How to Integrate Social-Emotional Learning into Common Core Standards

How to Integrate Social-Emotional Learning into Common Core Standards

by Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D.

Do the Com­mon Core State Stan­dards under­mine social-emotional learning?

Many edu­ca­tors think so. In a recent Ed Week op-ed, an ele­men­tary prin­ci­pal argued that teach­ers were too busy teach­ing Com­mon Core to address the social-emotional devel­op­ment of their stu­dents. I’ve heard the same argu­ment from many teach­ers. This is trou­bling given that researchers strongly sug­gest that the learn­ing process is 50 per­cent social-emotional and 50 per­cent cognitive.

Yet when I read through the Stan­dards, I quickly real­ized that social-emotional skills are implic­itly embed­ded in the Standards—whether or not teach­ers, school lead­ers, policy-makers, or even the cre­ators of the Com­mon Core real­ize it.

In other words, for stu­dents to suc­cess­fully meet the Stan­dards, they must pos­sess social-emotional skills. And unless stu­dents mag­i­cally come to school with all these skills in place, delib­er­ate teach­ing of these skills will be necessary.

(For read­ers who are not famil­iar with the cur­rent U.S. pub­lic edu­ca­tion land­scape, the Com­mon Core State Stan­dards out­line what stu­dents are sup­posed to know in lan­guage arts and math at each grade level so that they will be pre­pared for col­lege and/or the work­place. While 45 states and the Dis­trict of Colum­bia have adopted the Stan­dards, there is still much dis­agree­ment on how to imple­ment and test them and whether they’re appro­pri­ate at all.)

Pre­dict­ing if the Com­mon Core Stan­dards will sur­vive the mul­ti­tudi­nous con­tro­ver­sies cur­rently rag­ing in state leg­is­la­tures is beyond my psy­chic abil­i­ties. But there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of edu­ca­tors striv­ing to put the stan­dards to work in classrooms—and it’s worth explor­ing how the Stan­dards nat­u­rally align with CASEL’s frame­work of social-emotional learn­ing out­comes. Here are some examples.

Com­mon Core Math Stan­dards and SEL

At first, math and social-emotional learn­ing may not seem like nat­ural allies. But if you think back to a time when a math­e­mat­i­cal con­cept com­pletely con­founded you (like, ahem, proofs in high school geom­e­try), social-emotional skills such as per­se­ver­ance, hope, opti­mism, and ask­ing for help would have come in handy.

The Com­mon Core Stan­dards for Math­e­mat­i­cal Prac­tice out­line “processes and pro­fi­cien­cies” that math teach­ers should help stu­dents develop. These qual­i­ties, in par­tic­u­lar, align well with social-emotional learn­ing. Here are a cou­ple examples:

Com­mon Core Math Standard:

Stu­dents make sense of prob­lems and per­se­vere in solv­ing them.

Cor­re­spond­ing SEL “self-management” skills:

Pos­sess self-efficacy
Work toward goals
Atten­tion control
Man­age per­sonal stress
Reg­u­late emo­tions such as impulses, aggres­sion, and self-destructive behavior
Seek help when needed
Exhibit pos­i­tive moti­va­tion, hope, and optimism
Dis­play grit, deter­mi­na­tion, or perseverance

Problem-solving (par­tic­u­larly word prob­lems) is for many stu­dents the most chal­leng­ing part of math. Often stu­dents will take one look at a prob­lem and decide that it’s too hard with­out even trying—especially those with “math pho­bia.” This is where social-emotional skills can help.

Stu­dents need to first trust in their abil­ity to solve a prob­lem (self-efficacy) and then work towards that goal. They must be able to focus on the prob­lem rather than get dis­tracted by what the kid on the other side of the room is doing. If they get stuck, stu­dents must man­age their stress-levels by reg­u­lat­ing their emo­tions and, if nec­es­sary, ask for help. Stay­ing opti­mistic through­out the process will help them per­se­vere to the end.

For exam­ple, before begin­ning a les­son, have the stu­dents prac­tice a cou­ple min­utes of mind­ful­ness. Research sug­gests that this will calm their emo­tions and focus their atten­tion. For longer-term impact, help stu­dents see how their per­sonal goals align with math out­comes. Sci­en­tists have found that this will help stu­dents develop hope—one of the most impor­tant fac­tors in stu­dent aca­d­e­mic success.

Com­mon Core Math Standard:

When con­struct­ing viable argu­ments, stu­dents jus­tify their con­clu­sions, com­mu­ni­cate them to oth­ers, and respond to the argu­ments of others.

Cor­re­spond­ing SEL “social aware­ness” and “rela­tion­ship man­age­ment” skills:

Respect oth­ers (e.g., lis­ten care­fully and accurately)
Under­stand other points of view and perspectives
Iden­tify social cues (ver­bal, phys­i­cal) to deter­mine how oth­ers feel
Pre­dict oth­ers’ feel­ings and reactions
Man­age and express emo­tions in rela­tion­ships, respect­ing diverse viewpoints

Emo­tions can run high when stu­dents try to defend their point—which can all too often lead to hurt feel­ings. Edu­ca­tors need to teach stu­dents how to trans­form “you’re wrong!” or “that’s a stu­pid answer!” into “from my per­spec­tive” or “I respect­fully disagree.”

Cre­at­ing a car­ing and safe class­room builds respect among stu­dents. They learn to under­stand and accept that other peo­ple have dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives than them. Edu­ca­tors who build stu­dents’ emo­tional lit­er­acy by teach­ing them how to iden­tify emo­tions in them­selves and oth­ers are giv­ing stu­dents the tools to pre­dict how oth­ers’ feel and then respond appropriately—all of which will lead to much more effec­tive (not to men­tion fun and engag­ing) aca­d­e­mic discussions.

