Social, emotional, and academic achievement.

-Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D.

Today, my eight year-old daughter is going to select a famous person to research for her class biography project. She’ll do it largely by herself. With no classmates. With the teacher she loves only available via email or online conference call a couple times a week. 

Because of what we must do to keep ourselves and our community safe, my daughter’s second grade classroom suddenly became a much more isolated experience. She’s stopped asking if her friends can come over, and she understands why she can’t go to school right now, but what is clear to me as an educator and as a parent is that my daughter’s social and emotional learning have always been interwoven closely with her academic work.

Social and emotional learning are closely related and generally talked about at the same time. And, while social and emotional learning are closely linked, they are not identical. 

Social learning

Social learning happens when students engage in learning activities that require collaboration and cooperation with others. These opportunities might come from teachable moments when skilled adults help students manage a conflict. Teachers might also foster social learning by designing instruction that purposefully requires students to connect with each other.

Some examples:

  • “Well, we have one jump rope and two kids who want to play with it. What can we do?”
  • “Today we’re learning to refer to key details and examples in a text when making inferences about what the text means. Talk at your table about what meaning you made from this text, what words in the text helped you make that meaning, and how your conversation with your friends at your table might have affected what you know now.”
  • “Yesterday, we proved how triangles whose sides are the same length are congruent. Today, we’re going to work in your groups to create models of triangles that explain how else we might prove triangles are congruent.” 

Emotional learning

Emotional is about knowing what we feel, understanding how feelings affect us, and regulating feelings appropriately. Teachers whose students are working on emotional learning would work on learning activities that evoke hope, stress, anger, happiness, fear, and joy in ways that were developmentally appropriate for their students. And, at least part of the learning would be about how the stress we feel affects how we engage other parts of the learning, and how we can regulate stress with effective coping strategies.

Some examples:

  • “How might what happened to the main character make you feel?”
  • “We’ve never worked on a timed essay question like this before, and it’s common for students to feel stress when writing this way. What do you know about yourself that might make the stress more manageable?”
  • “You look [upset/happy/excited/nervous]. I’m interested to know more, if you’d like to share.”

It is possible to purchase a box of materials full of activities meant to promote social and emotional learning. Many of these boxes have materials developed by teachers and have evidence that they benefit students. However, the box of resources will never be as important as the teacher designing the instruction. Integrating the social and emotional learning outcomes alongside academic outcomes communicates to students that their relationships and how they manage their feelings are as important to their success as their understanding of quadratic equations.

My daughter just finished her outline for her biography book report about Beethoven. Her teacher wants students to record a monologue and make sure the class has a chance to see each other’s work. I checked the mail as she cleaned up her papers, and there was a postcard from her teacher that said:

“I miss your stories, your jokes, your smile, your laughter, your thoughtful questions and your kindness. I am sending you a big hug!”

Shalom Rockwell, Second Grade Teacher, Tucson Unified School District

Social and emotional learning will happen whether we are intentional about it or not.

Because my daughter’s teacher is intentional about helping her learners stay connected and emotionally well, Anjali actually cares about her assignments and is willing to work even without her teacher physically present. This postcard is one of many ways that her teacher has made sure that my daughter understands that she is more than a successful report on Beethoven. To equip children to be successful learners and good humans requires deep and thoughtful integration of social, emotional, and academic learning.

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