3 Ways to Teach Social and Emotional Skills in the Classroom

The term ‘social and emotional wellbeing’ refers to a state of positive mental health and wellness. It involves a sense of optimism, confidence, happiness, meaning and purpose, engagement, and of having supportive and satisfying relationships. Therefore, social and emotional competencies are some of the key areas that underpin positive mental health and wellbeing. This is supported by substantial research that identifies these competencies as having an impact on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. 

Schools have been increasingly expanding their ability to support the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people over the past twenty years. With 1 on 6 children and young people having a diagnosable mental health condition, schools have developed a range of interventions and support for their most vulnerable young people supporting them in small groups and with specialised staff. As an increasing number of children and young people are struggling to manage emotions, self-regulation, relationships and an understanding of themselves, weaving social and emotional skills at a classroom level is becoming more important. 

Therefore, the question now becomes how can schools weave both the teaching and practice of social and emotional competencies into classroom practice where we know they have the greatest impact on learning, the development of relationships and group cohesion? A tricky question but one with a range of simple strategies that are easily implemented in the classroom both in primary and secondary classrooms. 

1) The Use of Questions

One of the first ways is to use questions that enable children to think about different points of view, emotions, relationships and problem solving. When sharing a book or story with children and young people you can think and discuss the characters in the book through a social and emotional lens. For instance if reading a book to children in KS1 you might ask questions such as How did Little Red Riding Hood feel as she walked through the woods? Or by asking How do we know what Baby Bear felt when he realised his porridge had been eaten and his chair broken when he came back from his walk?  This can then lead to:  How do you cope when someone breaks something of yours? 

Books to support KS1 develop social and emotional skills.

For KS2 this might be rather different. You might like to map out the emotions a character experienced within a chapter and how this influenced their behaviour. Or – How the behaviours of characters in the story affected other people in negative or positive ways? Or – How they could have made an outcome different?  

Books for KS2

For young people in KS3 you might be able to explore - How the characters built positive relationships or how they repaired arguments or disagreements. How emotions affected behaviours which then affected others or the outcome of events. Once you start thinking about this then the opportunities are endless.

Books for KS3

Developing emotional and social skills doesn’t just have to be used in literacy, history often lends itself to this area. During these lessons historical characters can be explored again using the social and emotional lens. Young people could explore - What historical characters needed to consider when they made decisions or how their decisions affected different groups of people. What was the impact of the suffragette movement on the lives of woman at the time and what might the women have felt that caused this movement to expand.

2) How our Body Works

Another area that can be explored is how our bodies work and why, this is easily done in science. By fostering an ethos of curiosity and being self-aware we can start to link how the body works and how behaviours, emotions and thoughts can all be interlinked as well as the chemical reactions our body experiences. What chemicals are released when we are happy? What happens when we feel stressed? Why does being anxious make our body feel funny? These are just some of the topics that can be explored and discussed.

Social and emotional skills include competencies such as self-awareness, recognising emotions, managing emotions, social skills and problem solving all of which impact on children and young people’s ability to cope with situations, challenges and stress which in turn impact on mental health and wellbeing. 

3) Class Discussions

The final way that these skills can be incorporated into classroom practice is by helping children and young people become more aware of their own social skills, emotional literacy and self-awareness. Through the use of both small group and class discussions they can explore and develop their understanding of these skills and their growing abilities. By using class discussions children become aware of the feelings and points of views of others and learn how to explore these as well as tolerate them. They learn to think about things in a wider way and develop a greater awareness. To help develop these skills it is useful to help children and young people unpick what a good discussion might look like. For some children and young people they may never have experienced this, they may have experienced shouting and being told what to think and do rather than being encouraged to think out loud and share their thoughts and idea. For some having a different point of view may be dangerous, for others other points of view may have never been considered or listened too.  

Before developing this way of working within the classroom it may be helpful to consider what a discussion might look like. How will people behave, cope with different ideas or points of view? How will they share their ideas, who will manage the discussion and ensure everyone has time to talk and put forward their ideas? By doing this preparation work the group or class can come up with their own criteria or guide by which to follow. 

Once this has been created then the next stage is to try it out and reflect on whether it has achieved what you all hoped. Did people feel safe enough to talk and share ideas and thoughts? Were there ways to ask questions and expand on ideas? Did everyone get an opportunity to talk and share or was the discussion dominated by a few individuals? Help the children understand that the guide is just that, a guide to help them achieve something that works and if it needs to be adapted then that is part of the process. Once this has been achieved then children and young people can be supported in thinking about the areas they would like to develop or become better at, this then forms their goal for the future. 

Circles for Learning is a unique project that focuses on developing the five essential areas that lay positive foundations for mental health and wellbeing including emotional literacy. It brings together a parent and their young child and a class or KS1-KS3 pupils to create a time and space to allow then to watch and interact once a month for a whole year.

This amazing experience allows children to understand the development of relationships, how learning unfolds, and observe and explore emotions, share ways of regulating and how they impact on their own thinking and behaviour. 

Circles for Learning is backed by 10 years of development by leading Educational Psychotherapist and writer of the Teachers Mental Health and Wellbeing Toolkit, Alison Waterhouse.

A young child is not born with high or low self-esteem, it is something that develops over time. Children and young people with positive self-esteem feel they are a good person, deserving of love and support, who can be successful. The opposite is true for children and young people with low self-esteem. This blog explores how parents and teachers can support young people develop positive self-esteem

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