Can Social and Emotional Learning be Addressed in a Mathematics Classroom?
By Yesenia Reyes
During the last two years of our classroom teaching, a lot of what we knew to be true about teaching and learning shifted. Despite all the professional learning, schooling, and teaching experience we had, it hadn’t prepared us for what we continue to face as we work to reacclimate ourselves and our students to a “normal” classroom setting. Facilitating learning is no longer as straightforward as it once was; referring to a curriculum for guidance no longer applies at times because we’re doing more than just designing or teaching units of study that meet particular standards. We’re also being asked to address unfinished learning and to prioritize social and emotional learning (SEL) while ensuring we provide every student access to those grade-level standards.
As these expectations are conveyed, it’s natural to become overwhelmed with frustration as we ask ourselves how and when all this work can be accomplished.
However, what would happen if we shifted our thinking? What if we moved away from perceiving the “asks” as individual components of classroom practice and moved toward embracing them as opportunities to continue building powerful mathematics classrooms?
Let’s take a closer look at social-emotional learning. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”
At the center of the wheel are five key social-emotional competencies (called the CASEL 5). Let’s dig a bit deeper into this by looking at CASEL’s Interactive CASEL Wheel, which can help illuminate how we can see the ways SEL fits into students’ lives.
At the center of the wheel are five key social-emotional competencies: self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. I encourage you to visit the interactive wheel directly, look at the competencies, and ask yourself, “Where in my classroom is there evidence of SEL work going on?”
When you click Relationship Skills, for example, a list appears that provides sample instances of when this competency is in play. Notice communicating effectively and practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving. Click on Social Awareness and notice taking others’ perspectives. Are you thinking “Yes! That happens in my class!”?
SEL is embedded in the mathematical experiences we design, in turn and talks, in the dialogues students have as they work through misconceptions or disagreements, and in the collaborative problem-solving opportunities we create. Although we are now being asked to address SEL explicitly, it has always been a part of good teaching. The strain of the pandemic caused many of us to shift away from some of our best mathematical practices: student-to-student discourse, collaborative problem-solving, and using rich resources to raise the cognitive demand. As we plan our math lessons, let’s continue to consider the quality of the content, the resources we use to support student learning, and the social interactions that deepen student understanding.
Four years ago, when I was the math coach at my school, I trained to become a Math for All local facilitator. This work built my capacity to understand how to identify and utilize students’ strengths to address their areas of need using the neurodevelopmental framework. This framework sees learning as a multi-dimensional process that involves several interacting neurodevelopmental systems such as memory, language, spatial reasoning, and higher order thinking, among others. When I consider how to address the SEL needs of our students, I use this framework and focus on the psychosocial functions. Math for All summarizes the psychosocial lens as “… provid[ing] a very practical way to view and understand children’s social cognition and their social thinking system.” This includes both social language and social behaviors. This function zeroes in on the social interactions and provides me a lens through which to better understand this component of students at work. This function closely ties into the social and emotional work we’re being asked to do with children in our professional lives.
In my current role as an instructional support leader (ISL), I help schools further the district priority of “connectedness and wellbeing”. My fellow educators and I agree that SEL is a natural and necessary component of creating safe classroom cultures where meaningful learning can happen. It is critical for educators to use opportunities to integrate SEL into content areas. In math, this can be done through intentionally planning rich mathematical tasks.
When I think about resources that allow for integrating CASEL’s five competencies into mathematics instruction, I default to classics like a “Math Talk” or a “Three-Act Task.” Both structures allow students to lead their own learning as they engage in sense-making with one another, analyze information, and think critically as they consider multiple pathways to a solution. Furthermore, both keep student engagement and collaboration levels high, allowing for student voice and individuality, and for creating community, all of which reinforce the social language and social behavior categories of the psychosocial functions.
Another rich mathematical resource that integrates SEL is Steve Wyborney’s Esti-Mystery. This activity invites students to explore estimation in a way that creates high levels of engagement and opportunities for collaboration. To better understand this activity and how CASEL’s social-emotional competencies are addressed through an Esti-Mystery, watch me model how an Esti-Mystery can be done with students or watch me explain how to use Steve Wyborney’s excellent resource.
My thoughts on how SEL exists in math instruction are by no means meant to replace the need for explicit SEL instruction, but rather to serve as a reminder that SEL can be enhanced and reinforced within and across content areas. Specifically within mathematics, SEL has always existed through the mathematical practice standards. This is why we should look not only to the content standards for guidance on what to teach, but we also must be inclusive of the practice standards to guide how we teach.
As you continue to plan and reflect upon your lessons, know that whether you consider the components of the psychosocial functions or the CASEL 5, these lenses are both helpful resources to use as we help our students thrive and develop positive relationships and identities that contribute to their success in any setting. Whether you already recognize SEL work as essential or are about to embrace it as such, know that when done well, you will have a powerful math classroom that feels safe, motivating, and engaging for ALL learners.
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.