Academics and Social and Emotional Learning? Absolutely.

By Margaret Wilson

For many years, I coached teachers on the art of incorporating social-emotional skills into classroom instruction. Many educators initially reacted with alarm: “I don’t have time for that! Our schedule is packed as it is!” Fortunately, I allayed these fears by teaching social-emotional skills in tandem with academics. In fact, studying rich content and compelling questions integrates social and academic skills, leading to greater growth in both areas.

The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development just released a comprehensive report recommending the melding of social and emotional learning with academics, saying, “By integrating—rather than separating—young people’s social, emotional, and academic development, we position each and every student for success.”  

Students must develop strong speaking and listening skills for both academic and social success. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies “the ability to communicate clearly, listen well, [and] cooperate with others” as essential to one of its five core competencies–relationship skills. Similarly, the Common Core State Standards include specific standards to guide the teaching and learning of speaking and listening skills.

Students working at desk in group

The English language arts classroom is an ideal place for students to develop and practice speaking and listening skills. Following the adage, “Let’s give them something to talk about,” strong ELA curricula (like Wit & Wisdom® from Great Minds®) focus on engaging topics and texts, providing meaningful content to discuss. Academic discussions enhance understanding of text and build competence in speaking and listening. 

By posing open-ended questions and facilitating discussions, ELA teachers can maximize students’ development of speaking and listening skills and understanding of content. Try some of the following strategies to improve your own facilitation of discussions.

Use–and build student awareness of–wait time. Taking time to consider a question and how best to answer it serves both social and academic goals. Encourage students to think before speaking, and illustrate how taking time can yield more effective and articulate responses in both academic and social settings. Taking time can also foster deeper, more productive conversations. Try waiting up to 10 seconds after asking a question to give students time to formulate ideas. Be transparent with them about why you’re waiting so they can use the time wisely and won’t raise their hands or call out answers while others are thinking.

Reading & Writing boyLet students do the heavy lifting. When students are struggling, it can be tempting to jump in and share our own responses to questions or ideas. But doing that might unintentionally convey the message that students cannot or do not think hard and instead can wait for teachers to do the work for them. This might also signal that there is a single right answer to a question, the one the teacher shared, which shuts down students’ own thinking and investment in the conversation.

Instead of jumping in to answer for students, consider the following strategies.

Ask students to discuss the question first in pairs or small groups. Taking time in a small group can alleviate the pressure some students might feel in sharing with the whole group. With a pair or smaller group, students can articulate their thinking and develop confidence for expressing those ideas in the whole group.

Provide scaffolds. Often students need to build more knowledge of and understanding of a text or topic before confidently articulating that knowledge. Rather than jump in when a student is struggling to answer a question, back up and ask more basic questions to support student understanding of the content or topic.

Ask follow-up questions. Help students through follow-up questions, such as: What does the text say about _______? Could you say more about what you mean by ________? Why do you think ________?

Foster student-to-student conversation. Many classroom conversations resemble a toss-and-catch game in which students talk to each other through the teacher. The teacher asks a question, one student responds, the teacher repeats that response and/or says something about it. Then the teacher moves onto the next student, and the cycle repeats. But, to fully develop their communication and relationship skills, students must talk directly with each other. To help make this happen, consider the following steps.

Don’t repeat student responses. Repeating students’ answers encourages them to listen to teachers, rather than to each other. If you have developed a habit of repeating and need a temporary replacement for doing so, use a nonverbal cue such as a nod or head tilt. If students have trouble hearing someone, teach them to respectfully ask or signal for that person to speak up, rather than repeating the student’s response for them.

Girl_Elementary looking leftFocus on facilitation, not evaluation. Often we signal, either verbally or nonverbally, what we think of each student’s response to a question. For example, we might say, “What a great comment!” or, if less than impressed, purse our lips and say, “Hmm.” Such responses might prevent students from reflecting and building on each other’s thinking or discourage reticent students from participating for fear of having the “wrong” answer. Instead, consider highlighting insightful student comments to help students continue their own thoughtful discussion without redirecting the focus to your own reaction. If you notice particularly insightful comments and would like to share more feedback than would be productive for the class discussion, wait to give that feedback privately. 

Encourage students to respond to others’ ideas. Help students understand that conversations, whether social or academic, do not just consist of people waiting for others to finish so that they can make their own point, but instead should build and deepen understanding. Encourage students to connect their ideas to those of classmates by using the following strategies.

Post sentence frames such as those used in Wit & Wisdom lessons: “I agree with _____ because _______.” “I disagree with _____ because ______.” “In addition to what ____ said, I think _____.”  Research shows varied questions are key to comprehending any text. 

Ask follow-up questions based on student responses: “Do you agree with what Alonzo said? Why or why not?”

Summarize student contributions to move the conversation forward. For example, you might say, “Brendan and Analilia have asserted ______. Keegan and Corrina said ______. What evidence can you find from the text to support either position?”

The work you do to help students learn to talk directly to each other, respectfully respond to each other, and build on each other’s comments will pay off for them academically as well as socially. Their rich conversations will lead to a deeper understanding of ELA content and enhance their ability to talk with and ultimately relate to others. Using these strategies in academics will help build key social and emotional skills without adding to an already packed schedule.

Margaret Wilson is managing editor of Humanities Content Development at Great Minds. She is the author of the book The Language of Learning: Teaching Students Core Thinking, Listening, and Speaking Skills. She will participate in a Great Minds webinar on the impact of social and emotional learning on student achievement on February 5. Sign up below.

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Unknown-2Margaret Wilson

Managing Editor, Humanities Content Development at Great Minds

As managing editor of the Humanities Content Development team at Great Minds, Margaret Wilson leads projects and develops content to support educators who are implementing Wit & Wisdom. Previously, she worked as a curriculum developer, first on a K–8 daily SEL curriculum and then as a content lead for Grade 7 Wit & Wisdom. She has written or cowritten nine books and numerous articles and blog posts about SEL and/or classroom management. Wilson has also worked as a professional developer, consultant, and coach, teaching workshops to educators across the country about SEL and coaching educators in schools and classrooms in SEL implementation. Additionally, she was a classroom teacher for 16 years in Nashville and San Bernadino, where she taught Grades K–2 and 5–7 and served as assistant principal for a year.