Social-Emotional Learning Part V: Social Awareness

This is the final blog in this social-emotional learning (SEL) series designed to create clarity about the five SEL core competencies identified in the CASEL Framework and how to develop these skills in your classroom. I believe SEL skills should be integrated into our curriculum and class culture, not treated as an add-on or separate from the learning in our classrooms. Cultivating SEL skills benefits academic success, mental health, quality of relationships, self-regulation, and classroom management. So, the time we invest in developing these social-emotional learning skills will pay dividends over a school year.

This final blog focuses on social awareness and helping students to appreciate the diversity of people, perspectives, cultures, and social norms around them.

What is social awareness?

CASEL defines social awareness as the ability to “understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.” Social awareness includes the ability to:

  • Take another person’s perspective and evaluate a situation from their point of view
  • Demonstrate empathy and compassion for others
  • Recognize and appreciate other people’s strengths and show gratitude
  • Understand different social norms and how they impact people’s behaviors in different settings and situations
  • Evaluate the demands and opportunities presented by different situations
Social Awareness

To help students cultivate social awareness in classrooms, educators should consider the following questions:

  • How often are students asked to consider other perspectives and discuss why a particular person or group might feel or behave a certain way?
  • How am I helping students to understand other people’s thoughts and feelings to develop compassion and empathy?
  • Am I encouraging students to learn about the various social norms at play in our school or the larger community and how they impact the way people behave in a given situation?

Benefits of Developing Social Awareness

Heightened social awareness can reduce friction and help students to appreciate their peers’ perspectives and strengths, making collaboration and group work positive and productive. Research indicates that developing social awareness can:

  • Reduce feelings of distress and frustration
  • Positively impact classroom management and the quality of student relationships
  • Improve the students’ perceptions of themselves and others (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor & Schellinger, 2011; Taylor, Oberle, Durlak & Weissberg, 2017).

So, how do we help students develop social awareness?

3 Strategies Designed to Help Students Develop Social Awareness

Strategy #1: Cross the Line

Cross the Line is an exercise designed to help students appreciate the diversity of experiences held by a group of individuals. It highlights the similarities and differences between people and their life experiences. This activity helps students understand the impact of prejudice, stereotypes, and bullying.

The activity requires a high degree of trust between the teacher or facilitator and the students involved. The students line up against one side of a room or open space (e.g., yard, gym). Then the teacher or person facilitating the activity reads a series of statements, ranging from the relatively innocuous “You play a sport” to the more personal ones such as, “You have been picked on our bullied at school.” After each statement, students who have had that experience walk across the Line and stand facing the other side of the room. As students stand facing each other, they can see who has had a similar or different experience from them. This can help them develop empathy and compassion for one another.

After the exercise, asking students to reflect on their experiences is essential. You can encourage them to write or draw their reflections. Regardless of the strategy you use, provide students with prompts to guide their reflection.

  • What did you learn about yourself and your peers as you crossed the Line?
  • What was most surprising?
  • Which statements were most painful given your past experiences? Were there times when it was tough for you to cross the Line?
  • How did what you learned about your peers impact how you will treat the other members of this class?

This exercise can be emotional for students, but it is a powerful strategy for raising awareness about the other individuals in their class community. Operation Respect has a resource that teachers can reference to learn more about this activity.

Strategy #2: 4-Corner Debate

The 4-corner debate strategy helps students appreciate the variety of perspectives and opinions in a class. During this activity, each corner of the classroom is labeled: 1) strongly agree, 2) agree, 3) disagree, and 4) strongly disagree. The teacher will read statements like, “Most people are good,” “The United States should limit immigration,” or “Solar energy is the most promising renewable energy source.” Students consider their perspective on the statement and stand in one of the four corners of the classroom that aligns with their point of view.

After students have clustered in the corner that aligns with their thinking, the teacher facilitates a share-out, inviting students in each corner to share their perspectives. The goal is to help students appreciate different points of view and understand how a person’s culture, past experiences, and background have shaped their thinking about various topics.

Like the Cross The Line activity, the 4-corner debate should be followed by a reflective practice to encourage students to think more deeply about the experience.

  • What points did your peers make that you had not considered before?
  • Did your thinking about these statements or issues shift or change as a result of this activity?
  • How has your life experience impacted your thoughts about these statements or topics?

Strategy #3: Peer Feedback

Peer feedback can help students to recognize and appreciate each other’s strengths and demonstrate compassion. Too often, feedback is viewed as a “teacher responsibility.” However, in a learning community, all members should play a role in providing thoughtful and substantive feedback.

Peer feedback is most effective and constructive when it is focused. To ensure students are successful in recognizing each other’s strengths and providing each other with specific suggestions for improvement, they need clear guidelines for giving feedback.

Teachers can use sentence frames to structure focused feedback, provide students with a choice board of options for how they can respond to their peers, or they can transform a rubric into a vehicle for peer feedback.

If you want to learn more about how to structure peer feedback, check out this blog.

We have an opportunity to approach this school year differently with a focus on building strong learning communities and helping students to develop the skills necessary to thrive socially and academically. Cultivating social-emotional learning skills can happen in the context of our curriculum to deepen our students’ understanding of themselves, the content, and their communities.

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