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Posts from the ‘Common Core’ Category

2y + 3x = SEL

It has been almost 6 years since the Common Core State Standards were released. The adoption of common standards in the US has brought exciting changes for students and teachers, and a fair amount of frustration, anger and fear of failure. Although the standards have received many criticisms, Montoy-Wilson, a 2nd grade teacher in East Palo Alto (California), describes them as a tool to address the achievement gap and equip all students with proper tools for the 21st century: Read more

Back to School: And this year we are also teaching SEL!

One of the greatest concerns for principals and teachers who want to bring Social Emotional Learning to their schools is the potential push back they might get from their staff. SEL evangelists might be afraid that teachers will perceive Smud-day-9-630x424EL as something else they need to teach on top of continuing the transition to the Common Core, the new writing curriculum, iPads for all students, teacher evaluation, you name it… making them feel they C-A-N-N-O-T take on anything new. Read more

Class, today we are going to practice our listening skills!

When we present students with a new unit or project, we often explain what students are going to learn. As we were taught in teacher preparation, it is very important to have clear, explicit and measurable objectives for our lessons. Generally, we also explain how they are going to learn this content (through hands-on activities, going to the lab, searching the internet or all of the above). Something that is not so commonly shared with students is the social and emotional competencies that they’ll need in order to learn; in other words, the skills that will allow them to perform the proposed tasks (the how) in order to reach the learning objective (the what).

Why don’t we explicitly tell students the skills they’ll be using when engaged in certain activities in the classroom? You might say that students are ALWAYS practicing their self-control, their conflict resolution skills or their empathy. You’re probably right! However, you should explicitly tell students the key social and emotional competencies involved in a task to build their awareness and help them further develop these skills. For example, if students are participating in a classroom discussion about a literary text, you might want to emphasize that they will be practicing their:

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  • Self-management skills by regulating their emotions and waiting for their turn.
  • Social-awareness skills by actively listening to others and trying to understand their opinions.
  • Relationship skills by working cooperatively.


It is your decision which competency you emphasize for a particular lesson and/or activity. It will depend on your learning goal, the content itself and your classroom culture; the key is to explicitly share the skill or skills with your students. Here’s a suggested process:

1. Explicitly share social and emotional competencies involved. When you introduce a new unit, lesson or activity explicitly tell students which social and emotional competencies they will be practicing.

2. Gather evidence. During the activity, write down a couple of examples of students using the skills you emphasized when introducing the lesson.

3. Reflect. During your closing activity, ask students to reflect on how they felt practicing the skill/s. Did they notice anything new or different about themselves or others? What did they learn? After students share their thoughts, give them the examples you saw. Close by providing suggestions for further development or just congratulating for great work!

Being explicit about the social and emotional competencies involved in learning is a great way to integrate your SEL framework with the academic content you teach. It helps build awareness in students and offers meaningful situations to practice these skills. Try it out and let me know how it goes!

3 Steps to Increase Students’ Self-Awareness: Identifying Strengths and Challenges

Last week, I was rereading my research data and came across this amazing quote from one of the teachers. We were discussing the connections between Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and academic achievement.

I think that SEL is a foundation you need to have before you can get to the academic learning (…) It also reinforces the study skills that they use in order to learn. So knowing their emotions and know their needs has to come first and then it also goes hand in hand with the academic learning when they know their strengths and weaknesses and they can use those in order to learn better.

We could spend a lot of time analyzing each sentence and seeing how this teacher’s insights speak to your teaching practice, as you are transitioning to the Common Core. However, today I want to focus on the last part of this quote: the importance of being able to identify strengths and weaknesses and using those to learn better. As an adult, I can say that it is not an easy task! Admitting your weaknesses is recognizing that you aren’t perfect… and using them to learn better means that there are certain things that you need to improve. Although this is difficult for adults to do (challenging performance review? Difficult conversation with a spouse/partner?), we often ask students to recognize their challenges, and we send them off to start working on getting better.

self_awareness_333Students (and adults) who can identify their strengths will be more likely to build on them to improve their areas of growth; they will probably have a greater motivation and will be more self-confident. Also, working with students on identifying their strengths will help you to know them better, and learn things that they like to do and do well in other parts of their life. This is especially important for students that might be struggling in your classroom, don’t seem motivated or are having a hard time adapting to the new Common Core. You can use their strengths and connect them with the content you teach!

