The students in my classroom have diverse needs and disabilities. It can often make for challenging planning and instruction. But one thing that is always needed by all of my students is Social Emotional Learning (SEL). More recently, it has become the focus of new learning standards here in Washington State: SEL for Washington. A report was released in October that detailed research, rationale, and recommendations for implementing Social Emotional Learning Standards. You can read more about it in the SEL Workgroup Report. This has long been a skill area targeted in my special education classroom. I try to help students identify their emotions, reasons behind those feelings, and strategies and coping skills to help them get through the school day. My long term goal is for them to self-manage well enough to function as contributing members of society.
Teachers already have a laundry list of things to teach and accomplish during a school year, and attempting to add SEL instruction into that already long list can seem daunting to say the least. I spend 20-30 minutes a day doing direct SEL instruction, and there are frameworks built into my special education classroom that lend themselves to the language and practices found in SEL programs. In my many years working with emotionally and behaviorally challenged students, I have found the following strategies to be incredibly valuable, and easy to use in a single classroom, or school-wide.
- I teach students to identify their emotions using colors. Each color corresponds with a set of emotions. Green generally representing regulated emotions, red representing more out of control emotions, blue representing things like sadness or sickness, and yellow being a transitional set of emotions that can lead you down many paths. When students can identify what they are feeling, why they are feeling that way, and what they can do to return to baseline, they can better adjust to the stressors life and school can throw at them. I use this throughout each and every day in my classroom. A great article to check out is School-Wide Social Emotional Learning. This lends great insight on how to begin implementing these strategies throughout your entire school.
- Another strategy I use is to teach children EXPLICITLY the hidden rules of social interaction, which you and I find to be obvious and easy. For many children, especially students with Autism or other emotionally and behavioral disabilities, knowing how to interact with the world around them can be a difficult thing. I teach how to identify the cause and effect of actions, namely, when we do or say something, people have thoughts and feelings about us. Those thoughts can be positive or negative. Those thoughts and feelings can influence how others interact (or don’t) with us. We have control over our relationships with others. We can listen and understand with our “Whole Body”, or we can narrowly focus on our own interests and issues. One is very limiting, the other much more rewarding. I model, we practice, and then we put it into play during activities in class, games, cooperative work, at recess, and even the lunch room. Check out this article for more information on how to incorporate this strategy into your classroom: Taking a Deeper Look at Whole Body Listening
- Taking Brain Breaks is another great strategy. This can be as simple as spending two to three minutes drawing on our math boards before we start the hard work of doing algebra. Or it can mean we get up and dance and sing with Go Noodle. We sometimes like to take more time and relax and refocus using Cosmic Kids Yoga. My students spend a lot of time feeling worried or stressed about things much bigger than improving their reading fluency. I try to give them opportunities, FUN opportunities, to relieve some of that stress in a safe space. I try to gauge the room and ask students if they want to work towards these fun breaks. Sometimes THEY ask for them completely independently. They are becoming more aware of their own need for movement and fun.
It helps to remind ourselves that as teachers, we explicitly practice reading strategies, new math skills, and using the scientific process. But often the skill of understanding and expressing emotions and interacting with others appropriately is assumed to be understood. Spending time with your students learning how to navigate their inner world is just as important.