Dr Paul Wright, an expert in social and emotional learning, explains what teachers should know when they teach children how to deal with their emotions.
Isn't teaching about emotions ‘fluffy’ and unrelated to children’s success at winning on teams and acing exams?
How you conduct yourself and treat other people is central to who you are and what you make of your life. Research over several decades has shown that children who learn social and emotional skills flourish academically, are better-adjusted, and more likely to become healthy, productive adults. Social and emotional learning (SEL) helps them do better in the short term (e.g., in sport and academics), as well as the long term (e.g., in their jobs, family relationships, and how they engage with their communities). So no, I don’t think this is ‘fluffy’.
How do you teach children to connect with their emotions?
It is important to think of social and emotional skills as content that you can teach. If you look at it that way, everything becomes clear.
To teach any skill, from geometry to jump shots in basketball, you first have to explain what the skill is. Next, you demonstrate it, break it down into critical elements, let children practise (including allowing them to fail and succeed at it), and finally give helpful feedback. So, if I want a child to become better at controlling their temper, I need to model that myself. I need to make sure they understand what it means to control one's temper, what it looks like in practice, and why it’s important.
Against this backdrop, you are ready to take advantage of 'teachable moments' - unplanned opportunities to share insight with students. For example, when a child is getting frustrated, you can remind them about the importance of controlling their temper and suggest ways to do so, like taking three deep breaths or counting to ten.
It’s equally important to point out positive examples. If a child who struggles with their temper is frustrated by failing a test or being fouled in a game, but manages to keep their cool, you should praise and encourage them.
By making children aware of social and emotional skills, referring to them frequently, and expecting children to take responsibility for their behaviour, you can set positive, clear standards for behaviour. This helps children understand and practise the skills. At the same time, they learn to recognise and reflect on how they manage their emotions – a useful skill in itself.
Finally, I emphasise the idea of ‘transfer’ – using what you've learned in other parts of your life. The ultimate goal is that children internalise these skills and apply them to other contexts.
Is winning children’s trust important? If so, how should the teacher do this?
This is a great question. If we want children to share their emotions and be reflective, we as adults need to model that. If children don’t feel respected, or trusted by adults, how can we expect them to be respectful and trust us in return?
Children are pretty good at reading adults. They can tell when we are putting up a façade or basing our relationship with them on our authority alone. If you want to establish a genuine relationship with children, you need to let some of your personality show. It helps if you are willing to ask questions, give choices, and respect that they are the experts on some things. In my experience, children will rise to your expectations. They respond to being seen as individuals with strengths, opinions, and thoughts worth sharing.
These things don’t happen overnight. Building trust takes time, patience and consistency. So I focus on it, every time I make decisions about what I teach and how I teach.
What about bullying? Is that something teachers need to think about?
Absolutely. This type of learning requires an environment where children feel safe, physically and psychologically. If children are allowed to bully one another, no-one is going to feel safe putting their thoughts, feelings or vulnerabilities on display. In that kind of environment, everyone will tend to be guarded, so as not to become a target.
A teacher or coach who allows bullying to go on implicitly condones it. When an adult has responsibility over a group of children, they have an obligation to make sure all of those children feel safe and are able to learn and succeed. Talking about bullying is an opportunity to introduce and reinforce a variety of SEL competencies and life skills such as self-control, reflection, peaceful conflict resolution, empathy, and forgiveness.
Is it possible to create a learning environment that is too emotionally safe, as per discussion about 'trigger warnings' on U.S. college campuses?
I don’t believe so. To me, a safe learning environment, from early childhood through university, is one in which everyone is free to learn without threat of harm. No amount of social exclusion, ridicule, or bullying is acceptable.
Let me be clear - I do not expect every learning environment to be free from conflict, differences of opinion, and social friction. These situations are a natural part of human interactions. The key is to turn these situations into 'teachable moments’. If I disagree with someone, I still need to treat them respectfully, and I expect the same of them. When conflicts arise, we can teach students how to be assertive without being aggressive, how to maintain emotional control even in a heated debate, and how to consider another’s perspective or the group’s needs in addition to their own desires. These skills don’t always come naturally; they need to be modelled, developed and practised.
This is relevant and useful regardless of the subject matter, or the students’ age. In early childhood education, there might be a teachable moment when children are fighting over who should be first in line. In college, it may appear when a discussion about a social issue, such as gay marriage, becomes heated. Whenever conflict and tension arises, it can be tackled in a constructive way.
Kids are smart. They adjust quickly, especially when expectations are communicated explicitly and consistently. I talk to my students about these issues directly. I tell them that I realise this may not be how everyone in their life interacts, but in my class, these are the expectations, and I explain why.
What are the risks of teaching social and emotional skills?
I'm not sure it’s a risk, but one challenge that comes with this learning process is that children are asked to show their vulnerabilities. So, if the learning environment isn't consistently safe and supportive, they might regret opening up. This underscores how important it is for the teacher or coach to set clear expectations for respecting the rights and feelings of others.
