Students, teachers, and parents can all connect to the sentiments shared by the character of Sarah Hartwell in Julie Danneberg’s back-to-school book First Day Jitters—pulling the covers over her head, refusing to get out of bed and prepare for the first day of school. Getting back into the school routines is challenging for everyone. Educators can likely relate to the challenges faced at the start of the school year: setting the alarm two hours earlier, tired legs after standing most of the day, body adjusting to the limited time for breaks, and trying to remember how to pack a lunch. Students and parents also feel a combination of anxiety, worry, and excitement during the transition from summer to the start of the school year.
As part of the preparation for the new school year, it is important to consider the social and emotional needs of both the students and the teachers. By starting the year with predictable routines, incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into your schedule, communicating with families, and prioritizing your own SEL, you can set everyone up for success.
Simple, intentional steps can be taken to set ourselves up for success when implementing SEL lessons and curricula. As educators, we know how important it is to have predictable routines in the classroom to set the scene for engaging academics and a positive community that will allow students to take social and academic risks. By implementing interactive learning structures, using the most of your physical space, and partnering your students intentionally you will be laying the groundwork for successful SEL.
Interactive Learning Structures
Interactive learning structures provide students with the opportunity to move, engage, and deepen their learning. Some of the more popular ones that can be used across all academic areas include Gallery Walk, Four Corners, Snowball, Maître d’, and Graffiti. For best practice, use the same routine across several subjects. Rather than constantly introducing new interactive learning structures, focus on the depth of your routines by developing and deepening their use. In doing so, you will see how quickly your students learn the routine, practice critical thinking skills, and feel comfortable taking risks as you discover the true versatility of these routines.
Know that you are not alone if you have taken on the role of an interior designer at the beginning of the school year, trying to transform the physical space into a learning paradise. It can be difficult finding the perfect layout when you may know very little about your incoming students. Regardless of how you initially arrange your classroom, be sure that it is conducive to a variety of partner work and small- and whole-group learning, and has a meeting space that can accommodate the entire class.
Once students have arrived, allow them to advocate for the space that they need to learn best in—whether it is a standing space, a wobbly stool, or a seat near the front or back. Be sure to remain flexible when making any changes.
When it comes to displays at the beginning of the year, less is more. Students should not walk into a classroom and feel that it has already been lived in and finished. Instead, they should see blank walls and know that they will be the ones filling those walls and spaces. Within the first week or so, encourage SEL development and language by simply displaying the vocabulary terms that may connect to the five core SEL competencies of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.). You could even post some photos of your students modeling these competencies to create a gallery wall.
We believe in giving students a choice. However, when it comes to partner work, especially at the beginning of the year, it is important to ease students’ uncertainty by scaffolding partnerships for them. One approach to consider is assigning strategic partnerships for different areas—for example, math partners, writing partners, or SEL partners. One way to choose partners is by having prepared craft sticks with a student name on each one and then picking two at random to create partnerships. You might also try using an interactive learning structure such as Maître d’ to test out different pairings. Whichever method you use, be sure that your choice is intentional and does not leave any room for uncertainty or a student asking the question “Who am I going to work with?”
Incorporating SEL Into Your Day
When drafting schedules and blocking out learning minutes, incorporating SEL can seem like another extra add-on that we just don’t have time for. Challenge yourself to think about it differently. When looking at your curricula (both academic and social-emotional), think intentionally about how they can supplement each other and the connections you are already making. You may even find that you can save time with a two-for-one academic-plus-SEL special.
Research by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) indicates that having an SEL-focused classroom is key to effective SEL implementation (CASEL, n.d.-b). A daily class meeting in the morning can be an opportunity to incorporate SEL and at the same time set the tone for the day. It will also start the day with positivity and allow students to develop a strong sense of community. One of the most commonly used is Responsive Classroom’s Morning Meeting, which consists of four parts: greeting, share, activity, and message. SEL elements can be incorporated into the four parts, weaving prompting questions and vocabulary into your morning message to give students a moment to reflect on their own actions and emotions.
A strong SEL curriculum is sequenced, active, focused, and explicit (SAFE). If you are looking for a new SEL curriculum or already use one, look for these SAFE qualities as identified by CASEL (n.d.-b).
One example of a CASEL-aligned SEL curriculum is Fly Five, which focuses on the five core C.A.R.E.S. competencies of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control. Within these core competencies lessons are integrated with literacy components that include read-alouds, reading comprehension strategies, graphic organizers, and written reflections. When reviewing your SEL curriculum look for these components or identify how you can integrate your literacy curriculum. Students will naturally be able to make those connections, so it is even more meaningful when you are the driver of the natural connection that exists.
