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Put Students in Charge: A Way to Make Social Emotional Instruction Truly Actionable

visual of how a child's mind moves from confusion to understanding social emotions

A Case for Social Emotional Development

After just a few years of teaching, I realized the skills woven into academic curriculum were not enough to ensure students would graduate prepared to be active citizens in society. Over time, my students’ social emotional development became as important to me as the academic skills designated by New York state. So when my administrators decided to add an advisory class to student schedules, I jumped on the chance to plan its curriculum.

Despite my best efforts to create meaningful social emotional learning experiences, the class was often treated by both staff and students as an aside, with the skills not transferring well to other classes or “real life.” I found a solution to this problem when I tried a new classroom model with self-paced blended learning instruction. A self-paced classroom is able to provide personalized instruction via blended learning, with the right balance of autonomy and support to develop both cognitive and non-cognitive skills. The students in my pilot program outperformed their peers on credit accumulation every trimester, but the real success came from the social emotional growth I was able to facilitate and observe.

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL), as defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” This is comprised of five SEL competencies, all of which I was able to address in the self-paced academic setting.

Self-Paced Instruction

Self-paced instruction is “any kind of instruction that proceeds based on learner response.” There are two models: outside of the school setting and within the school.

I used a self-paced classroom design as a pilot within the alternative high school where I taught to support a variety of struggling learners. We selected a target group of students and scheduled them for a three hour block of class. Within this block, we offered thirteen different blended learning classes.

The students chose which courses they wanted to work on for the trimester (based on graduation requirement needs) and they also got to decide how to structure their time during the block. Some students opted to spend all three hours on one class and then move on, whereas others would work on things from three or more different courses during the block. I became a true learning facilitator, supporting all subjects, but responsible for one. Content experts would push in on a staggered schedule to provide support and feedback to students.

The advantage of the self-paced, blended learning model in relation to SEL is that it allows for the integration of these skills as a part of the systems and structures of the academic class instead of as a separate initiative.

Competency 1: Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

To succeed in a self-paced class, students must be aware of their strengths and limitations, because the responsibility of deciding how to learn is on them. As a means of helping students assess their personal preferences and abilities, I designed periodic student surveys to push students to reflect and develop self-awareness. They answered questions like:

  • If you want to memorize something, what do you do?
  • How would you rate your self-discipline?
  • What style of learning has work for you in the past?
  • What is something you are really good at?
  • How often do you need breaks?
  • Which seating would you prefer the most.
  • How many credits do you have? How many do you need?
  • Throughout the term, I provided follow-up surveys with similar questions to help them review and refine their assessment of
  • themselves as students. This reflection and feedback helped students become more aware of their learning preferences and needs.

With some guidance, they were able to apply this understanding of themselves to maximize their academic efforts. For example, many students responded that when they want to memorize something they write it down or repeat it over and over but those same students didn’t always apply this when they were trying to study for a quiz. In these moments, we would discuss if that is actually how they learn best, if there were other strategies they should try, and why they weren’t using it in the moment to hone in on how they really learn.

Key take away: Let students express their self perceived strengths and weaknesses and support them in developing and refining their understanding of themselves. Any teacher can help build students’ self awareness by incorporating periodic student surveys, but if you really want to maximize this, having follow up conversations is a must. I could do this because of the blended learning component of this model, which afforded more time for one-to-one interactions.

Competency 2: Self-Management

Self-management is the ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.

When students entered my self-paced classroom, they set a goal for what they wanted to accomplish that period. As part of the routine, my students were expected to create a checklist of at least three things they planned to do during the block.

Because students were responsible for choosing what they were doing each day, this also provided the opportunity for students to use that time to complete job applications, update resumes, prep for SATs/ACTs, etc, providing them with the time and space to work towards professional and personal goals as well as academic.

Prior to checking out technology for the day, they’d show me their checklist as a way to inform me of their focus and for me to provide feedback on their goal setting skills. The feedback I gave students was geared towards making SMART goals, an objective I taught over and over again in advisory class, but without the context of an academic setting and opportunities to practice.

Instead of spending a few days on goal setting skills in an advisory class, we were able to practice setting SMART goals with daily practice and feedback on the specific need for growth. Students eventually needed less feedback from me as setting and working towards achieving personal and academic goals became part of their everyday routine.

Key takeaway: To develop self-management, students must practice managing themselves. Frequent practice with goal setting should be woven into every class, so students can improve self-management. You can achieve this in a self-paced classroom with a similar routine, but could also work it into any class by including goal setting practices with class projects. Taking the time to guide students through the goal setting process regularly in an academic class is a more effective way to develop competent goal setters and achievers.

Competency 3: Social Awareness

Social awareness is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

I started every school year with an activity to establish group norms with student input. We would post these in the room and students would sign the chart paper as a social contract. I did a similar exercise in my self-paced class, but I found a way to take this practice to the next level: I established a routine of monthly class meetings to review our progress as a group.