Adult leaders also need to be sensitive to respecting the privacy of individual children. Some might be ready to share or reflect on an issue, but not in public. While one child may thrive on public praise and being given leadership roles, another might shy away or respond negatively. This is why teaching is both an art and a science. We need to teach these skills that benefit all children but be able to adjust our instruction.
Another challenge worth noting is that, sometimes, the values and behaviours we promote in SEL lessons run counter to the values and behaviours in the children’s home, school, or neighbourhood culture. We need to be careful in how we navigate this, so we are not perceived as being judgemental or putting children in a position of having to choose sides.
The way I handle this is by letting them know when they are in my programme, these are the norms and expectations. It is beyond my role to set expectations in other parts of their life, but when they are working with me, this is how we are going to conduct ourselves and treat one another. Against that backdrop, I explain why I believe these are important and useful skills and I encourage them to try them outside my class.
With this said, sometimes my students and I know full well that when they walk out onto the street (especially if they live in a hostile environment), they may need to fall back into typical behaviour patterns in the short term, just to stay safe. Sometimes just giving them the chance to behave differently, even if only for a short while, is a victory. For example, some children have been primed by their environment to respond aggressively to any conflict. When they realise that responding with aggression is a choice, and that they have other skills they can apply, they gain a sense of control and agency.
How does social and emotional learning fit into the context of sport?
Everything I have said can be applied to teaching and learning in any area. However, because sport is active, interactive and emotionally charged, it presents a very authentic environment for SEL lessons. If a child can learn to control their temper while their adrenaline is flowing during a game, they know they have really mastered that skill. The same can be said for developing persistence, in recovering from a loss or a bad performance.
People love to say that 'sport builds character'. I believe that to an extent, but with some qualifiers. Sport has the potential to build character, but not always in a good way. Under the leadership of the wrong coach, sport can teach children to be aggressive, mean-spirited, and unethical. It can teach them to want to win at all costs. So, if we want sport to build positive character, the adults in charge need to be clear about the lessons they are trying to teach.
How have these techniques worked in your own teaching practice?
Many years ago in Chicago, I was teaching an after-school martial arts programme in an inner-city school. One of the students in the programme - I’ll call him Dante - was involved with our programme for several years and gained a lot from it. Dante was a young African American who, like virtually all students in this school, lived in nearby public housing apartments. This community was plagued with poverty, urban blight, gang violence, and illicit drug activity. Dante joined us aged 11, and appeared to be a shy and quiet boy. However, he quickly established himself as one of our most focused students. Dante was physically talented, but we specifically groomed him as a youth coach, because he led by example with his hard work and responsibility. We encouraged him to lead warm-up exercises and teach techniques to new students. By his last year in the programme, aged 13, he had become a confident, mature leader who could teach an entire lesson, including debriefing sessions, with me and the other coaches only supervising.
Although Dante was extremely intelligent and curious, he was not performing well in school. He had self-control issues that resulted in frequent conflicts with his classroom teacher. He and I talked a lot about how the self-control he demonstrated in our programme could help him to be more successful in the classroom. I acknowledged that his teacher never had to be his favourite person, but he had to learn how to control his temper and work with her, or it would only hurt him in the end. Not only did Dante get better at managing this conflict, by the end of that academic year, this same teacher was giving him opportunities to give presentations on science in class. During his third year in our programme, we learned that Dante was volunteering to teach a pottery class for younger children at the local community centre. Even after graduating from our programme, Dante was a guest instructor from time to time, and stayed in touch with me as an informal mentor.
Dante was exposed to wrestling in our martial arts programme and went on to wrestle for the next four years in high school. He even made his way to some international competitions. To me, the most important point here is that this success was possible because Dante stayed in high school and steered clear of trouble for all those years. Many of the 11-year-old students that joined us the same year as Dante had dropped out of school or gotten in trouble with the law by this time. I caught up with Dante a few years ago and we talked about his classmates. Half of those we mentioned were either in jail or dead. Dante, on the other hand, had graduated high school, travelled extensively, and is an entrepreneur. He even volunteers teaching an acrobatics class to prisoners.
I am not claiming that I, or our programme, caused Dante’s success. He is an intelligent and resilient person who came to us as a child with tonnes of potential. What I am proud to say is that I believe we provided a space and an experience in his life that helped him to develop and realise that potential.
This is a success story, but it is important to remember how many children came through our programme that did not find themselves on such a positive path. Although those stories sadden me, I do not consider them my failure any more than I consider Dante my success. I believe this work is important and worth doing, but it is much like sowing seeds. You don’t always know which efforts will bear fruit. In most cases, you never find out what the outcome was. Most teachers and coaches only intersect with the lives of their students or athletes for a short time. However, those interactions can be life-altering. When we do make a difference, it is most likely because of the relationship we built with that individual, how we made them feel, the values and behaviours we promoted during our time with them, and the extent to which we truly concentrated on their well-being and development.
Dr Paul Wright, a professor at the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education at Northern Illinois University, advises the British Council's Premier Skills programme.
A great resource to learn more about SEL is the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Find out more about the specific approach Paul uses.