In addition to help students feel more confident and motivated, working with students to identify their strengths will make it easier to talk about their areas of growth, and set up some goals to improve them. Here are 3 suggested steps to talk with your students about strengths and challenges. These activities could be done during morning meeting, check-in time or advisory period.

1. Have students complete a personal inventory. This inventory should ask students to reflect on the things they like to do, the ones that they do well, and others that might be hard and/or boring for them. It should include different aspects of students’ lives, such as school subjects, sports and hobbies, relationships and family. Display these inventories (or a section) in the classroom, a powerful visual reminder that we all have strengths.

2. Help students set up goals based on their strengths. We sometimes tend to set up goals for improvement without reflecting on how our strengths can help us achieve these goals (which might lead to frustration if they aren’t met). When working with students, focus on their strengths as the catalysts for improvement!

3. Refer back to students’ strengths when providing feedback, and check regularly on progress for meeting goals. Students will be more open to hear feedback, if you start a conversation discussing their latest accomplishments or complimenting something they’ve done. Even when you are working with a challenging student, try to start the conversation by saying something positive! And check back with your students on their goals, so you can help them rephrase or adapt depending on the progress.

Helping students identify their strengths is a great way to build motivation, self-confidence and a closer relationship with your students. Creating a personal inventory with students, setting up goals based on strengths and using students’ positive attributes when providing feedback will help build self-awareness in your students, and develop stronger learners. How do you use students’ strengths in your classroom? Please share your thoughts!

Teaching SEL Through Academic Content: ELA, History and Music

In an earlier post, I described the 3 strategies to address SEL in the classroom that CASEL (2013) recommends. The third strategy encourages integrating SEL with academic content, which means that you connect the strategies and vocabulary of your SEL instruction with your subject matter.  In Perseverance in Solving Problems we saw how you can do this connection in your math class. Today, let’s look at other subjects and see ways in which SEL can be integrated with the academic curriculum.

  • English-Language Arts. There are several ELA Common Core Standards naturally aligned with social and emotional skills. For example, those related to describing characters in a story (RL.3.3), describing how a particular story plot unfolds and how the characters respond or change overtime (RL.6.3) or how particular lines of dialanna-karenina1ogue or incidents in a story propel the action (RL.8.3). When teaching these standards in the classroom, you will be helping students identify emotions (emotional literacy), analyzing the pros and cons of the characters’ actions (consequential thinking), and identifying how emotions and actions are connected to motivation or long-term goals. In addition, research has shown (Kidd and Castano, 2013) that continued exposure to literary fiction could increase empathy. My personal pick: Russian novels; exquisite in their description of complex characters and soul-searching processes!
  • History. Teaching history offers a great opportunity for teachers and students to confront the complexities of humanity, in ways that promote critical thinking, empathy and moral development. The language provided by SEL around emotional literacy, self-management, social awareness and relationship building can help you create a safe environment for students to discuss subjects such as racism, immigration, diversity, human rights, etc. At the same time, historical figures can be analyzed through the lenses of social and emotional competencies. If you teach High School, you could use this lesson plan Nelson Mandela & The Fight Against Apartheid to analyze how Mandela used different social and emotional competencies through his fight against Apartheid. Also, Facing History and Ourselves has great resources for teachers (units, lessons plans, videos) to discuss complex moments in history and work with students to understand the range of human behavior.
  • Music. The history of music is full of artists that struggled to find a place in the music scene, were often broke and sometimes lost hope that they would ever make it. Ask students about their favorite musicians and help them analyze these artists under the lens of social and emotional competencies. Another way to integrate SEL in your music class is analyzing songs through emotional literacy. I cannot think of a place where you can identify more emotibrain_musicons and feelings than in music (both with or without lyrics)! You can also discuss how music makes students feel and how different genres might generate similar/different emotions. Music is often therapeutic for a lot of us, try discussing with your students how music can be used to increase motivation or engage optimism!