We discussed academic successes and how well we were meeting the social expectations we had established as a class. I asked students to evaluate how well the class was doing and consider the impact they had on their peers, which they shared with the group. My students were then able to lead the conversation about strategies for improving the group dynamic and why they should, which felt like a huge success.

Key takeaways: Let students lead the discussion on how the class is performing. Being placed in the same room is not enough to make students socially conscious. Developing a safe place where students can openly share their needs from the group and to reflect on the consequences of their actions via ongoing meetings is essential to developing social awareness, but can be done in any academic class.

Competency 4: Relationship Skills

Relationship skills are the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.

To promote healthy relationship skills, I heavily promoted peer mentoring and in class projects. Often, throughout the year, at least one student had already finished a course and could brief students on what to expect or offer strategies on how to learn the material.

This is different from peer mentoring in that it can happen in regular classroom settings because the “advanced” student is advanced because they have already done the work and not because they are naturally better at the subject.

Peer mentoring in this setting supported the mentoring students’ sense of self-efficacy, while providing a chance to practice communicating clearly and listening actively. Students who were being mentored were more likely to seek help from that peer again prior to asking for help from the teacher.

My favorite example of this was an ELL student supporting a peer taking Spanish class and that peer mentoring them in English and Global History. That peer advocated to expand the peer mentoring system to the rest of the school community because they felt the rewards of a healthy peer relationship.

Of course, not every student was eager to act as a peer mentor or mentee. This is why I made sure to include tasks that required students to interact with each other within the self-paced curricula. In the Financial Literacy class, they were expected to interview a peer about what they knew about credit cards. In health class, they created an anonymous 5–10 question survey about health issues they identified in the community and had to ask at least 10 peers to complete the survey.

These examples of how you can work relationship skills into a curriculum could be applied to any class model. However, unlike a traditional class where you might use “turn and talk” or purposely group students to perform a task, students in a self-paced setting had to learn how to politely interrupt another student, who was likely working on a completely different course, and explain to them what it is they were doing and why.

Key take aways: Opportunities to practice relationship skills such as communicating clearly, listening actively, and cooperating can be thoughtfully embedded in assignments. You can also foster students’ ability to seek and offer help when needed with the right peer mentoring dynamic.

Competency 5: Responsible Decision Making

Responsible Decision Making is the ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well being of self and others.

A common concern about blended learning is that students will access materials online inappropriate for school or that schools will be providing a tool for cyber bullying. Some schools combat this by blocking a whole host of sites that might be distracting or unsuitable for school. As a result, I was unable to access a site with excellent videos and graphics about the transmission and prevention of HIV for health class because the website url had the word “virus” in it! In reality, students, like everyone else, want to be successful. In my experience, the most frequently observed “inappropriate” use of technology was when students got distracted by music videos trying to pick something to listen to as they worked.

I convinced my administrators that blocking sites completely blocked access to great content. Off-task technology moments serve as a starting point for conversations about responsible decision making. The questions I posed most often were, “Is that going to help you succeed? And if so how?” Usually, this was enough to curtail the activity, but if it wasn’t I would follow up by asking, “Do you need a break?”

A break is a normal part of work-life, but rarely are students given the opportunity in schools to learn how to take a responsible break. A break is something most traditional class models cannot support because each day is a new thing to be taught, assessed, remediated, and extended.

In a self-paced classroom, students can make a “realistic evaluation” of the consequence of their choice to take a break, and with some teacher-facilitated reflection, decide if that choice will prevent them from reaching their goals for the day, week, or year.

An added bonus to this flexibility was that it supported student curiosity. I had a student whose “off-task” time was often spent exploring topics that interested him, but that did not fit into his coursework. I “caught” him watching a video about useless human body parts: exploring your interests is the type of behavior schools should encourage not discourage.

Key take away: Students can only learn to make responsible decisions if you let them make real decisions. By providing real choices for the students, you may revive their curiosity.

What’s the Next Step?

Providing students some level of autonomy is one way to bridge the gap between academic and social skill development. I found it easier to address the skills I had been trying for years to teach in advisory with my self-paced classroom model. Of course, there is always room for improvement and if I still taught, I would purposefully track my students’ SEL development as part of their overall class evaluation. While I had plenty of anecdotal evidence to support my claim that students made SEL progress, the students themselves should also be aware of their SEL development as they are of their academic grades. The two should not be separate.

If you are interested in learning about other ways to incorporate Social Emotional Learning in your classes and/or how to track student growth in both cognitive and non-cognitive areas simultaneously, check out SEL 101: a no-nonsense guide to incorporating SEL in the classroom. SEL 101 was co-authored by teachers and Kiddom, a learning platform supporting educators making this important change.


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