One of my favorite exam­ples for build­ing a safe and car­ing class­room comes from a Greater Good Sum­mer Insti­tute for Edu­ca­tors par­tic­i­pant and is based on the RULER pro­gram. At the begin­ning of the year, she asked stu­dents how they wanted to feel in the class­room. After get­ting over their ini­tial shock that a teacher actu­ally cared about how they felt, stu­dents began to say things like “be respected” and “no laugh­ing at each other.”

Every­day, the stu­dents and teacher started class with every­one stat­ing how they were cur­rently feel­ing. Any­one who felt out-of-sorts was given a lit­tle bit of time to visit the “bal­anc­ing table” where he or she could draw, write, or prac­tice mind­ful­ness to feel bet­ter. While many teach­ers may feel this prac­tice would take too much time, in the long-run, the ben­e­fits far out­weigh the time fac­tor. Mul­ti­ple stud­ies show that stu­dents who are part of a safe and car­ing class­room where they feel seen, heard, and respected have bet­ter peer rela­tion­ships and are more suc­cess­ful academically.

Com­mon Core and Eng­lish Lan­guage Arts Standards

Many SEL pro­grams such as PATHS and RULER already use writ­ing and lit­er­a­ture as part of their lessons. And research indi­cates that read­ing lit­er­ary fic­tion can help develop empathy—a won­der­ful jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Eng­lish teach­ers to assign more books like Crime and Pun­ish­ment andHeart of Dark­ness.

While not explic­itly call­ing them “social-emotional skills”, many of the Com­mon Core Lan­guage Arts Stan­dards give teach­ers the oppor­tu­nity to incor­po­rate mini-lessons on emo­tions, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, rela­tion­ships, and other social-emotional skills directly into their lan­guage arts cur­ricu­lum. Here are a cou­ple examples:

Com­mon Core Eng­lish Lan­guage Arts Standard

RL.3.3 Describe char­ac­ters in a story (e.g., their traits, moti­va­tions, or feel­ings) and explain how their actions con­tribute to the sequence of events.

Cor­re­spond­ing SEL “self-awareness”, “social aware­ness”, and “respon­si­ble decision-making” skills:

Label and rec­og­nize own and oth­ers’ emotions
Ana­lyze emo­tions and how they affect others
Eval­u­ate oth­ers’ emo­tional reactions
Reflect on how cur­rent choices affect future

In order to iden­tify feel­ings of other people—whether real or fictional—students need to have a well-developed emo­tion vocab­u­lary. Being able to rec­og­nize and label these emo­tions as they occur within them­selves helps stu­dents do so in oth­ers. Exam­in­ing how emo­tions impact fic­tional char­ac­ters’ lives also pro­vides a non-threatening oppor­tu­nity for stu­dents to reflect how emo­tions affect their own lives and the peo­ple around them.

For exam­ple, have stu­dents cre­ate a double-entry jour­nal to exam­ine how the emo­tions of a char­ac­ter impact the world around him or her. Fol­low this up with a jour­nal entry in which stu­dents self-reflect on their own emo­tional expe­ri­ences. To make it eas­ier for stu­dents to label emo­tions, hang an emo­tions poster in your classroom.

Com­mon Core Eng­lish Lan­guage Arts Standard

W.7.6 Use tech­nol­ogy, includ­ing the Inter­net, to pro­duce and pub­lish writ­ing and link to and cite sources as well as to inter­act and col­lab­o­rate with oth­ers, includ­ing link­ing to and cit­ing sources.

Cor­re­spond­ing SEL “rela­tion­ship man­age­ment” skills

Exhibit coop­er­a­tive learn­ing and work­ing toward group goals
Com­mu­ni­cate effectively
Cul­ti­vate rela­tion­ships with those who can be resources when help is needed
Pro­vide help to those who need it
Demon­strate lead­er­ship skills when nec­es­sary, being assertive and persuasive
Pre­vent inter­per­sonal con­flict, but man­age and resolve it when it does occur

Any­one who has ever had to col­lab­o­rate on a group project for school knows that it’s not exactly a bed of roses. Pulling one’s own weight (and get­ting oth­ers to do so), agree­ing to dis­agree, and com­pro­mise are all part of the process—but social-emotional skills can go a long way in smooth­ing the road for everyone.

Effec­tive and respect­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion is key to col­lab­o­ra­tion, as well as moti­vat­ing and help­ing each other along the way. Stu­dents who develop these kinds of skills in school will be con­sid­ered the “cream of the crop” when it comes to future work­place success.

For exam­ple, rather than telling stu­dents your ver­sion of good team­work, have them come up with their own rubric for eval­u­at­ing their col­lab­o­ra­tive efforts. This will help them “own” the process and make them more account­able to each other. Then have stu­dents share with the class after each work­group ses­sion what worked and what didn’t. Ask them to role play pos­si­ble solu­tions for any prob­lems they might have encoun­tered. Allow them to adjust their rubric as they gain deeper insight into what makes a good team.

What’s Miss­ing

Over­all, I found the Com­mon Core Stan­dards pro­vide an excel­lent excuse for the teach­ing of social-emotional skills. And I applaud teach­ers who make the effort to do so. But even then, there’s still some­thing missing.

No Stan­dard and no SEL pro­gram can replace a teacher’s enthu­si­asm and pas­sion for the cur­ric­ula being taught. To me, that is the magic of teaching—and what often sep­a­rates the good teach­ers from the great ones. The truly gifted edu­ca­tors are those who care for their stu­dents and show them the “awe­some­ness” of the world around them—and then go the extra mile to help them find their unique and pur­pose­ful place in it.

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