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Building Better Humans: Nurturing Social-Emotional Learning in Early Elementary Education

by | Apr 18, 2024 | News | 0 comments

When children begin their elementary school journey, they bring with them diverse experiences and backgrounds and are sometimes lacking in the key pro-social skills that are necessary for academic and personal growth.This makes focusing on social and emotional learning (SEL) in early education crucial.

This month, we asked long-time educators–and Thriving YOUniversity partners–Liz Toruno, Janeen Antonelli, and Jessie Fuller to share their insights into how we can better understand and meet these pressing needs.

Key Social-Emotional Skills

Some of the key social-emotional skills that are crucial for early elementary students to develop are listening, following directions, personal space, asking for help, and managing emotions. What are some ways educators can help early elementary students learn these skills?

Liz: Students often have emotions that are too big for their bodies. The best way to change a student’s behavior is to change your own! Adults can benefit from leaning into emotions rather than running from them. It’s important to note that most of these happen in natural settings (modeling, explicitly and using visuals etc.). Students learn skills when they are given in a few steps (about 3-5). It’s important to have a common language so everyone speaks the same language!

Integrating into Every Day

Knowing the importance of these skills, how do you suggest educators incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) into daily routines and activities in early elementary classrooms?

Jessie: Educators can incorporate SEL by using more interactive structures during learning. Often when folks hear SEL, they often focus on the “E,” but learning should be social and we develop social skills and communication skills by being given lots of opportunities to interact with others. So for example, giving kids discussion starters (like our Flip Frame Conversations resource), doing concentric circles, zipline, back to back, four corners, etc. as a way to process academic concepts and content.

Janeen: SEL is an integral part of academics. At Thriving YOUniversity, we like to put the A for academics in an call it SEAL. Think of social emotional learning as a way of being, not as one more thing to do. Responsible decision making, self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness are all needed to do math, learn to read, work in groups, and handle conflict. Doing belonging activities, role playing, greetings at the door, teaching of kindness, compassion, gratitude, these small things all reinforce the core SEL competencies.

We can also embed critical thinking and problem solving within lessons (allowing students to collaborate with each other, role-play, scenarios etc.). Social skills taught throughout the year can be reinforced in real time (e.g., a student who is talking out of turn can be reminded of the steps to following directions).

Liz: SEL needs to be integrated within lessons. In early elementary that might look like pausing throughout a read-aloud story and discussing character emotions (e.g., “how do you think Elmo feels?,” “What can you tell or do for a friend who is feeling sad,” “How do you know if someone is sad, what is Elmo doing to make you think that he is sad?”). Incorporating SEL and teaching social skills help decrease impulsive behavior and increase social competence. They are not ‘soft skills’ they are LIFE skills that help create better humans.

What are some specific strategies or exercises that educators can use to effectively teach social skills to young children?

Liz: Real time experiences as they occur. Everything is a teachable moment. For example, if the class is being mean to each other the teacher can talk about how negative comments can make others feel and remind them of their empathy skill (in steps). Skills can be taught in isolation but MUST be reinforced throughout the day, It should not be a time block, it’s something we do all day! It’s also important to share the skills being taught at school with parents to ensure they are reinforced at home.

Jessie: And giving LOTS of opportunities to role play! For example, I was trying to teach the skill of trying to advocate for yourself with a teacher to my own [elementary-aged] kids. We broke down the skills involved with that and then role-played several different scenarios where I was the teacher and I acted out several of the possible different ways that a teacher might respond and my kids had to use some of the different skills we had talked about to handle the situation.

Janeen: Our Bite-Sized SEL toolkit is a great tool for teaching social skills as well. It is a Google slide deck of 180 slides each containing 5 activities to teach SEL. Along with community skill builders and core competencies, the toolkit incorporates character values into each month. The character values covered are belonging, compassion, dignity, empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, humility, integrity, justice, kindness and love.

Of course, one of the best ways to teach these skills is to model the behaviors you want to see in your students. Have your own self-awareness and identify your triggers. What are some things students do that prohibit or challenge your ability to co-regulate? How can you get into the right headspace when you enter the classroom or school setting or even a meeting?

