Today’s educational setting is often focused on teaching rigorous standards and preparing students for local and national assessments. Math, reading, history, and science are essential core subjects that are being introduced as early as pre-school. However, in order to be successful, students must develop the ability to get along with others, to work cooperatively, and to express one’s thoughts and feelings productively. These skills can be taught through social-emotional training.

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) focuses on developing interpersonal skills necessary for building relationships in and outside of school. It begins with a focus on self-awareness and knowing one’s own emotional cues. Once students understand their own emotions, they can learn to recognize others’ feelings and develop empathy. In an attempt to enhance these skills, schools are realizing the need to embed social and emotional skills within the curriculum.

The Importance of Teaching Empathy and Kindness

While the vision and mission of schools may differ, the goal of educating students is to prepare them for life, including becoming productive citizens in the global workforce. For this reason, it is vital that students begin at an early age to develop the skills necessary for building relationships and resolving conflicts. This starts by teaching children to understand emotions, how they drive their actions, and ways the students can self-regulate to be more productive. Once students grasp their own feelings, they are able to apply that knowledge to others.

Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of another person. Because it is human nature to be self-centered, students must be taught to empathize. According to Stephen Young, a research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, there are three types of empathy.

  • Affective empathy: Allows people to experience similar emotions as others are experiencing. An example would be feeling sad when another person experiences a sad event in their life, such as loss of a loved one.
  • Behavioral empathy: Reacting with verbal and nonverbal behaviors that demonstrate an understanding for others’ thoughts and feelings. An example would be spontaneously clapping when a classmate accomplished a difficult task.
  • Cognitive empathy: Enables people to understand others’ thoughts and feelings. An example would be knowing that a friend feels pain when she drops a heavy book on her foot.

Once students begin to develop empathy, they can learn ways to express kindness to build relationships with peers and adults. Kindness is doing something to make someone happy or to help them and expecting nothing in return. Students will soon discover that kind acts and empathy will help them to work cooperatively and make responsible decisions which leads to productive problem solving.

How to Teach Kindness and Empathy through Social-Emotional Learning

It is probably easy to understand why schools are adding SEL to their curriculum, but the strategies for teaching students empathy and kindness can be more difficult. Because each stage of development comes with its own sense of personal awareness and connections, teachers will want to address SEL for each age group strategically.

Pre-school and Early Elementary School

At this age, students will need to focus on self-awareness. Before they are able to relate to others, students need to be able to identify their own emotions and understand what generates those feelings. Teachers will want to acknowledge acts of kindness specifically by stating, “That was kind of you to share your crayons.” Likewise, teachers can label what caused the feeling by making statements such as, “I am sure you were frustrated when you lost your shoe, but didn’t you feel happy when you found it in the cubby?”

As students begin to develop a language for their emotions, the teacher can emphasize empathy by acknowledging and modeling empathetic gestures. Thinking aloud, a teacher might model this by saying, “I am sure you will be happy if I share my cookie with you. I know we both like these.” Soon, students will be using these strategies with their peers in an effort to develop friendships and strengthen relationships.

Upper Elementary and Middle School

As students grow in understanding their own emotions and triggers, social emotional learning standards can be taught through a classroom culture that focuses on kindness. When students see respect, empathy, and kindness modeled, they are more likely to respond in similar ways; but it is not enough to just model social and emotional skills, these must be strategically and continually taught. This can be done through collaboration, where students are coached and guided through working with others in small groups.

Activities that allow students to actively listen and respond to a peer can further develop SEL skills. It is also important that the social emotional learning activities allow students to discuss how their emotions affect others, both positively and negatively. Participation in feeling surveys may be an effective tool to prompt discussion on the impact of one’s actions. Knowing how one person influences another’s feelings is a very important leadership trait. Likewise, it will enhance students’ abilities to communicate effectively.

High School

As students begin to mold their true personalities and look toward developing future goals, it is time SEL focuses on building healthy relationships and resolving conflicts successfully. One way this can be done is by studying book characters who make good and bad choices and discussing the results of those decisions.

Another way to teach social and emotional skills at this age is through peer interactions. As students become involved in clubs and extra-curricular activities, these are great opportunities for sponsors to further develop SEL. These more intimate group settings provide occasions for adults to teach strategies for self-regulation and managing behaviors as they affect others’ ability to maintain composure.

Social-Emotional Learning prepares students to navigate through a stressful and fast-paced society.

By continually spiraling SEL for students throughout their educational years, teachers are able to help students see the correlation between better behaviors and success. Through these lessons, students will develop empathy and be able to express kindness through strategies that will allow them to flourish throughout school and in their future high-demand careers.