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Canyon Heights Blog

What is Social Emotional Learning? 6 Examples from our 1st Grade Classroom

Recent studies show that many young children, most often those with under-developed social and emotional skills, are displaying more challenging behavior in today’s classrooms. Perhaps you’ve even seen this kind of behavior–anything from general moodiness and withdrawal, to anxiety, anger, and even aggression–in your own child. If so, know that you’re not alone. Today’s students need social-emotional support now more than ever, especially considering the isolating effects of the pandemic on the youngest populations–those who most likely lost out on critical social time with their peers.

How do we respond to this reality and help our young children not only to manage their own emotions, but also to show care and love for others? In this post, we’ll discuss the necessity of teaching social and emotional skills–things like self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and responsible decision-making–in order to help students be successful both in and outside of the classroom. Studies have even shown that when students are equipped with these skills, they reap benefits such as improved behavior, greater capacity for resilience, and better academic performance.

Incorporating Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom

At Canyon Heights Academy, we believe that social emotional learning goes hand-in-hand with your child’s growth in human formation. But how exactly do we incorporate these skills into the classroom? Below, you’ll hear from our beloved 1st Grade teacher, Ms. Mary Ann Solano, as she shares the unique and creative ways that she seamlessly integrates social emotional learning into her teaching. The result? Your children will learn self-control, build character, and be well on their way to becoming both confident leaders and caring friends.

1. Creating a Loving Learning Environment

With the start of each new school year comes community building in the classroom. The environment in which we learn and the community that we create is an essential part of helping students to feel safe, supported, and successful, as well as helps cultivate an overall sense of belonging. As a 1st Grade class, we dedicate time early on to building a shared vocabulary of words that we can use to communicate with one another. These words help us visualize a) the kinds of people we want to be (i.e. respectful, trustworthy, helpful, caring, leaders, etc.), b) the kinds of skills we want to build (i.e. cooperation, responsibility, sharing, self-control, problem solving), and c) the kinds of values that we will stand for, both as individuals and as a group (i.e. teamwork, friendship, honesty, integrity, kindness, acceptance, etc.). These words also help us to establish norms and expectations for how we will treat each other. All year long, we continue to develop the tools and gather the words we need in order to share this special space and to create a nurturing, caring, learning environment for each and every student.

2. Learning from Stories

One specific way that we continue to expand this shared vocabulary throughout the year is through stories. In 1st Grade, we often read and listen to stories about saints and historical figures, as well as classic tales and stories with familiar fictional characters. These stories help young learners to develop the language they need to better understand social and emotional connections, which in turn allows them to better express themselves, to articulate and process their own emotions, and to show empathy for their peers. I find it especially important for me as the teacher to share personal life experiences with my students so that they learn to make these connections themselves. As the year progresses, students then begin to relate what they hear in stories to that which they have experienced in real life.

Typically, we start each year with a series of character education books that come with accompanying songs. These short stories and catchy tunes make learning fun, engaging, and memorable. Story topics that we cover include themes like perseverance, responsibility, respect, and friendship. In addition to these books and songs, we read one of my personal favorites, called: Have You Filled A Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud. The story focuses on how we can spread joy and kindness by “filling” someone’s imaginary bucket with our kind words and deeds. Students learn that in doing so, we will also end up filling our own buckets because it feels good and brings us joy to be kind to others. In the classroom, we take it one step further: we actually use a real bucket and fill it with notes of the good deeds that we do and that we see others do. The objective is to be a Bucket Filler, not a Bucket Dipper. This visual and terminology not only creates a shared goal for the classroom as a whole, but also builds a positive learning environment where we can recognize the way that others help and support us.

3. Problem Solving Circle

An important routine that we establish at the beginning of the year is the Problem Solving Circle. The Problem Solving Circle helps create a safe space for students to process and navigate the difficult feelings and situations that they may encounter while at school, such as misunderstandings that occur between friends. 

