new way to do it next time”
“This is too hard”“It might take a few tries, but I can learn how to do this”

The changes made in language are small but powerful. By reimagining challenges as opportunities, students become more resilient and motivated.

As another exercise, try making some flashcards that each feature their own commonly-used phrase that you’d like students to start rephrasing. Include the appropriate social-emotional reframe on the back of the card. When students face a difficult emotion and want to say something like, “I can’t do it,” they can use that flashcard (or the one most closely related to their feeling). Instead of saying, “I can’t do it,” the student can read the corresponding SEL phrase to themselves. With this simple flashcard exercise, “I can’t do it” becomes “What can I do to learn this?”

Outline expectations and parameters early on

At the beginning of the year or semester, try outlining your expectations and important milestones for the class. Clearly explain any grading parameters, provide grading rubrics if possible, and set important goals. 

Explaining everything upfront starts the year by empowering students. This transparency allows for a greater sense of equality between students and their teacher. The relationship becomes one with clearly defined mutual expectations and a diminished fear of the unknown. 

It also shows students that you have faith in their abilities and have set goals and expectations based on what you believe they can accomplish. Students can build self-management skills and develop more independence when given the tools to achieve that success within clearly-outlined parameters. Instead of everything being done for them step-by-step, they are given tools to begin practicing self-management and monitoring their progress on their own.

Use games in the classroom

Games are more than just fun ways to pass the time — they are valuable tools for any classroom. Through the gamification of education, teachers can introduce learning materials in a less intimidating way while also reinforcing SEL skills. 

Group or partner activities foster collaboration among students who might not have otherwise interacted. In order to solve a problem or win a game, students must work together on assigning group roles, discussing challenges, and finding effective solutions. These exercises are not only fun and engaging for students, they’re opportunities to practice skills like critical thinking, social awareness, and responsible decision-making.

Building a community of resilient, empathetic students

Creating social-emotional learning environments is a powerful way to foster collaboration, equity, and self-management among students.

Using social-emotional learning in the classroom has also been shown to reduce stress, improve academic performance, and boost motivation in students. We also know that the benefits of social-emotional learning in schools extend beyond the classroom, helping students become more socially skilled and emotionally resilient as they get older and progress through life. 

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Find more lesson plans and classroom resources on Shaped.

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