Q&A: Professor Pens Guide for Teaching SEL in Elementary School

Audrey Breen

In her new book, SEL From The Start, Professor Rimm-Kaufman created a best-practices manual on how to teach social-emotional learning that offers research-based insights in a fun way.

As students make their way through the elementary grades, they are developing critical social and emotional skills. Research shows that students benefit when educators teach those skills intentionally and cultivate a caring classroom environment. Called social emotional learning, effective SEL can help students manage feelings of frustration, get along with people who are different from them, understand that other people’s experiences are different from theirs, and make ethical decisions even when it’s difficult to do so.

University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development professor Sara Rimm-Kaufman has spent two decades studying how teachers can effectively and intentionally develop their students’ social and emotional skills. In her new book, SEL from the Start, Rimm-Kaufman leveraged her research plus her wisdom from teaching hundreds of college students planning on becoming teachers to create a best-practices manual for elementary school teachers.

Rimm-Kaufman aimed to provide a guide on how to teach that offers research-based insights in a fun way that recognizes the incredible burden educators already bear. In the introduction she wrote, “I pictured teachers scanning the pages as they hovered over a washing machine waiting for the spin cycle to finish.”

We caught up with Rimm-Kaufman to learn more.

Q: Why did you write this book?

In essence, teachers play an important role in children’s development, especially in the ways that children develop social and emotional skills. For the past 20 years, I’ve studied social and emotional learning in elementary schools, spending countless hours with teachers, and ultimately co-developing a new service-learning program called Connect Science. And at the UVA School of Education and Human Development, I have taught pre-service teachers in a learning and development course that included SEL. I used those experiences and combined them to create my message and voice for this book.

In developing Connect Science, we created a program that prepares teachers to engage in science-based service-learning with their upper elementary school students. As part of that effort, we developed a set of lessons on social and emotional lesson with a lot of input from teachers. Time and time again, we would share these lessons with teachers and they loved them. They kept saying, “I’ll use these to start my year!” and “I just love these lessons – they make me excited to teach.” For that reason, I felt a sense of eagerness and responsibility to make these lessons accessible to as many teachers as possible.

This book narrates a process for teachers. It focuses more on how teachers teach than what they teach. It’s designed to inspire teachers to set higher expectations for their students’ social, emotional and collaborative skills. Plus, it gives teachers clear strategies so they can help their students reach these high expectations.

Q: In what ways were you aiming to close the research to practice gap?

We researchers have so much knowledge that doesn’t get shared in an accessible way. In writing the book, I asked the question (and eventually included it in the introduction), “What if I take my cumulative knowledge and my team’s best work and make an SEL book for teachers?”

One of the challenges is that researchers often talk about child development differently than teachers do. I began paying attention to how I engaged with students in my learning and development class. I thought about the needs of teachers with whom I work. Then, I used those experience to create a fun, conversational book for teachers. I pictured these wonderful, energetic teachers in my mind and asked myself, “What can I say that will inspire them to do their best work?”

Also, each chapter has a box, “What would the research say?” that answers teachers’ questions about “why” it’s useful to use some practices rather than others. That way, if teachers want “grab and go” practices they can read the rest of the chapter and ignore the boxes. If they want a bit more background, they can read about the research.

Is there an example of an area of research you were particularly interested in putting in the book?

There are concepts in developmental psychology that I wish all teachers knew because it helps explain so much of human behavior. Research in developmental psychology can support teachers as they interpret students’ behavior in the classroom. So, instead of teachers feeling frustrated by students and taking students’ behavior personally (i.e., this student does this to drive me nuts), teachers have more ways to understand why students are behaving the way they are. Then, teachers’ are more able to take their students’ perspectives, leverage students’ strengths, and be effective even with the most challenging students.

I include ideas from developmental psychology throughout the book. For example, in the chapter on giving and receiving feedback, I describe how people have a very delicate sense of self-worth. That’s what makes it so hard to receive criticism and explains why we get defensive when people critique our work. Then, the recommendations for giving and receiving feedback that follow make more sense.

You mentioned that instead of focusing on a program, you intentionally focused this book on what children and youth need to develop healthy, positive skills and how teachers can create environments that meet those needs. Why was that shift so important?

Programs are helpful because they package good information in a way that is easy to distribute. But they only work if they are good programs and if they are implemented fully. One issue that worries me is that sometimes teachers wait – they assume they need a program to teach SEL. In fact, teachers are already teaching SEL whether they realize it or not. My hope is that this book will support teachers’ efforts and help them be even more effective.

One challenge with SEL programs is that many focus on what to teach, but so much of SEL is about the process and how teachers teach. Just having a program in place at a school doesn’t mean all teachers are able to use it fully and make it come to life so that it has a positive impact on kids. In keeping with this idea, the book describes eight SEL lessons that draw from the Connect Science program. Then, I describe the many ways teachers can create opportunities to reinforce these lessons and explain ways of helping students use their SEL skills in academic work.

