Wednesday / June 19

Classrooms Offer the Cornerstone of Social Emotional Learning

Recently, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) took a step towards recognizing the importance of social emotional learning (SEL). Signed into law last December, it allows for a broader definition of student success that now includes “nonacademic” factors such as student engagement, school climate, and safety. But really, SEL initiatives have held growing interest for quite some time. A quick online review of Education Week shows just ten SEL articles in 1983, yet 2013, 2014, and 2015 each saw over 300 articles. The importance of SEL is also reflected in the number states that have adopted SEL standards as well as the numerous districts that have implemented school-wide SEL programs. However, here’s a question: What would make any school’s SEL program even more effective? The answer: integrating SEL competencies into content-area learning.

What Creates a High-Achieving, Cohesive Work Team?

Achieving SEL competencies contributes to college and career readiness. Academic and SEL accomplishment does ultimately play out in the employment arena. Recently The New York Times ran an article about Google’s study of work teams (Duhigg, 2016). They found that the most productive, high achieving teams had three distinct features:

  • Members spoke in roughly the same proportion
  • Members were trustworthy, employing empathy, respect, and caring.
  • Members appreciated each other, recognizing the skills and diversity each brought to the group. A great team may not have individual stars, but their collective intelligence is outstanding. Truly the sum is greater than the parts!

Students Can Be Taught Successful Team Behaviors

Though Google has yet to reveal how their employees came to be so interpersonally skilled, research in the field of social dynamics supports the fact that students can learn these “Google ready” team skills within the context of the classroom.

First, give students structured opportunities to meet those they don’t know by teaching them how to interview each other. Model it yourself by asking open-ended questions, demonstrating careful listening, and jotting down key details. Then, before students collaborate on a content-area task, devote five minutes to partner interviews using fun, low risk topics: What toppings do you like on pizza? How would you like to redecorate your bedroom? The best topics are the ones your students suggest. Interviewing lubricates conversation and leads to deeper, richer academic discussions because we are far more interested in the ideas of those we know. Change partners regularly so that students get the opportunity to meet and work with all of their classmates.

Next, teach students how to even out their discussion when they are working in groups of three or four. Help them become keen observers of their group’s interaction so that they notice who talks the most and the least. Smokey and I call this recognizing “hogs and logs.” Then ask members how they plan to even out the discussion. Solving the problem might include letting the quietest member speak first or dealing out talking chips (when you’re out of chips, it’s time for you to listen until everyone else’s chips are used up). These are just two examples; your students will brainstorm scores of doable solutions. Also, some of their solutions might be augmented by directly teaching a related skill. If a group wants to get its quiet members talking more (encouraging participation), what would they say? What would encouraging, inclusive body language look like? Make an anchor chart together and post it prominently!

Finally, students must reflect on their social emotional skills individually and as a group. Individuals need to consider their academic and interpersonal contributions, recording milestones and setting new goals. Groups need to discuss how they work well and how they could improve. If a group believes—and has demonstrated corroboratory observable behavior—that it is functioning well, then it’s time for them to add a new social-academic skill to their repertoire. Routinely, members should recognize and celebrate each other’s talents and contributions. An easy way to do this is through compliment cards, passed around the group, each member writing down a specific positive contribution another member has made (Daniels and Steineke, 2014).

Social-Academic/SEL Skills Enhance Achievement and School Community

In 2011, a meta-analysis of 213 studies showed on average an 11 percent gain in academic performance for kids receiving SEL instruction (Durlak et. al., 2011). Integrating that instruction within classroom content-area study demonstrates how rewarding social-academic skills become when working with classmates. Consistent practice and refinement of these skills from grade to grade and class to class will result in improved student learning behavior, creating a thriving, collaborative classroom community. Plus, if any students eventually become employed on a Google work team, they’ll be ready!

For more information on teaching social emotional skills, check out Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction, Grades 4-12.


Daniels, Harvey and Nancy Steineke. 2014. Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.

Duhigg, Charles. 2016. “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team.” The New York Times. February 25.

Durlak, Joseph, Roger Weissberg, Allison Dymnicki, Rebecca Taylor, and Kriston Schellinger. 2011. “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions.” Child Development. Vol. 82, No.1. January/February, pp. 405–432.

“The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA): Social and Emotional Learning in the New Federal Education Law.” 2015. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning).

Written by

Nancy Steineke consults nationally as a keynote speaker, workshop presenter, webinar leader, and literacy coach for K-12 teachers. She specializes in content-area literacy, nonfiction writing, purposeful close reading, literature circles, and student engagement. Using her experiences teaching English, history, and vocational education, Nancy keeps the focus on research-supported manageable strategies that best benefit students. She is the author/co-author of seven professional books, including Teaching the Social Skills of Academic Interaction, a collaboration with Harvey “Smokey” Daniels.

The author or coauthor of 18 books for teachers, Harvey Daniels, also known as “Smokey,” has been a professor, researcher, consultant, and teacher coach over his 43-year career. These days, he serves as a conference speaker, school district consultant, and demonstration teacher in schools around the U.S. and Canada. In 2012, Smokey was presented with the NCTE Exemplary Leader Award.

No comments

leave a comment