In order to increase the impact of the SEL program in your class, you can integrate its content and language with the academic curriculum. Addressing Common Core ELA standards related to characters and plots, analyzing historical figures through the lenses of social and emotional competencies or identifying the emotions and feelings that music generate are a few strategies that will develop students’ social and emotional skills while they learn the specific academic content you teach them in class. How do you integrate SEL with academic content? Please share!

5 Ways to Deal with Setbacks

setbackLife has some interesting twists, and sometimes things don’t go they way we expect. After a failure, we might feel lost, embarrassed, scared, upset, or even numb… we might not feel anything at all! At my last post, Perseverance in Solving Problems, I discussed how perseverance, grit and tenacity could be addressed in the classroom by creating a climate that supports challenging goals where mistakes are seen as normal and by developing a growth mindset in students. Today, I want to focus on some specific strategies that can be used to develop a growth mindset and deal with setbacks in your own journey or when working with students.

1. Identify how you feel. When we are dealing with difficult situations, we might feel a mixture of emotions. Being able to name these emotions, without judging if they are good or bad, will help you decrease their intensity and develop self-awareness. According to Damasio (2005), “far from interfering with rationality, the absence of emotion and feeling can break down rationality and make wise decisions making almost impossible”. Emotions contain information that can help us think, and when acknowledged, take a more objective stand in the situation we are facing so we can make better decisions.

2. Don’t be a victim. When we face setbacks and struggles, we might feel like we are victims (of discrimination, an unfair teacher, a bureaucratic system, etc.). When we feel this way, we tend to blame others for the difficulties we are facing. This mindset takes the individual’s power away, making it hard to change things and move forward. Moving away different alternativesfrom a victim mentality starts with self-awareness, being able to connect with our emotions, so we can manage our behavior (instead of just reacting) and move into a position where we can identify new or alternative solutions. Another way to avoid a victim mentality is to take setbacks as part of learning. Embrace challenge as part of life and learning!

3. Identify the lesson that you can learn from it. There is always something that we can learn, even from difficult situations or when we think “everything is lost”. This means taking the time to analyze what happened, learn from mistakes and find ways to make them less likely to happen in the future. Although this can (often) be a hard process, the lessons learned when dealing with setbacks are generally the ones that stay with us the longest. When you are dealing with a challenge or helping students overcome a difficult situation, ask the question “what can I learn from it?”.

4. Remember your strengths and your goals. Experiencing setbacks can make you question your self-worth, your goals, and the things that keep you motivated to keep going. Being able to identify your strengths, and how you can use them to overcome the challenge and find new solutions, will be key to reframe the situation positively and open up space for alternatives. Learning from setbacks often means changing your behaviors in ways that will lead to success, but not giving up on your goals! Having clarity on your goals will help you persevere, even when you are faced with challenges.

hands5. Find social support. Numerous studies indicate that social support is exceptionally important for maintaining good physical and mental health, and may enhance individuals’ resilience to stress. Talk with a friend, coach or mentor about your experience. Others can give you emotional support (someone who can listen when you are upset or scared), remind you of your strengths or offer some strategies that have worked for them in the past. So don’t be shy about asking for help!

According to Carol Dweck, a growth mindset creates a love for learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishments. Having a growth mindset means that we take on challenges wholeheartedly, learn from our setbacks and try again. We won’t be able to avoid difficult situations, but we can be prepared with strategies when they strike!

Perseverance in Solving Problems

The Mathematics Common Core Standards outline certain mathematical practices that students should develop in class. The first practice is “Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them”; this means that students need to be able to make sense of the information in a problem through different approaches, select a process for solving the problem and explain why it makes sense, as well as use alternative approaches when necessary. This practice moves away from  “quickly getting the right answer” to focus on the process through which a solution can be drawn. But how do we teach perseverance to students?