For example, imagine two or three students who are close friends and who always want to play together at recess. Perhaps one friend is always picking the game, choosing the characters, or making up the rules of how to play. As a result, the other friends get tired of it and the students quarrel. It can be hard to tell the teacher what’s going on when it involves your friend, but the Problem Solving Circle helps enable students to explore their feelings, explain why they are upset, and to come to the teacher for help. Then, we see if we can come up with a solution to the problem by working together.

Most importantly, the Problem Solving Circle is rooted in community spirit and helps build emotional trust in one another, primarily among the students themselves, but also between the students and me, their teacher. We use these gathering times to solve any problem that might come up throughout the day. As I always tell my students, no problem is too small. We learn to listen to each other, to forgive, and to have compassion for one another, even and especially when we are upset or having a bad day. While this activity is a practical way to work through difficulties that arise, it also teaches students to be more comfortable and confident when striving to resolve conflicts. Over time, these experiences help them to become more socially aware, communicative, and empathetic.

4. Classroom Agreement

Another important principle that we establish early on is our Classroom Agreement. A few weeks after the start of each new school year (once we’ve gotten to know each other a bit more), we create a document that serves as a kind of classroom constitution–a set of standards by which to conduct ourselves, guidelines that we will try to follow, and character traits that we want to emulate. Ultimately, this agreement consists of a list of positive ways that we will treat each other. We keep our agreement posted on our community bulletin board all year and refer to it whenever needed. Our Classroom Agreement reminds students not only how they ought to treat one another, but also how they want to be treated by others. This dynamic helps hold students accountable for their behavior while simultaneously giving them a clear target at which to aim.

6. Working in Small Groups

By the third quarter of the school year, our class is ready for cooperative learning lessons. We often work with partners or in teams to collaborate on projects or to accomplish a particular goal. This collaboration can be a really fun way to learn, but can also be challenging for some young learners as they practice taking turns, following directions, and interacting in group settings. Thankfully, we have many tools to pull from to help us grow and succeed together, such as our shared vocabulary and good communication skills, our established trust in one another, our Classroom Agreement, our Problem Solving Circle, and our emphasis on virtue. Most importantly, we strive to maintain a sense of community spirit that makes our learning space a wonderful place to be.

Human Formation at Canyon Heights Academy

At Canyon Heights Academy, we pay attention to social emotional learning because it is part of our commitment to providing outstanding human formation for all of our students. Moreover, it is an evidence-based approach that gives your child a firm foundation for future success. Our teachers are specifically trained to reference our Regnum Christi Education Formation Benchmarks in order to support our students as they reach developmentally appropriate milestones. This means that in each grade level, your child will master the fundamental skills he or she needs to communicate well, to manage and process complex emotions, to problem solve, and to establish healthy relationships with others, all while continuing to grow intellectually, spiritually, and apostolically.

Interested in hearing more about our educational philosophy of Integral Formation? Be sure to watch this short video or visit us on campus to better understand how your child will be accompanied in all aspects of his or her learning at Canyon Heights Academy. Additionally, if you’re curious to learn how to continue to help your young student grow in confidence both socially and emotionally, check out Ms. Solano’s recommended reading list below!

Recommended Reading and Additional Resources:

  • Character Education Series by Regina G. Burch (Creative Teaching Press)
  • Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud
  • A Child’s Book of Virtues by Kay McSpadden
  • Positive Discipline in the Classroom, Developing Mutual Respect, Cooperation, and Responsibility in your Classroom by Jane Nelson
  • The Collaborative Classroom by Boney Nathan
  • The 7 Habits of Happy Kids by Sean Covey
  • A Little Spot of Emotion (Set) by Diane Alber
  • What if Everybody Did That? by Ellen Javernick
  • What if Everybody Said That? by Ellen Javernick
  • What if Everybody Thought That? by Ellen Javernick
  • The Family Virtues Guide Simple Ways to Bring Out the Best in Our Children and Ourselves by Linda Kavelin Popov