Social-Emotional Learning: Be Emotionally Literate


Telling students, “Be respectful!” or “Be responsible!” and expecting them to immediately comply is as ludicrous as telling them, “Be literate!” and expecting them to instantly read; or “Be athletic!” and expecting them to promptly become strong and well-coordinated.  As everyone knows, in order to “be literate” one must learn some basic information and master some fundamental skills: understanding that words and letters in English are written and read from left to right; understanding letters; having phonemic awareness; being able to blend sounds; etc. And, of course, “being athletic” requires the development of fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, strength training, cardio conditioning, and so on.  Similarly, principles such as respect, responsibility, self-control, and empathy need to be taught directly and systematically.

Some might argue that students should be learning these things at home. Many are.  We can support those wonderful parents at school by extending and encouraging those character traits.  Many other students, however, come to school with only a vague idea about the meaning of “responsibility’ or ‘respect.” Other than perhaps sensing that they’re supposed to be those things, they have little understanding what these values look like in action. Further complicating the issue is the fact that these principles mean different things in different contexts: home, school, on the bus, etc. If we truly want kids to be responsible – the focus of this article –  we need to intentionally teach the skills and sub-skills necessary to becoming “responsible.” For example, one component in taking responsibility is understanding that all behavior – every word and every action –  is chosen. Human beings have free will. Consequently, we are ultimately responsible for the words and actions we use.  We can’t blame our irresponsible behavior on other people or things. (Well, I guess we could, but that just wouldn’t be “responsible,” would it?)

What follows is an approach to teaching some fundamental concepts that are the foundation of personal responsibility.

Teaching Students the Foundational Principles

 Goal:  Students will demonstrate an understanding that:

1.     Every human being experiences multiple influences.

2.     Every human being experiences adversity.

3.     Human beings have free will:

a.     We have an internal center of control and

b.     We have the ability to choose our behavior despite our circumstantial influences and challenges.

4.     Every choice has a consequence: positive, negative, or neutral.

Group Discussion:  Influence

I like to ask students what kinds of influences they experience.  It’s fun to talk about TV commercials.  What commercials do you like?  Dislike?  What are commercials trying to do? (“Right. Get us to buy stuff.  To influence us.”)  What does “influence” mean?  What other people, organizations, media, or things influence or try to influence us? (Students might mention family, friends, genetics, music, movies, sports stars, celebrities, pop culture, ethnicity, age, physical and mental health, gender, and more).  Finally, ask why it is important to be aware of the influences in our lives.

The Fist: After students have discussed influences, “The Fist” helps them understand the concept of the internal center of control. You begin “The Fist” by explaining that they are going to participate in an activity that makes some important points about behavior. Next, pair students up. It’s best if they are working with someone who is not a close buddy. After they have a partner, tell them they have 5 seconds to decide who is Partner A and who is Partner B. Next, explain to them that you are going to give them all a job, and that it is important that they all do their best at accomplishing the job you’re going to give them. You might mention that it doesn’t require a great deal of effort or skill, that it doesn’t hurt, and that it only lasts a minute. Then ask for a commitment that they will do the best they can to accomplish their task.

Next, explain the tasks as follows:

Partner A: When I say “Go!” your job is to make a fist and keep it closed for one minute, no matter what. Don’t use it on anyone. Just keep it closed. Any questions?

Partner B:  Your job when I say “Go!” is to persuade your partner to open his or her fist, using any means at your disposal, EXCEPT you can’t touch your partner AND you can’t touch your partner with anything. (That second part is for the young loophole finders: “I didn’t touch my partner. The point of my pencil did!”)   Use your creative persuasive abilities. Think about what you do to get your parents or your brothers and sisters to do what you want. Any questions?

After you say, “Go,” you might want to move around the class, monitoring behavior and listening for the kinds of strategies the students employ. After one minute, say “Stop.” Next, ask how many Partner B’s were successful in getting their partner to open his or her hand. A few hands might go up. Bring to their attention the low number of hands raised. Ask what strategies worked, and start recording a list. After you record the list of the strategies that were successful, ask the students to tell you the strategies that they tried. You will see many of the following persuasive strategies, or attempts to influence:

Asking                                                            Nagging

Reasoning                                                    Yelling

Telling                                                            Threatening

Rewarding (Bribing)                                    Lying

Appealing to the relationship                    Verbally attacking

Negotiating                                                   Punishing

Tricking                                                         Humiliating

Reverse psychology                                  Physical Intimidation

Guilting (shaming)                                      Physical Force

After developing the list, ask the students, “What can we say about people and behavior based on this activity?”  If this question is too open-ended, you might follow it up by asking, “Can your partner MAKE you open your fist?” or “Whose behavior can you control? What connections can you make between your partner’s attempts to influence you and the other influences (and adversity) we experience in life. With some discussion, you should be able to get consensus that:

1) People and other influences do not make us behave. If individual students opened their fist, it is only because they chose to open it. (Even if someone physically overpowers us, their influence is only temporary.)

2) Therefore, we choose our behavior, even in the face of strong influences or adversity.

This activity will take students a long way toward understanding that they are in control of their behavior and that they are responsible for their choices. I recommend you follow “The Fist” with the following class meeting.