Perseverance, along with grit and tenacity, has been recognized as essential to an individual’s capacity to Perseverancesucceed at long-term goals, and to persist in the face of challenges and obstacles. Researchers have been highlighting for a few years now the impact that these non-cognitive skills can have on students; some of the best-known scholars are Carol Dweck and her research on growth mindset (2006), as well as Angela Duckworth and her work on grit (2007). A recent report (Shechtman et al., 2013) highlights the common findings in research related to perseverance, grit and tenacity, which have direct implications for teaching and learning:

1.     Learning environments can be designed to promote grit, tenacity and perseverance. This means that educators provide opportunities for students to take on goals that are challenging, but within students’ range of proximal development (not too easy or too difficult). Educators should help students connect these goals with their values and interests, so students become intrinsically motivated to accomplish these objectives. At the same time, in order for students to pursue these challenging goals, the classroom climate should regard making mistakes and struggling as part of the learning process, and effort should be emphasized over ability. The bottom line is that you want students to feel safe making mistakes and taking risks, and feel supported in this process of struggling with challenging goals.

 2.     Students can develop psychological resources that promote grit, tenacity and perseverance. Research has shown that social and emotional competencies are malleable and can be learned (and taught!) over time. One of the aspects that often holds students back in their math work is not based on their knowledge of math concepts or procedures, but their academic mindsets. The beliemindsetfs, attitudes, dispositions or ways of perceiving oneself can have a powerful impact on performance and how students react in the face of challenge.  One of these mindsets is Dweck’s growth mindset: “My ability and competence grow with my effort”. You can actually test your mindset on-line and for free by accessing Dweck’s website Mindset. Exploring your students’ beliefs about their abilities and competencies, and addressing them in the classroom, will help you be more effective and help students learn better and be more motivated. In addition to considering students’ academic mindsets in your instruction, there is a second element that will help students persevere in the face of challenges: having specific strategies to deal with difficulties. You can develop a list of strategies with your students for  “what to do when you feel stuck” and post it in your classroom, so students have easy access to this information as they are working on their math problems or other activities. The same process of developing this list with students will highlight that making mistakes is okay and that we often need to use an alternative approach to solve problems.

Developing perseverance in your students is not an easy task or something that will happen right away, but perseverance runningthere are things that you can do to help students persist in the face of challenges: First, create a classroom climate that supports students taking on challenging goals where mistakes are seen as normal to the learning process; second, develop a growth mindset in your students by teaching that intelligence is not fixed, and provide with specific strategies that students can use when they feel stuck. By addressing both the learning environment and students’ individual resources you will be helping students develop perseverance and you’ll be providing the foundation for great learning!


Reflecting to Learn

I recently came across the book “The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching”, a practical approach to teaching and learning that focuses on meaning, purpose and motivation in the classroom and incorporates social and emotional competencies. One of the practices in the model is engaging the self-observer, which the authors Weaver and Wilding (2013) define as cultivating the ability to notice, observe, and then reflect on our thoughts, beliefs, biases, emotions, and actions to make more conscious choices.

critical thinkingThis principle asks students and teachers alike to acknowledge their feelings, thoughts, and actions in order to make better, more conscious decisions, instead of functioning on autopilot. In the classroom, it might translate into creating time and spaces for reflection and self-analysis. This reflective practice, if build as part of a daily routine, will develop students’ self-awareness and self-management, but also help them make sense of their learning. Dewey (1962) claimed that we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. Reflecting helps us to clarify what was learned and, hopefully, it will inspire new thoughts and actions.

Engaging in reflective practices becomes even more necessary now as educators and students transition to the Common Core. Being a critical thinker, which is highlighted in the standards, involves being an active observer, asking pertinent questions, evaluating arguments and being open to examine own beliefs and assumptions (and change one’s mind!). Most of those skills require being able to stop and observe, study and think, and also wonder.  Building time and space for reflection about our thoughts and feelings, and what we have learned, will help students and colleagues to make more conscious decisions and be ready to develop new learning.

