Collaborative learning provides a hands-on laboratory for social & emotional learning (SEL). According to the Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the five competencies of SEL are: self-management, self-awareness, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness. When students are required to work together on a project, they are given the opportunity to practice these competencies. However, it is not enough to assign students to a group, give them a task and expect them to thrive socially and emotionally. They need direct instruction about how to work together.  This is SEL. Providing a common language by offering kid-friendly definitions and specific examples of appropriate behaviors crystallizes the often nebulous social and emotional ideals. It is essential that these values are taught before group work begins and then reinforced as group work progresses. For example, Respect is a key trait related to Social Awareness. 

Say: "Respect is valuing yourself and others." 

Ask: "How can you show Respect for others in your group?" 

Listen: Student voice is important. 

Summarize: Repeat their responses and connect them.

Most likely, when asked about Respect students will say "listening when someone is talking." Again, provide explicit instruction: "Yes, listening when someone is talking is a way to be respectful. Respect is valuing yourself and others." 

It is not enough for us to assume that students understand what we mean when we use words like Respect, Responsibility, and Self-Control. We must make these abstract concepts concrete by being intentional with clear definitions and real-world examples. Then we are helping our students be successful. When we observe them in groups, we can then praise them or redirect them according to the common language measure. "I like how you are listening when your group member is sharing her ideas. You are being so respectful." Or "Are you choosing to be respectful right now?"

When a conflict arises between students, as it may, students and teacher can refer back to the common language established. Believe it or not, conflict is a teaching moment. It provides a low-risk opportunity for students to practice their Relationship Skills. When there is tension between students, they can learn how to process an offense or misunderstanding. Forgiveness is putting another's wrongs behind; letting go of anger because of a wrong. You can lead them through these steps: 

The one who was hurt/offended: "You (name the offense), and it made me feel (name the feeling)."

The one who caused the hurt/offense: "I'm sorry for (name the offense). I was wrong. Please forgive me." 

The one who was hurt/offended: I forgive you.

Those three words are powerful! It is not okay to say, "Aww...that's all right." It's not acceptable that someone hurt someone else. However, the pain and anger can be released. That is forgiveness.

Once the students have worked things out, they do not need to bring it up again. Instead, remind them to focus on the task at hand.

Again, collaborative learning provides a real-life laboratory for practicing SEL. Our students are kids... they are learning. Do not expect them to be perfect collaborators. Instead, ask them to be willing experimenters.


This piece was originally published on Education Week's Classroom Q&A blog.