The “Have-to” Discussion:  I have learned that even “The Fist” activity does not convince all students that they choose their behaviors. There are two main reasons for this. First, many students believe that they are constantly being told what to do and what not to do at school and at home. Secondly, if we have something or someone to blame for our choices, we are free from taking responsibility for our behavior. I have used the following class meeting many times to help students understand that all behaviors are chosen and that all behaviors have consequences: positive, negative, or neutral.

Ask students to turn to a neighbor and discuss all the things during a typical week that they “HAVE” to do, both at school and at home. After a few minutes, ask each student share one thing that they discussed with their partner, while you list the things they mention on the board, the overhead, or on a flip chart. The list will include things like:

Taking a shower                                    Feeding the dog

Sleeping                                                  Eating

Taking out the garbage                         Mowing the lawn

Watching little sister                              Breathing

Going to the bathroom                          Playing video games

Going to softball practice                      Doing homework

Next, tell them that you are going to challenge their list. You might go right down the list and ask, for example, “Do you really HAVE to take a shower?”  The students will respond with a loud, choral “YES!” and some giggles, but there are usually a couple students who will say “No.”  “Isn’t that interesting,” you might say, “if we really HAVE to take a shower, then everyone would have said ‘Yes.’  Is it possible to go a week and NOT take a shower?  Do you think anyone has ever done that?”  Some students will see the point and agree. If not, you might explain that in medieval Europe it was considered unhealthy to bathe too frequently. Bathing as infrequently (by modern standards) as once a week was considered far too often. You’ll get some “Yuck’s” and some “Ewwww’s,” but persevere!

Ask, “Why do we feel like we HAVE to shower every day?”  They will say something like, “If you don’t you’ll smell bad!”  “Right!  There is a CONSEQUENCE that we want to avoid, but we don’t HAVE to shower, right?”

Most will concur. Cross “Take a shower” off the list and move on.

You will meet less and less resistance as you go through the list. For each item, ask “Is it possible for a person NOT to do it?  Has anyone ever NOT done it?”  If even one person has ever chosen not to do it, then it is a choice, not a compulsory behavior. Make sure you discuss the consequences of both doing and not doing the activities listed. A few items will survive your inquiry and remain on the list, involuntary physical responses like breathing (If you hold your breath long enough, you pass out and naturally begin breathing.), sleeping (Even with all the caffeine you can consume, your body will eventually take over.), and eliminating. Even eating is a choice. The consequences of not eating are dire, but that is still a choice some make (fasting, hunger strikes, dieting, etc.)

You may be treading on dangerous ground when you discuss that following rules, doing household chores, and doing homework are choices. You don’t want to encourage students to make irresponsible choices, nor do you want angry phone calls from home the day after the class meeting. It is important to address the question, “So why does it SEEM like we HAVE to listen to our parents, follow rules, do homework, etc.”  One reason, of course, is that doing these things is better than the negative consequences associated with not doing them. A question I’ve learned to ask is “So, if all of our behavior is a choice, why do we choose to listen to our parents, teachers, and coaches?”  Many reasons will come out, but one that I try to emphasize is that we trust them and know that they have our best interests in mind.

I also like to extend the class meeting by asking, “Which feels better, to think ‘I HAVE to do something’ or ‘I CHOOSE to do something”?   Almost unanimously, students will tell you that it feels better to know that they are in control and not being controlled. I say “almost unanimously” because there are some students that, no matter how many activities you do or class meetings you have, will choose not to accept the belief that they choose all of their behavior. They would prefer to think that they are controlled. That way, they don’t have to take that logical next step: that they are responsible for their behavior. You might use their resistance to bring home your point: “See, if I could make Jonathan behave the way I wanted, he would agree.”  Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get 100 percent buy-in. We all learn at different rates, and this is a difficult lesson for many, especially those who are accustomed to a highly structured, controlling environment. After this meeting, you might want to post the two main points of the discussion in the classroom:

  • All behavior is chosen. That is, we have free will and an internal locus of control. Therefore, all behavior is chosen.
  • Despite the influences and adversity we experience, we are responsible for our choices.

I am confident that you will find these activities and discussions both effective and engaging.  I just used them recently with a group of 15 students in an alternative high school in Dearborn, Michigan. At the end of the day, they were sharing things like, “If kids in our school knew this stuff, there wouldn’t be near as much drama!” and “What I learned today is that I don’t need to let anyone or anything keep me from my dreams.” (This student wants to be an electrical engineer).  Each of these statements was greeted with enthusiastic agreement.

Once students understand these basic concepts, we can build on their understanding of responsibility by discussing different kinds of responsibility and different situations in which responsibility is important.

In future articles, I will discuss how to build on these foundational concepts.  For example, I will explain some ways to help young people:

  • understand emotions in themselves and others
  • how to regulate their emotions
  • understand why they behave the way they do
  • what they have in common with others and how they are different
  • to gain empathy
  • to listen


About the author -

Jon Erwin

Author and international educational consultant Jonathan Erwin has been a secondary English teacher, staff development specialist, college professor, and director of a federally funded character education program. His first book, The Classroom of Choice (ASCD 2004) focuses on appealing to students' intrinsic motivation to learn and behave responsibly. His more recent book, Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD 2011), explains why and how to integrate Social-Emotional skills into the curriculum. He lives in Western New York with his wife Holly and three children: Nate, Liam, and Laena.


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