Reflective activities will vary depending on the audience, the desired outcome or the amount of time available. These are just a few examples that can be incorporated in the classroom:


  • Journaling. Students (and educators) may record activities, thoughts, feelings and questions in an individual or group journal. Depending on the desired outcome, you could ask students to reflect on the day, what they wish to accomplish or what they have learned. This could also be a time for free writing. Journaling works really well to help students focus after recess or lunch, but it can also be used at the end of the day or following an activity.
  • Group discussion. Listening and speaking are also ways to reflect, and they enhance students’ social and emotional competencies. You can facilitate discussions focused on the content and skills that students are learning in your class, address classroom concerns or build a sense of community. These shared spaces can assist learners to make sense of their learning and the learning of others.
  • Portfolios. Essentially portfolios are a collection of pieces from a learning experience. They help students make connections among interests and skills, and how they relate to what they are learning in school. Portfolios bring a great opportunity for students to reflect on their strengths, and how they could use them to accomplish their goals. Digital portfolios, such as slide shows or multimedia presentations, provide a forum for students to both construct the fruits of knowledge while simultaneously reflecting on it.
  • Art. Some students might prefer to express their feelings or thoughts visually rather than verbally or in writing. Offer students the chance to draw or paint, especially for younger students, as a way to reflect about themselves and their learning.

self_reflectionThese opportunities for reflection should occur, when possible, before, during and after key activities or events in the classroom. We want students to develop self-awareness and self-management skills by encouraging reflection of their starting point and their progress, and by allowing students to evaluate their own learning. Incorporating reflective activities like the ones described here into your teaching practices will develop students’ social and emotional competencies and will help students consolidate what they know so new learning can take place.

Dealing with change

I have recently started rereading Carl Rogers’ classic book On Becoming a Person (1961). It has been a refreshing read, as I reflect on how we (educators, administrators, and parents) deal with the changes and challenges that the Common Core Standards bring to our lives, and how we can use Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to support that change. Here are some quotes that resonated with me:

“The more I am simply willing to be myself, in all this complexity of life and the more I am willing to understand and accept the realities in myself and in the other person, the more change seems to be stirred up.”

i_am_proud_to_be_myself-3979This idea of accepting the realities in myself starts with one of the core competencies of SEL, self-awareness; the ability to assess your feelings, know your strengths and weaknesses, and identify your interests and values, so you can maintain a well-grounded sense of self-confidence. According to Rogers, being yourself is a first step for change and growth. Implementing the CCSSS is going to ask us, at least, to reflect on our teaching practices under the lens of these new expectations and check how aligned those two are. In other words, before thinking that you have to start from scratch because your students will be evaluated on a different set of measures, identify the strategies that are part of your practice that already support 21st century skills.

“It is a very paradoxical thing-that to the degree that each one of us is willing to be himself, then he finds not only himself changing; but he finds that other people to whom he relates are also changing.

change is a processChange can be energizing and a motivator for improvement, but it can also be frightening. The uncertainty of accountability demands for schools, as well as the worry about how well students will perform on the new assessments, or any other concern you might have about the CCSS is going to affect how you feel and deal with this change. One strategy that I have often used with students is having them write how they feel about a particular situation. Try it for yourself! Considering that the transition to the CCSS is beyond your control, this exercise might help you clarify your fears and worries about this change, and reframe your worries to focus on the potential positive outcomes for your students.

When we engage in innovative processes, in our work or our personal lives, we are often faced with uncomfortable situations that might be stressful. Changing or developing instructional practices is a process that takes time; it is something that happens over time when supported by cycles of action, analysis and purposeful reflection on the practice. Dealing with this process of change asks teachers to use another of the SEL competencies, self-management; the ability to regulate emotions to handle stress, persevere in overcoming obstacles, and monitoring progress toward goals. Does this sound like the skills you are trying to develop in your students?

SEL is a process to develop social and emotional competencies in children, and also adults. In this transition to the CCSS, teachers and school leaders are faced with the challenge to respond to these new demands. This transition won’t come free of concerns and stress about how to best support student learning. In this process, remember to notice and identify your emotions, clarify your concerns, and set up realistic goals to improve your teaching practice. Change is a journey, not a blueprint (Fullan, 1993)!

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