Who Has Time for Social and Emotional Learning?

In our changing field of education, new and veteran teachers alike are feeling pressed to teach to Common Core standards and feel overwhelmed that there are not enough hours in the day to do “real teaching.” Many children have needs made almost unimportant because of the crunch for the time within the school day.

Teachers see some unmet needs in their students and feel overwhelmed that they don’t have enough time or resources to reach their struggling students. In this digital inquiry, you will learn about my trials and tribulations about teaching second grade in Jamaica, Queens through my inquiry process with the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project.

During the 2014-2015 school year, my second-grade self-contained class consisted of nine boys and one girl. This year was the third year these students were together. By the third day of school, they were sick of each other and knew how to push each other’s buttons. I was having a hard time de-escalating any of their problem behaviors. I had a few other teachers in my building who had joined Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project (TCICP) Inquiry-to-Action Teams in previous years and this year seemed like the perfect opportunity to join to seek some outside perspective and gain new ideas.

My Dilemma

Starting off a new year, it is always exciting and nerve-wracking to discover the student’s likes and dislikes, how they learn, and what makes them excited to learn. My class knew each other for two years already and I, as their new teacher, was the outsider. The class didn’t need time to be introduced to each other. Starting from the first moment, they knew each other’s strengths, weaknesses, fears, and triggers.

The students in the class had classifications of speech, language, and intellectual disabilities. In addition to having special needs classifications, some were assessed as English Language Learners. At the beginning of the school year, there was physical aggression that led to physical altercations on a daily basis stemming from three boys and off-task defiance from one boy. 

I started the year creating class rules and class jobs, setting up our room, clarifying and practicing set routines, and using music and activities to manage transitions and breaks. I was very stern about expected classroom behavior and treating each other with respect to create a safe, learning environment. Try as I might, the students had different needs and strengths. Having a few conversations with individual children wasn’t curbing the explosive physical behavior.

All of my usual tricks in my teacher toolkit were not decreasing the problematic behavior. The most common negative behaviors were pushing, hitting, punching, kicking, screaming profanities, throwing objects, hiding under tables, climbing on the furniture, and rolling on the floor. Needless to say, it felt like I had writer’s cramp from filling out tons of paperwork, OORS reports, and anecdotes. I felt like a corrections officer, not a teacher. I was burning out faster than in previous years but I was determined to reach my students and help them learn and grow.

I needed to find a solution to quickly nullify their defiance and aggression and increase their student engagement, so I joined TCICP’s Inquiry-to-Action team, Positive Behavior and Restorative Justice Practices

My First Inquiry

For the past couple of years, I have had THOSE specific cases, those kids who were mysteries to me, and everything I tried I could not reach them. I thought, “They were too far gone, their lives were too hard, their parents didn’t care, their disabilities were too profound, and if I couldn’t reach them then nobody would be able to reach them.” This past year, I became fed up with my own excuses and decided to really dissect my classroom management and my teaching repertoire and find some answers at TCICP.

I started by trying to boost my classroom management skills by curbing their explosive behaviors. I thought that my students thought that I was too nice or too weak, and I needed to be strict with my routines, classroom expectations, and micromanage every behavior. So that’s what I did. I set routines, clear expectations, visual schedules, and set specific times during the day for movement breaks. Then I dove into the work of Universal Design for Learning with Stacey Schultz as my staff developer.

I started my inquiry with this question in mind: “What are my students’ lagging skills that are preventing them from engaging in my class?” I was thinking of my classroom through a Universal Design for Learning framework. I thought about each individual student and their specific needs. For some students who had processing issues and speech and language disabilities, I previewed the lesson with them. Ahead of time, I gave them the pages we were going to stop on in the read-aloud text. I taught reading and math in stations. I modified their work based on assessments and conferences to make the curriculum accessible.

The student engagement increased and the physically aggressive behavior minimized from daily to weekly. But I was still plagued by those explosive moments. I felt like the ring leader in a circus or the “helicopter mom” scenario where I was hovering over everyone all the time to immediately reward the positive behavior and put out fires. I was going home exhausted and burning out. I felt like the strategies I was using were working, but not well enough. There was a missing link. I felt like there was a better approach. I needed something else.

