Meeting Social Emotional Needs Through Collaboration

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(Part 3 of a 3-part series on social emotional learning.)

According to CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), social emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to recognize and manage their emotions, demonstrate caring and concern for others, establish positive relationships, make responsible decisions, and handle challenging situations constructively.  In order to acquire the described knowledge, skills, and attitudes, your students must have ample opportunities to practice and actually be in situations that require them to care for others, establish relationships, and so forth.  

During my previous two posts, I addressed using literacy and community building to help meet the social emotional needs of your students.  Today, I will discuss how consistent and organized group work/collaboration in your classroom can also support your students’ social emotional growth.  Collaborating with peers provides authentic experiences where students can acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills mentioned above.  

Group Work Helps Establish Positive Relationships

Lunch and recess are such quick parts of the day.  However, they are one of the only  chances students have to socialize!  We need to make time for meaningful socialization in the classroom so that they can build positive connections with one another.  My students have partners and groups for every subject area and situation.  First of all, they sit in table groups of three or four.   This is where they sit during independent work.  They additionally have different partners/groups for reading, writing, math, science, and social studies which are either groups of two, three, or four.  They work with these same students on various assignments in these specific academic areas.  They additionally have “turn and talk”  partners and sit next to (and turn and talk to) these students on the carpet during whole class lessons.  They may also have groups for more specific projects.  For example, right now my students are working on a social studies enrichment project: designing “futuristic modes of transportation.”  I have therefore placed them into “design teams” for the duration of this project.

I take a lot of time to think about how I will construct my groups.  I think about their academic level and who gets along with whom.  Sometimes I create more homogeneous groups while other times create more heterogeneous groups.  Throughout all of my decision making, I like to give students an opportunity to work with as many other students as possible so that they can bond with everyone in the class.  

Group Work Helps With Decision Making

A lot of important decisions need to be made while working with others! Students need to decide many things such as: where to begin, what to do, what to write, what tools they may need, if an answer is right/wrong, etc. A group of students may work together on a math game that requires them to roll two dice, add the two numbers by deciding which strategy works best. A group of students may work together on a Reader’s Theater assignment where they are required to first decide which book or play they will perform. Currently, as part of the aforementioned transportation project happening in my class, students needed to decide on a future form of transportation to create. This is a BIG decision that involves a lot of planning and hard work. We need to provide our students with choices in their academic lives.  When they work with others, they are able to collaborate and have rich discussions that help them make these daily decisions together.

Group Work Helps With Challenging Situations and Managing Emotions

What if your students have trouble making decisions together? What if they don’t get along? What if they disagree and have conflicts? What if they have trouble sharing?  These are all examples of challenging situations that ANY group of people can face (not just children!).  We need to teach students how to deal with these situations, and we need to give them the opportunity to even face these situations in the first place.  

One thing I always teach my first graders early on is how to respectfully disagree. We learn specific phrases that can be used in group work when conflicts arise such as, “I disagree with you because_____”, “Do you need help with ______?”  or “Let me help you do _______”.  At this age, my students love to be right and get their way. When everyone thinks they’re right and everyone wants their way, conflicts can arise. These little phrases help spark meaningful, productive conversations between my students. If they are unable to resolve a conflict or reach an agreement (after trying!), then they can ask me for help.

Not getting your way and feeling like you’re wrong can be very difficult, emotional, and challenging for young children. However, they should learn to deal with situations like these at a young age. Through appropriate conflicts that may arise in a group setting, my students learn to share, work well with others, have self-control, and actively listen to what others have to say.  

Assigning Group Roles

Assigning cooperative learning roles is one way to keep your student groups organized and focused. There are a plethora of group roles out there, but I find the following to be successful in an elementary school classroom:

-Facilitator - Makes certain everyone contributes and keeps the group on task.

-Recorder - Writes important thoughts expressed in the group.

-Time Keeper - Keeps track of time and reminds group how much time is left.

-Checker - Checks for accuracy and clarity of thinking as well as written notes.

-Reporter - Shares summary of the group with the class.

When students have specific roles, it gives them a sense of ownership over the assignment. It also gives them a specific responsibility that they need to fulfill. Young children love having “special jobs” - feeling empowered also helps their social emotional growth! I usually distribute laminated copies of the above cooperative learning roles to my students. Like any classroom tool, it needs to be explicitly taught to your class before they use it.

The benefits of group work are endless! Meeting our students social emotional needs is just one advantage to cooperative learning.  Working collaboratively at a young age helps teach children important life skills such as: conflict resolution, making decisions, and establishing positive relationships with others. Although my students are only 6 and 7, this type of work helps to set a solid foundation for effective group work throughout their entire school experience, which ultimately prepares them for life in the real-world.