Throughout the day, it is important to take a moment to pause and allow students a moment to pause. By using mindful moments students can learn to relax and reduce stress, and it will help them practice a conscious management of their thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
There are a number of tools available that will encourage and assist students to identify, name, manage, and express their emotions. Find ones that will benefit both you and the students best.
School to Home
Students and teachers are not the only ones who may have back-to-school jitters. The start of the school year can feel overwhelming for many parents and caregivers. Whether it is the stress of making sure they have bought all the school supplies needed, enforcing earlier bedtimes, packing lunches, or coming to terms with the fact that another year of growth and development has gone by, it’s important for parents to feel that they are seen as deeply valued partners by teachers and the school.
Research has shown that “[e]motions can facilitate or impede children’s academic engagement, work ethic, commitment, and ultimate school success. Because relationships and emotional processes affect how and what we learn, schools and families must effectively address these aspects of the educational process for the benefit of all students” (Durlak et al., 2011, p. 405). Establishing a solid and trusting school-to-home foundational partnership at the start of the year can make a difference when implementing SEL effectively. By communicating SEL language, routines, and activities to be reinforced by families at home, a clear message is sent to students about the importance of social and emotional competencies and how they extend far beyond the walls of their classroom into all aspects of their lives.
A back-to-school night is a perfect opportunity to share daily routines and experiences of SEL with families. When planning your presentation, consider incorporating specific components of developmental milestones for parents to expect throughout the year, as well as how you plan to use SEL to meet the various needs of your developing students. For example:
How does this developmental age group present at home?
How does this developmental age group present at school?
What are the physical developmental growth patterns of this age group?
What are the cognitive developmental growth patterns of this age group?
What are the social developmental growth patterns of this age group?
What are the emotional developmental growth patterns of this age group?
(Based on information from Wood, 2017)
In your communication with families, highlight the ways SEL language is intentionally woven throughout the day in your lessons and classroom discussions. This will set a positive example for parents and caregivers to do the same. Encourage them to serve as role models by sharing their own stories, reflections, strengths, and challenges with their own social and emotional development as a child and as an adult. Providing explicit tips and suggested activities in your newsletters, emails, and general correspondence will provide parents and guardians with the clear and encouraging language they will need to foster meaningful discussions that positively reinforce what their child is learning at school in the context of their own home.
Prioritize Your Own SEL This Year
Sharpened pencils, fresh bulletin boards, and crisp new planners all symbolize the start of a new school year. It’s a time of excitement, anticipation, and hope for students and teachers. During the first few days of school, we carefully identify our learning goals as hopes and dreams for the year ahead. This process is a critical component in establishing a safe and joyful classroom community. For our students, hopes and dreams can serve as a constant reminder of the purpose of school. For teachers, hopes and dreams can serve as a constant reminder of our purpose as educators.
CASEL defines social-emotional learning as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, n.d.-a). Had fictional Sarah Hartwell been more self-aware of the emotions that were causing her to experience those first-day jitters, she might have been able to understand and better self-manage her worrisome feelings. As educators, we’re often so focused on the social and emotional development of our students that we tend to overlook—and sometimes completely disregard—our own emotional ups and downs throughout the day. Use the opportunity of a new beginning to change that: Set and achieve positive goals to prioritize your own social and emotional well-being.
To start, take a moment of quiet reflection to check in with yourself. Reflect on your relationship with yourself as an educator. Why have you chosen this work? How do you prioritize social and emotional learning in your own life? How do you act as a role model for your students? As you begin to think deeply about where you are on your own SEL journey, consider the following questions as you set your intentions for this school year.
What are your areas of social and emotional strength?
How do you authentically connect with your colleagues?
How do you show up for your teammates?
How do you allow others to show up for you?
Do you feel comfortable asking for help?
How do you manage your emotions while at school?
How do you nurture your relationships with your students?
What are your areas of social and emotional growth?
Unlike academic subject areas, SEL is unique in the sense that it can never be mastered; we are always growing. It is important for students to see their teachers alongside them as lifelong learners. For the upcoming new year commit to understanding and managing your emotions, as well as strengthening your relationship with yourself, your students, and your colleagues. Model the importance of SEL competencies by honoring and nurturing these skills and you will set in place the opportunity for the success of students, their parents, and yourself.