It was just before December break and I decided to take the opportunity of coming back to school the first week in January with a fresh pair of eyes and go back to “kid watching” to see what it was that I was missing.

First Inquiry Data

Here are some strategies that I attempted to use to decrease physical aggression and increase student engagement:


My classroom square footage was too small to do yoga safely and the students weren’t engaged enough to do concentrated breathing and upper body stretches in their chairs. It was a really great approach but didn’t work for myself and my students. I tried it a few times but didn’t carve out time each week to dedicate to doing yoga. Without doing it consistently, I did not see any of its proven benefits in my classroom.

Restorative Justice

Restorative Justice is a wonderful idea and practice but without doing it on a regular basis it was hard to manage. It is an approach that requires consistency over time. I attempted to do it two times in my class; however, it took over an hour. My students had difficulty sitting and listening to each other. Some had difficulty processing and responding to what their classmate had shared about their thoughts and feelings. So I didn’t think it was the right approach for my students at this time.

Cozy Corner

The “cozy corner” is an area in the classroom that has minimal distractions and minimal stimulations. I had first seen it at a school intervisitation. My cozy corner has a bean bag chair and a few calming activities where students can go when they are frustrated, upset, or any time when they feel like they need two minutes to unwind and then can rejoin the class. The cozy corner has a Sign In and Sign Out sheet. It also has very specific instructions with icons that the class created together. Some calming activities include a finger labyrinth, thick paper to rip, marbles in a bucket of clay, and glitter glue in a water bottle. Each activity has specific instructions to encourage independence and good management. I find the corner to be extremely helpful for students with sensory needs and attention difficulties. It really promotes self-regulation skills.

Finger Labyrinth


Calm Bottle

Feelings Journals

In a notebook, I had students write or draw about their feelings. They could write about what they were feeling at that moment. Of course, the students were told that anything extreme or inappropriate needed to be discussed and followed with the appropriate protocol. However, they were free to write about anything that was bothering them.

My Instructional Methods

Regular teaching was not meeting my students’ needs. I decided to change my instructional methods and the way I delivered my teaching points by changing up my daily flow. After kid-watching, I noticed my students were having the most difficulty concentrating during the first period and right after lunch, so I put the subjects they liked the most and engaging lessons during those times.

Instead of teaching my mini-lesson to the whole class, I modified integrated co-teaching models to a special class setting. My students responded to stations. I created very engaging stations and set clear routines for independent groups and transitions. My students carried through the routines of stations fairly well. Eventually, I expanded stations from math to reading and writing workshops as well.

What Worked:

  • Modifying student work based on interests, accessibility, and self-regulation strategies

What Didn’t:

  • UDL approaches did not decrease physical aggression but moderately increased engagement

After all of this hard work and all of this thoughtful planning, my student’s physical aggression was still there. I was baffled as to how this could be. I was giving 110% of myself. I was trying all of these proven techniques and methods; yet, my classroom still had physical altercations on a weekly basis.

My Second Inquiry

After taking a step back and observing students, I realized that the majority of my students’ interactions with each other were negative, either seeking peer attention in a negative manner or avoiding peers or tasks. I also noticed that my students were incredibly dependent on me, the teacher. They relied on me for every little–or big–disagreement or frustration.

I was the one suggesting the coping mechanism or solution. Even though they were using the coping strategies and tools, they weren’t independently self-regulating or getting what they needed to cope at that moment. After recording data, and having many conversations with colleagues and sharing my questions and progress with TCICP, I changed my thinking.

If what my kids truly need is explicit social-emotional learning (SEL): How do I fit it into the schedule? How do I get administrative approval to cut something out or “squeeze it in” and teach SEL every day or every week?

The constant struggle of the special educator in a community school: teaching the content to the standards versus teaching what the students need (or how to find the time to accomplish both). This special educator took the plunge with the support of my administration and the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms inquiry-to-action team.

My new inquiry question: Does social and emotional learning increase student engagement and decrease problematic behaviors?

I started my social-emotional instruction during Random Acts of Kindness week which culminates on Valentine’s Day. Because there are only ten students in the class, I knew it would be difficult to achieve our goal of 100 Acts of Kindness in one week. So, I took the liberty of extending it and making our event last a whole month. Each week we had a mini-goal and a focus population, first starting with our friends, then branching to kids in the class that students don’t usually talk to, all the way to school-wide notes of encouragement to the upper grades who were about to take the state test.

