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Three Ways to Promote Social-Emotional Development in the Classroom

EducationWorld is pleased to present this article contributed by Aimee Hosler, a writer for and mother of two. Passionate about education and workplace news and trends, Hosler holds a B.S. in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Bullying. Peer pressure. Social anxiety. Their negative effects can reach well beyond the classroom. In this information age, even distance-learning students can be targets of cyberbullying.

Teachers have long been aware of these social concerns, and increasingly, parents and policymakers are getting involved. Addressing these challenges in the classroom has never been easy, but has always been important. Research suggests that when schools promote positive social and emotional development, it not only reduces negative social behaviors, but also has a long-term positive impact on children’s success in a variety of areas.

Why social, emotional and character development matter

For most parents and teachers, the reasons for promoting social, emotional and character development in the classroom are obvious: They want children to be kind, emotionally competent and respectful to others.

The benefits of social-emotional learning extend far beyond that, however. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, a child's “environment of relationships” in the first years of life can actually shape her developing brain's architecture, creating circuits that can influence academic performance, mental health and interpersonal skills for the rest of her life.

Many schools or districts have adopted structured social-emotional and character development programs to help cultivate these important student skills. There are also many informal ways in which teachers can support social-emotional learning in the classroom and at the school level.

How to promote social, emotional and character development in the classroom

Teachers must establish a classroom environment that promotes social and emotional development right from the start—their students’ long-term success depends on it. Rules and expectations should be clear and reinforced often, and should prioritize behaviors such as kindness, honesty and good citizenship. This is only the beginning, however.

TKCalifornia, a program designed to support early education teachers and administrators, emphasizes that in order to promote social-emotional development in the classroom, teachers must model effective social behavior at all time and intentionally teach skills such as conflict resolution and problem-solving. These guidelines may sound great on (virtual) paper, but how, precisely, do they play out in the classroom? Here are a few strategies that might help.

Strategy 1: Create a consistent, but play-based, classroom structure

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Play is integral to the academic environment. It ensures that the school setting attends to the social and emotional development of children as well as their cognitive development.” TKCalifornia notes that one of the most powerful ways to nurture social or emotional development in the classroom is by establishing routines that are fun at the core. For instance, using songs, chants or games during challenging times—such as during periods where children must wait in line or take turns—can minimize negative behaviors, giving teachers an opportunity to reinforce positive ones.

Strategy 2: Teach—and reinforce—empathy

Helping a child understand people’s behaviors, feelings and thoughts is the first step toward teaching them how to respect and relate to others. Teachers can model empathy by comforting a child who is upset or by verbally acknowledging students’ feelings, but they can also incorporate these lessons into existing curricula.

For example, when reading a book, ask children to identify characters’ emotions and discuss how other characters or events have contributed to their feelings. You may also choose to role play with puppets or with the children themselves. By giving children a broader emotional vocabulary, and by emphasizing that everyone has feelings, teachers can hone or reinforce students’ empathy.

Strategy 3: Actively teach conflict resolution

When children begin to fight or argue—as they often do—it is easy for teachers to step in as mediators and resolve the conflict themselves. It might be more beneficial in the long run, however, if they use these opportunities to teach children how to resolve conflict themselves. For instance, if two children are fighting over a toy, rather than telling them to take turns and setting a timer, ask them how they could go about sharing the item. Talk through solutions. Educators can also model problem-solving skills throughout the day. For example, allow children to vote for the book they want to read, or encourage them to take turns leading their peers during transition periods.

Great teachers are students, too

Teachers can modify their methods and philosophies to accommodate students’ evolving needs, which can be influenced by everything from technological innovation to the economy. What works well for one classroom might not in the next. Consider investing in a little continuing education on the topic of social-emotional development, whether it means attending a formal workshop or simply keeping tabs on the latest research. Your students will thank you.


Related resources

Promote Social-Emotional Development With Proven Programs
Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Growth
Site Review: Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning
Beyond Icebreakers: Building Student Connectedness
Anti-Bullying Lessons, Resources and Strategies
How to Accentuate Respect and Eliminate Disrespect in Students
25 Activities for Building Student Character, School Community


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