At any moment throughout the day, teachers can help kids stretch to listen carefully to each other and speak respectfully to people even if they disagree with their ideas. These moments of support happen in the empty spaces in classroom life -- while students are walking into the classroom in the morning or standing in line waiting to go to lunch.

I also encourage teachers to create conditions in their classrooms that are conducive to SEL – it is essential to establish norms that create a sense of community in the classroom so that everyone feels like they belong. Having good social skills only matters if students feel motivated to apply those skills when they are with people in and outside the classroom. Kids with great social skills can become surprisingly effective bullies! It is up to the teacher to help students value positive social connections to others.

Q: Teaching and learning is happening virtually for a large number of students during the pandemic. How can teachers adapt the principles and ideas from your in-person examples to virtual learning?

So much of the SEL material developed for use in classrooms is transferable to virtual learning. In either mode, teachers can think about teaching and learning from the students’ perspective. What do students need? How can teachers meet those needs? As one example, SEL from the Start describes an approach to managing frustration and anger. Not only does this help students’ understand how to experience and respond to these strong emotions, but the exercises help teachers understand which students have a lot of pent up anger and which students feel calm inside but show a lot of strong emotions to others. This exercise can help teachers be attuned to their students.

It is especially important during this tough time for teachers to be mindful of students’ developmental needs. It’s an important time for teachers to ask themselves, “What will motivate kids to show up and be present in remote learning?” Teachers face the plight of the black zoom screen as kids check out.  A lot of kids are not showing up at all. That brings us to the question – what do children need to be motivated to engage? We know that community and connection is crucial. By asking, “What is the community I’m creating here?” teachers can create a reason for their students to want to show up online. Connection with others can be the hook that gets kids to come to class. Children have other needs that need to be met. Children need to feel competent so they feel like the learning is within reach. Plus, children have a need for autonomy and choice in what they do. They want to know they have individual agency.

A great example of this is when a local third grade teacher, a former student at UVA’s School of Education and Human Development, introduced her class to a new online collection of books, called EPIC!. Her first instruction to the class was for them to visit the online platform and explore. At the end of the exploration, they would each come back and tell the class what they discovered. This activity provided the students with a choice for how to spend their time, choosing books that were at their level and that captured their interest. But it contributed to a shared sense of community as each child reported back to the class and then asked each other, “ooh, where did you find this?”.

Q: What is your message to teachers at this point in the pandemic as it relates to the social and emotional needs of students?

My first message for teachers right now is to be sure that you are taking some time for yourself and reflecting on all you’ve accomplished. In my experience, teachers tend to focus on what they need to do next. As I’ve worked with teachers this year, I often ask them to think of where they were in February 2020 and where they are now. Teachers have accomplished so much!

The second thing is to prioritize relationships in your classroom. Create some of the same norms and culture that you would in your regular classroom. Invest time and energy into creating and sustaining these relationships. Do something every day that is positive and connects the kids to you and each other. Make sure that you check to be sure that you are aware of each student’s interests and experiences in some way. Also, look for ways that this unusual remote learning experience can build strengths in students that can be leveraged in the future. When kids are doing this online work, they are learning a lot of self-management skills. Structure some of that learning of self-regulation and management of one’s own attention into your classroom culture. Be attuned to individual students’ needs as much as you can.

The third thing I’d say is that some kids are just getting lost. Identifying who those are and figuring out ways of pulling them back in is important. Assuming students are showing up for remote learning, one exercise that I recommend is to create a plan for future group work and ask each student (in a confidential survey) to identify three students with whom they’d like to work with on a group project if the opportunity arises. Then, be a sneaky sleuth! Look through your class list and figure out which students weren’t on anyone’s list! Those are the kids that are being left behind socially and it’s important to pull them into the community and create some connections between those students and others in the class without revealing how you know that they are left out.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add?

This book is called SEL from the Start because learning and developing social and emotional competencies is a gradual process that begins with easy steps and becomes more complex over time. Early in the book, I talk about developing active listening skills. Later, students use those skills as they learn to communicate with each other, then show respect for people with different perspectives than their own and give positive feedback and constructive criticism to others. With those competencies in hand, students learn to resolve conflict. None of these advanced skills would be possible unless students are able to be active listeners.

One undercurrent of the book is that students cannot learn new skills if they are too emotionally involved in an issue. As a result, it is wise to teach active listening and giving and receiving feedback in a way that is interesting but not too emotionally laden. So, SEL from the Start recommends using interesting books that keep students’ attention. Then, when students practice the skills, the topics include things like, “Which do you like better, ketchup or mustard?” not, “Which is the better basketball team, Chicago Bulls or the LA Lakers? The latter example may get students too riled up.

Teachers have tremendous influence on students. Whenever I talk with teachers, I remind them that their students are watching them! Actions are louder than words when it comes to SEL. For instance, teachers may do an entire lesson about anger management. But just as importantly as the lesson they teach is to take advantage of moments when they can show the class how to use this new emotion-related skill. So for example, when they get angry or frustrated about a technology issue during class, they can pause and use a strategy that they just taught to calm down. Voilà -- that becomes a teachable SEL moment.

All proceeds from the book will go to City of Promise.