We watched videos about acts of kindness. We read books about kind characters such as Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson and Paulie Pastrami Achieves World Peace by James Proimos. We made charts about acts we were capable of doing on a daily basis. We also had discussions about how making others feel good made us feel in turn. When we started mailing anonymous notes to other kids in the school, my classroom really got into it. They were asking me for ten minutes at the end of the day to write an anonymous note. For example, “Your smile brightens my day,” or “You’re the best, you can beat the test!” We created a class team name, “The Cool Kind Kids.” Our class had a fun little secret that we couldn’t tell anyone else in the school.

Having our little secret together had a bonding effect that I wasn’t expecting. Students who had previously thought of each other as [fill in any profanity under the sun] were soon whispering and giggling together. They were sitting next to each other at lunch and playing together at recess. They were helping each other come up with cute phrases to send to the third graders taking the test and designing adorable cards together. They loved that we were “The Cool Kind Kids.”

Each of our little seemingly insignificant acts, such as holding the door for someone else, getting a pencil for someone, and letting someone go in front of us on the lunch line, was capable of making a huge change in our school. It made each of my children feel important and significant. They understood and were learning that they held within themselves the power to change our environment positively.

Once the social and emotional learning became palpable, there was a major shift in the classroom culture. Social-emotional Learning made it possible for my students to independently take ownership of their own learning and aided in their feeling of success and accomplishment at school.

In the chart below, you can see the dramatic decrease in off-task behaviors after we started the Acts of Kindness work; in turn, you can see on-task behaviors increased.

Curriculum Resources

Below, you can see some curriculum resources for implementing social-emotional learning into your classroom.

Social and Emotional Read Alouds

When Sophie Gets Angry, Really Really Angry by Molly Bang

Agate: What Good is a Moose? by Joy Morgan Dey

My Mouth is a Volcano by Julia Cook

Finn Throws a Fit! by David Elliott

Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes

Even If I Said Something Awful by Barbara Shook Hazen

Sour Puss and Sweetie Pie by Norton Juster and Chris Raschka

King of the Playground by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

Stand Tall Molly Lou Melon by Patty Lovell and David Catrow

Just Kidding by Trudy Ludwig

My Secret Bully by Trudy Ludwig

The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill and Laura Huliska-Beith

One by Kathryn Otoshi

Zero by Kathryn Otoshi

Sorry! by Trudy Ludwig

How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids by Tom Rath

Courage by Bernard Waber

Odd Velvet by Mary E. Whitcomb

Lesson Plans: Random Acts of Kindness

Day 1: 

Students will talk about what “kindness” means and jot down an idea.

Students will watch a short clip of a song about random acts of kindness. Then, students will then stop and jot down some thoughts on what they see and notice in the clip.

Next, students will watch another clip of people showing random acts of kindness.

On the board, the teacher charts: “What are the ways that WE can show kindness?” Students will voice suggestions on ways that we can show kindness in our school and in our class.

Create a table of 10 boxes x 10 boxes (100 boxes total). Every time that the class performs an act of kindness, one heart sticker will be placed in a box until 100 acts are reached. If the goal is reached, then the whole class receives an award like going to the gym and dance the Cupid Shuffle.

Day 2:

Students will view a video about, “What is kindness?” Following the video, the class holds a discussion about more examples of kindness, adding to the chart created on the board during the prior class meeting.

Then, after passing out pieces of paper, the students will make cards. Instruct the students, “Let’s make a beautiful card for someone in our school and put a positive note on it.”

One example might be, “You are smart. You can do it. You have a great smile. You make the day bright. You are beautiful, just the way you are.”


What I Learned

Any child with any background can achieve homeostasis in the classroom, given the proper tools and the opportunity to take ownership of their decisions. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an important missing link in many schools and is present in some children’s lagging skills. SEL needs to be more integral in the school day. SEL and character education needs to be taught to all children, not just students with counseling services and not just students with disabilities.

My next steps are to start SEL and character education at the beginning of the school year and continue it throughout the school year.

More about the author: Amanda McKenna