Three Strategies to Power Up Learning in Any Content Area by Adding Social Emotional Learning to Your Lessons

Social-emotional learning is one of the most versatile subject areas to add to any subject area. It’s like the universal adapter of cross-curricular topics! When I was teaching elementary school in the midwest, my school valued social-emotional learning (SEL). A local non-profit group trained in SEl pushed in to classrooms twice a week for targeted lessons with my second and third graders. Each week, I participated in the lessons and integrated them into my classroom. 

Adding this cross-curricular powerhouse to any content area is simple. Here are three ways to integrate social-emotional learning (SEL) into your middle school classroom:

  1. Circle up! I know, circle seems like an early-elementary activity. But it is a quick and easy way to do a dipstick assessment on learning and to check in with your students. I frequently close my classes with a standing circle to do a check in on the day’s learning target. I’ll ask, “Which activities did we do today to help you grow with the learning targets?” Additionally, using a circle to check in on the students’ challenges and successes during the week is a great way to check on their moods and emotions from the week. During end-of-week circles, I will ask students to share a peak (success) or valley (challenge) from any part of their week, including extracurriculars or events in the home. Students have shared about grandparents passing away, winning soccer tournaments, and being frustrated with a math test. As a group, we agree that what happens in the circle stays in the circle to ensure safety for all group members. 
  1. Inhale and Exhale. Have you ever had that class period when the students come barreling in with too much energy to be contained in one classroom? This is the perfect situation for mindful breathing. You can support your students in slowing their roll with a 1-2 minute mindful breathing session, which will support more on-task time for the remainder of class. Let students pick their breathing method. A simple online search will help you to learn many mindful breathing methods, but here are two of my favorites: Star breathing and hot cocoa breathing. With star breathing, the students use the finger of one hand to trace around the fingers on their other hand, starting at the base of the thumb. As the students inhale, they trace up to the top of their thumb or finger. As they exhale, they trace down that finger. With cocoa breathing, students pretend they are holding a mug of hot chocolate in front of their mouth. As they inhale, they smell the cocoa, and as they exhale they quietly blow off the steam. I usually do cocoa breathing for one minute. One norm that I like to establish is that I should not hear loud breathing. Breathing in a loud, distracting way is the opposite of mindful behavior.
  1. Use a rubric. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to observe a teacher in another middle school in our district. At this particular middle school, teachers all used a collaboration rubric that blew my mind. Students would set collaboration goals for their groups before doing a lab to support more efficient hands-on learning time.  While teaching eighth grade, I took this idea of a rubric to help students self-assess their behavior and how impacts learning in the classroom. This rubric, with suggestions from my colleagues, has gone through many iterations. During particularly active times of year, such as the week before winter break, I will start class with the rubric and will ask students to identify one bulletpoint from one of the behavior areas as a goal to work on during class that day. Note that I ask students to pick only one goal for the class.  This shifts the responsibility for positive behavior from me to the group. It’s worth the extra time to frontload expectations for a class period that flows more seamlessly with fewer interruptions.  You  might notice that the rubric doesn’t have a one column. If a student is in a position that they would earn a one, they are going to need support to rejoin my classroom. They might be very emotional, and need time for a break. At that point, I will make the decision of how to support the student in safely taking an effective break.

Using social-emotional learning in your classroom can set the stage for a safe and efficient learning environment. Try one of these three activities to bring the calm to your school day!

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