At the surface, school often appears to be rooted in academics alone. After all, students do come to school day in and day out to gain knowledge and information that prepares them for the future. It doesn’t take long for a teacher to realize that one of the many hats that we wear feels strikingly similar to the job of a counselor or therapist. In addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic, teachers have a golden opportunity to help students gain emotional coping skills that are instrumental in setting them up for success. This type of learning, known as social-emotional learning, can be effectively facilitated through writing.

Why Writing is the Best Vehicle for Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning helps students to build emotional intelligence, or the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions while also understanding the emotions of others. It is the type of learning that fosters a safe and productive learning environment and aids teachers in building positive rapport with students. Social-emotional learning teaches students that their feelings are valid and their voice matters while also teaching them to respect the feelings and voices of others. Although academic skills like reading and math are immensely important, students cannot go on to be effective employees, entrepreneurs, or higher education students without the social and emotional skills necessary to regulate themselves and interact with others.

There are many ways to introduce social-emotional learning in your classroom, but I have a valid case for why writing is a superior choice. The first and most obvious reason is the fact that writing is the foundation of academic communication and an integral part of professionalism. Any writing practice builds your students’ writing ability. Aside from the academic importance of writing, it is also a very therapeutic activity. Writing allows students to express themselves, and as I tell my students – “paper always listens.” Yes, you will encounter many students who claim to abhor writing, especially in the classroom. Students often internalize ideals of writing as forced, laborious, and regimented. Social-emotional learning is the perfect opportunity to detoxify your students’ relationship with writing, presenting it as an activity that serves them.

Tips for Incorporating Social Emotional Learning through Writing

Although writing presents the perfect opportunity to implement social-emotional learning in your classroom, there are some practices that can influence its effectiveness. Social-emotional writing is impactful, freeing, and can create defining moments for your students, thus it’s important to handle it with care. Below are some tips for seamlessly incorporating social-emotional writing in your classroom.

Start on the Shallow End

As its name suggests, social-emotional writing has the capacity to be an emotional experience. Asking students to acknowledge and confront how they feel can bring out some intense emotions that students must feel safe addressing. Build up to heavier topics. A good way to set a foundation for social-emotional writing is to have students analyze the emotions of characters before analyzing their own.

Build Relationships First 

In order for students to feel safe expressing their emotions, they have to know that you and your classroom are a safe space. Students cannot identify your classroom as a safe space without understanding who you are and ascertaining whether or not you care. Thus, before wading into the waters of social-emotional learning, it is wise to build positive relationships with your students first.

Have a Bank of Writing Prompts, but Use them Wisely 

It will behoove you to have social-emotional writing prompts on hand. There are many prompts available online for free, and you can also write some of your own. Be careful not to inundate students with prompts, and try to organize them in such a way that allows you to focus on specific topics and skills.

Practice Low-Stakes Writing 

Put away the red pen when it comes to social-emotional writing. This type of writing should always be low stakes, even going ungraded whenever possible. Remember that students are discovering and coming to terms with their emotions and developing social skills. This will look different for each student, and they deserve the space to develop in these areas without feeling judged or stifled. Your unit-culminating essay is not the best time for social-emotional writing. Focus on smaller tasks like free writings and warm-ups.

Respect Student Privacy

Self-reflection can be very personal, and students will have to trust that you will respect their privacy. When it comes to social-emotional learning, I always let my students know up front that I am a mandated reporter, and we talk about what that means. Once students gain understanding, I make them a promise that anything they write is confidential as long as I am sure that their health and safety are intact. Also, students should never be forced to share social-emotional writing with the class.

Let your Students Guide You 

There are many resources that provide a structure for implementing social-emotional learning in your classroom as its popularity is fortunately on the rise. Use premade resources with the understanding that they were not created with your specific students in mind, and be willing to adjust as necessary. As you get to know your students and practice social-emotional writing, allow what you discover to guide you going forward.

Cultivate a Culture of Respect

In order for students to be honest and transparent in social-emotional writing, they have to feel respected and honored in the classroom. This means that you must actively instill respect within your students. Establish zero tolerance for bullying and disrespect. Before allowing students to share their writing, always reiterate that your classroom is a safe space where students are entitled to their feelings without fear of judgement.

Today’s students have seen and experienced things that their predecessors could not have imagined, from senseless violence to a worldwide pandemic. Our students are learning to navigate waters that are uncharted not only for them, but for multiple generations before them. Now more than ever, it is imperative that all schools infuse social-emotional learning into the curriculum. School should be a place where every student feels valued and heard, and social-emotional writing sets the stage for your classroom to be exactly that.