Peer-To-Peer Relationships

We often hear that today’s students have a hard time with interpersonal relationships and general social skills. What role do peer relationships play in fostering social skills development, and how can educators facilitate positive interactions among students?

Jessie: I think creating a regular culture of kindness and optimism where students are looking for the good can be extremely helpful. One teacher I know uses “toodling ” instead of tattling. So at the end of each week, she asks her students to “toodle” on one of their classmates that they saw either being __________ (they fill in the blank) kind, respectful, helpful, etc.

Also, giving students designated roles/jobs in class where they feel like not only what they do matters, but what classmates do matters, is hugely impactful. In elementary, I would make sure to have enough so that everyone has a role.

I recently went into the classroom of an elementary teacher’ who had this brilliant list of jobs and the kids all took their roles so seriously! One student was a greeter, so any time someone knocked on the door, they were to open it and greet the person. Another two students were responsible for welcoming the guest to the class and sharing with the person their classroom constitution. It was the coolest thing to see in action, and it makes the classroom a more enjoyable place for both students and teacher to be in.

Janeen: It is important to remember we can’t just tell kids to “get along” we have to teach them how to get along. Doing belonging activities, demonstrating empathy and building trust in the classroom will help with positive interactions and positive relationship building. One of the 8 skills in our Social Skills Toolkit (SSTK) is Engaging Positively with Peers, which helps with actively learning how to interact appropriately. The SSTK also helps to reinforce a restorative community and a common language for all adults.

Tailoring Interventions

What are some ways educators can assess the social-emotional needs of students at the early elementary level, and how do you tailor interventions accordingly?

Liz: It’s ordinary magic! Direct observations and self-assessment/reflection and/or student feedback. Simple questions like “do you feel connected to students in the classroom?” or “do you feel you can make mistakes in this class?” Can serve as pre and post surveys to see if the skills are making an impact.

Janeen: Doing check-ins, getting to know your students on a personal leveling, creating trust, and knowing your community. Also, your MTSS can help you identify behaviors that may need more independent support.

Social Skills Toolkit

You mentioned Thriving YOUniversity’s Social Skills Toolkit (SSTK) earlier. How does the SSTK differentiate itself from other resources or programs aimed at teaching social skills to early elementary students?

Liz: The SSTK is different from other programs because it teaches specific steps for various social skills. Having 8 tools is easy to remember thus, creating a common language on campus. Having various lessons on SEL doesn’t always stick– students need to hear the same language across campus from all adults. The SSTK allows for adults to remember the SSTK skills and reinforce them as part of their Tier 1 structures.

Janeen: Yes! Too many steps prohibits re-teaching. SSTK is research-based and designed by those who are actually in the classroom and on campus. It is simple and easy to facilitate. SSTK also allows for flexibility.

Liz: The SSKT also provides visuals for students and provides simple steps to remember the skills, which means students with English as a second language or with individualized plans can benefit as well.

Can you provide examples of specific tools or activities within the Social Skills Toolkit that have been particularly effective in promoting social-emotional learning in young children?

Liz: There’s a big difference between acquisition and performance deficit. We have students who are “can’t do” and students who are “won’t do.” We often punish students for skills that they don’t possess. A student will ALWAYS fail if the environment is asking them to use a skill they don’t have. It’s time we start teaching the skills we want to see.

For example, a student who “talks back” may be put on a behavior contract but the challenge is that the student doesn’t have the skill to meet the contract. Instead of a contract the student needs the skill of “accepting a No.” The SSTK explicitly teaches the skills that teachers have expressed is the biggest need in the classroom.


As educators, we have the opportunity to shape not just kids’ minds but also their hearts. By weaving social and emotional learning into our daily routines and using tools like the SSTK, we can help kids become more caring, resilient, and confident individuals. Together, let’s embark on this journey of nurturing social-emotional well-being in our early elementary classrooms, creating spaces where every child can thrive.

Want to know more? Click to watch a demo of the SSTK

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