Teacher has no time to teach (badly needed) social-emotional skills

Q: I’m an 8th-grade language arts teacher in a public school in California. My school talks a big game about educating the “whole child,” but we need every minute to get through the curriculum. My students need more than academics, though. I’m amazed at how rude they can be — to me, to each other, to other staff members. They don’t seem to have basic manners down, and class discussions degenerate into fighting. How can I teach them social-emotional skills and civility while also making sure I teach all the required units?

A: Don’t view it as either-or. So many moments can be used to teach social-emotional skills. Set some basic expectations for when students enter and exit your class. Greet each student individually. Get them used to saying “hello” or “good morning” when they enter, and “goodbye” or “thank you” when they exit. When you see them in the halls, make sure you reinforce this skill by acknowledging them. You’re modeling respect and good manners and establishing a tone of civility. As an added bonus, you’ll create a friendly vibe in the building.

At the start of the year, take the time to meet as a class to establish expectations and set ground rules around things such as active listening, cooperation and respect for others’ opinions. When you hold this meeting, frame it as working together to build a sense of community. Capture ground rules in a document that you can refer to as needed.

Use class assignments and discussions to teach both academic and social-emotional skills. They don’t need to be isolated lessons. If you’re discussing a novel, use a turn-and-talk activity to get people interacting. Teach them what it looks like to actively listen. They should make eye contact, and their bodies should be turned toward the speaker. No one should be looking at a screen. Encourage them to practice reflective listening as well. They can take turns stating an idea and then repeating it back to their partner. You can use a timer so students are allocated the same amount of time to speak and no one can monopolize a conversation.

Try to incorporate group projects that give students chances to work on collaboration and equitably sharing responsibility, and debrief afterward to discuss any interpersonal situations they had to resolve. Did any students feel like they had to carry the entire workload? Did everyone feel like their voice was heard and their contributions were valued? What did they learn about themselves from the project? Strong social-emotional skills require self-awareness. When you assign groups, mix them up periodically. Kids with different skill sets can learn from each other. Everyone brings different strengths to the table. You also might do some clique-busting in the process.

When you’re reading, have students adopt the perspective of different characters. Ask questions designed to evoke empathy. “How do you think the character feels? How would you feel in a similar situation?” If you’re reading nonfiction about historical events, highlight examples of conflict. Solicit students’ ideas and use any resulting disagreements to reiterate that people can be respectful even if they disagree.

Notice the small things, too. Do students talk too loudly? Are they respecting each other’s boundaries? Make it clear they need to give each other physical space. And don’t feel compelled to send kids to the counselor to work out every issue. Take advantage of opportunities to bring conflict resolution skills into the classroom. I recognize that even these small interventions may slow down your teaching. Still, I think this will benefit everyone. Your students will be more engaged in the material, more respectful to you and more connected to each other.

Have a question that you’d like Career Confidential to answer? Email to careerconfidential@pdkintl.org. All names and schools will remain confidential. No identifying information will be included in the published questions and answers. 

PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; phyllisfagell.com) is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog. She is also the author of Middle School Matters, available at https://bit.ly/2RNXVu3.


  • I agree with this article but it doesn’t mention assertiveness and emotional self control. These two SEL are crucial and will take specific training. However, these subjects could be woven into classes that emphasize these lessons.

  • Gorgeous and true. I would add to the notion of teaching civility the idea that teaching empathy should begin in preschool. Solve the empathy problem and much will simply resolve itself. 3

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