How to Boost Students’ SEL Skills Using Current Events

Teaching current events can be tricky. The news changes quickly and the headlines can elicit strong emotions. Yet news knowledge is critical for developing students into the informed citizens and lifelong learners we hope they’ll become. My strategy is to start with students’ well-being.

Experience has taught me that if students don’t get the chance to establish SEL routines prior to diving into current events, two things could happen:

  1. They become overburdened by the news event and miss out on the opportunity to learn from the situation.
  2. They won’t have the SEL language to explore both the social and individual implications embedded in the event.

SEL Routines to Use Before Introducing Current Events

My goal is to build students’ social-emotional competence, but this can only happen if they see themselves as social-emotional beings. Community-building activities offer authentic opportunities for introducing the language and concepts they will need later when looking at the lives of people highlighted in the news.

Giving my students time for personal application of SEL concepts before asking them to transfer it to a current event, I’ve found, increases their engagement and empowers them to look into the social-emotional lives of others, helping them to develop good listening skills and, ultimately, empathy and compassion for others.

When students see that I make time to understand their personal challenges and put in place classroom routines aimed at solving those challenges, we establish a connection, which builds trust, safety, and a sense of belonging. These classroom routines are the bedrock of my efforts to cultivate community. One simple classroom routine we use is Emotion Check-ins.

Emotion Check-ins

Emotion Check-ins begin first thing in the morning, as soon as students walk into class. Students can choose their emotion from those displayed on an “emotion wheel.” They then write their current emotional state on the whiteboard. The opportunity to display their feelings in this way supports students’ self-awareness and social awareness. (A quick way to do this if you’re learning virtually is to ask students to put an emoji that represents their current emotional state in the chat.)

Students change the emotions on the whiteboard, depending on how their day is going. When students experience strong feelings, my first words are usually, “Go and change your emotion on the board.” I follow up with, “You have the right to your strong emotions, but you do not have the right to dump those emotions on others.” This practice shows that we value individual feelings, but we also respect our collective goal to feel safe.

This activity also demonstrates for students that they have the power to separate themselves from particularly strong feelings by placing them on the board. The rest of the class is aware of what’s happening and notices how the teacher is managing the situation in a controlled and competent manner, which reinforces safety while maintaining the trust, order, and harmony you’ve established.

As the teacher, I also go through this process. I express my authenticity, humanity, and vulnerability with my students. I write my emotions on the board when a situation warrants it. An emotion check-in allows my fourth graders and me to practice self-awareness and social awareness while working to maintain a sense of safety and belonging within the community.

Additional Integrated SEL Routines

An emotion check-in is only one example of how I’m working to integrate social-emotional competence as a daily practice. Here are other ways I integrate SEL in the classroom:

  • Problem/Solution Box: My students approach the school day with countless questions, challenges, and concerns that can leave both them and me feeling socially and emotionally triggered before attendance has even been taken. My remedy: a problem/solution box. Students write the question, challenge, or concern on an index card and place it in the box. This way, there are no disruptions, the lesson can continue, and the classroom climate remains calm. The problem/solution box is also a good tool for supporting self-awareness and self-management throughout the school day.
  • Problem Pattern Board: I usually sort through the problem/solution box on a weekly basis to identify patterns or similarities in the concerns that students are facing. I place index cards with similar concerns on a public display board. Seeing that classmates are working through similar challenges helps my students to develop relationship skills and social awareness.
  • Sharing and Restorative Circles: Sharing circles cannot be understated. They are the backbone of community building and a healthy classroom climate. When students have an opportunity to share news from their personal lives, they are establishing trust with one another and a sense of safety. In terms of trust and safety, I do not allow students to critique the perspectives of peers, negatively or positively, until they have practiced this skill using current events. While sharing circles can establish trust and emotional safety bonds, restorative circles mend and maintain those bonds throughout the school year. Circles are great tools for the development of self-awareness and social awareness.
  • Learning Pit Resources: The Learning Pit ties our social and emotional lives to our academic lives. Much of the issues students experience throughout a school day can spring from academic frustration. When students perceive assignments as too hard or too easy, they can end up going down a path toward emotional dysregulation. To support their executive functioning, I challenge them to identify their emotions and where they are as a learner: “Are you in the Learning Pit?” They can place their problem in the problem/solution box. They can also use Learning Pit resources whenever they are in a state of academic frustration to help them work through the challenge. The Learning Pit has been shown to be invaluable in supporting my students’ responsible decision-making and ability to problem solve independently.

These integrated routines run concurrently, creating classroom conditions that, according to research, support social-emotional competence, executive functioning, and academic risk-taking.

Introducing Current Events

When framed right, current events have supported an overall healthy climate as I work to show how social-emotional well-being isn’t something limited to our classroom. Students begin making connections to current events without being prompted because much of what's in the news is being talked about at home. Current events have delivered inspiring, thoughtful, and engaging SEL discussions.

I usually introduce current events around November, but that depends on whether SEL language and routines are being consistently practiced by a majority of students. By this time, students have had many opportunities to learn from their own social-emotional experiences. They are ready to transfer their social-emotional competence beyond the classroom.

Finding a current event can be a daunting task, but what helps is narrowing my search through the SEL-Current Events framework below.

SEL/Current Events/Text Structure Matrix

Below is the interconnected framework I created for the five text structures and five CASEL SEL Competencies. I use this framework as a current event/SEL task and discussion guide. Articles are obtained through newsela.com. Typing in keywords such as education, law, business, family, money, sports, and entertainment reveals a wealth of articles. (Here are more social-emotional learning lessons that will help students develop the core SEL competencies, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.)

As your students explore articles in the news, the discussion questions will prompt them to reflect on the perspectives and experiences of others while strengthening their resiliency in the face of challenges big and small. Ultimately, I’ve found that the SEL routines and SEL-Current Events Framework that I shared with you here have been essential to my developing a classroom climate steeped in empathy, equity, and rigor. I hope they will do the same for you.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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