Making Time for Social-Emotional Learning

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

I’m Retta from Rainbow City Learning, and I am so excited to be invited back as a guest blogger here on Minds in Bloom! I am happy to share with you the ways I’ve found to make social-emotional learning (SEL) a part of every school day.

I know that your teacher plate is already full with all of the standards that you have to meet, the tests you must prep for, and the giant blocks of time that must be accounted for as you plan for Reading, Writing, and Math. I also hope you know the cautionary tale about the rocks, pebbles, and sand in a glass jar.

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

Just in case: A professor shows his class an empty glass jar. He talks about the things we all leave out of our lives too often, such as time with friends, relaxation, and exercise. As he speaks, he dumps some sand into the jar. Then he reminds his students of all the small but necessary parts of each day, such as eating, sleeping, personal hygiene, and travel time to get to school/work. These activities are represented by the pebbles he adds next. Lastly, he adds large rocks to represent the important must-do things in our days: showing up to work, taking care of our families, etc. Of course, the rocks do not fit.

However, when the big rocks are placed in the jar first, followed by the pebbles (gently shaken into place), and then followed by the sand, we find that everything falls into place perfectly. The jar is not overfilled.

If you think of your school day as a glass jar, the large rocks could represent your curriculum, standards, testing, and data gathering that you are expected to cover each day. The pebbles could be the special subjects, recess, lunch, and meeting times. They can all be shaken into place. The sand is how I like to visualize social-emotional learning. It can be easily infused throughout your day, and it fills all the empty spaces. It also supports the larger rocks and pebbles in the mix.

Start with the standards. Map your curriculum. Those are the big rocks. Plan your basic schedule, making space for all the pebbles that fill out your day. Then, as effortlessly as the sand can now drift among the rocks and pebbles in your  teaching jar, add the SEL. Using the graphic below, start at the bottom and make SEL a part of what your classroom community experiences every day!

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

Start with a Song!

I’m not the most musically talented person, but I can sure play a boombox or call up a playlist! I have always used music in my classroom and observed first-hand the way it weaves a magic spell. Find a song to start with that has meaningful lyrics–lyrics that will convey a message that you want your students to hear. Start playing that song during transition times: entering and leaving the room, changing activities or subjects, and even as a “listen up” signal. For the past couple of years, I’ve loved using a tune called “Got Your Back” by Lessia Bonn. The powerful lyrics in this song really help to get that community feeling going with your kids, whether it’s the first week of school or whenever you decide that it’s time to join together as a learning community. I like to change up the music we use for these transitions every four to six weeks, just to keep things fresh. You’ll probably find that your students will start requesting some of the older songs once you get the whole process in motion.

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

Build the Community!

If you already have a class meeting time, try opening the meeting with your special song. If you don’t have a meeting time, then find one time each day or each week to get together as a learning community, as people who care about each other. This will be an important step toward giving your students the social-emotional development they need. Eventually, you will find that the meeting time just uses the same amount of time (or even less!) as the time you have previously spent managing inappropriate behaviors.

Use your song and your meeting time to continually reinforce the idea that “We are a team!”, “We are a family!”, and “We have each other’s backs!” Point out positive examples of students showing care and concern for their classmates, both in and out of class. A true community of learners will be engaged in learning during class time, rather than in chaos, because each has a concern for the learning of others.

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

Post It!

Use colorful posters strategically placed around the room that reinforce phrases you’d like to keep buzzing in kids’ heads. Example: “I’ve Got Your Back.” It’s just as important to keep the reminders of great social behaviors visible as it is to keep the academic standards front and center throughout your day. Writing one positive thought for the day (which reinforces your SEL theme) on the board before students arrive will start them off thinking about that idea as they enter and prepare for the day ahead.

I love using a “Morning Tweets” board in my classroom where students write a thought (140 characters or less) as they enter. Why not try making that a theme-based thought, such as, “Tell how you had your friend’s back in some way this week?” You also might try having an entrance slip on which students record their response to the thought you’ve written on the board.

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

Infuse It!

This is the step where the sand really fills in and blends beautifully with the pebbles and rocks. ELA is the best place for infusion of your SEL. Start with the curriculum you must cover. Look at the picture books, chapter books, poetry, and essays that you will be using as you address the curriculum. Good literature can have several themes. Can you find a theme within your literature choice that also addresses your SEL topic? If so, then it is so natural to mention that SEL topic throughout your discussions of the literature and in your writing assignments. Are the characters you are studying behaving according to the values on which you are working? Do they provide a negative example of your topic?

If you feel that infusion of the SEL theme is impossible within the literature choices you have, can you swap out the current choice for another that will address your standards but with a different theme?

The themes that you infuse can be inspired by the Seven Habits, Life Skills, Habits of Mind, or your school’s/district’s approved behavior support system. You also might want to try working on the specific theme that your students seem to need at the time. I developed a list of themes based on the needs of my fourth graders, connected to songs and literature, and it worked so well for us.

My List
September: Loyalty
October: Positivity
November: Gratitude
December: Understanding
January: Emotional Control
February: Courage
March: Kindness
April: Appreciation
May: Optimism
June: Reflection

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

Notice It!

Keep an awareness of the culture you’ve built together going by referring to it often. As you are developing the concept of emotional control in January, for example, keep referring to all the daily examples of loyalty, positivity, gratitude, and understanding that you see in action every day. Add to your encouraging posters rather than swapping them out. Kids who are surrounded by positive affirmations will want to be noticed in positive ways. Misbehaviors are very often just a cry to be noticed. Kids who are part of a positive and encouraging environment and who see that as the culture of their classroom community will want to be noticed for positive behaviors.

For a year-long road map of building SEL learning in your classroom, including all of the elements covered in this post, you might be interested in taking a look at this bundle of units from Bullyproof Rainbow Resources. Those kids on the cover are my own fourth graders, just feeling the love in a classroom that found time for SEL!

What is social-emotional learning? This guest post explores more about this important educational concept that helps to promote not only positive behavior but also a positive classroom culture and learning environment.

Retta London Rainbow City LearningRetta London is an award-winning Michigan teacher, curriculum designer, and consultant. Her blog and TpT store are both named for Rainbow City, the classroom community she shared with her third, fourth, and fifth grade students for many magical years. Retta is currently directing enrichment programs in grades 4, 5, and 6 in her district using Bullyproof Rainbow Resources. You can connect with her at:

Social and Emotional Learning SEL for Elementary Students

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