Stephanie Burroughs, Ed.D.

Curriculum Leader, K-12 Education

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5 Things Math Teachers can do to support Social and Emotional Learning

The Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks added an 8th Guiding Principle for Massachusetts Mathematics Programs on Social and Emotional Learning in its most recent revision of the frameworks. (See below)

Guiding Principle 8

Social and emotional learning can increase academic achievement, improve attitudes and behaviors, and reduce emotional distress. Students should practice self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills, by, for example: collaborating and learning from others and showing respect for others’ ideas; applying the mathematics they know to make responsible decisions to solve problems, engaging and persisting in solving challenging problems; and learning that with effort, they can continue to improve and be successful. 

But, how do I incorporate #SEL into math class?

Although I appreciate the frameworks articulation of how the 5 key competencies of SEL connect with Mathematics teaching and learning, I believe we need to go a bit further and define how SEL connects with the Standards for Mathematical Practice and a Growth Mindset.

These are simple ideas, but together they can change the attitude and the culture in Mathematics class. For me, Social and Emotional Learning is about building confident and independent mathematical thinkers. Here are 5 things Math teachers can do to support Social and Emotional Learning in their classroom:

1. Be Jo Boaler

Jo Boaler's Mathematical Mindsets is a fantastic book, but moreover the connections she has made between Growth Mindset and Mathematics are fantastic confidence boosters for our students. Through research it has been proven that speed and ability are independent of each other, that all kids can learn math, and that making mistakes actually grows your brain. The first step toward improving attitudes and behaviors in Mathematics is letting our kids in on this secret:

Mathematics is not an exclusive club, all kids can learn math.

From here we can teach our kids to regulate their learning and develop patterns of behavior that support productive struggle and a positive relationship with their learning in Mathematics class.

2. Positive talk, positive thinking

I say this to my own kids often, but it applies in Mathematics class too. It's easy to get frustrated in Mathematics class, but encouraging positive communication and positive self-talk can help kids build their confidence and learn how to advocate for their learning, collaborate with their peers effectively, and have rich discussions in the classroom. I hear kids say they hate math, they were never good at math, and they're "not a math person." This kind of talk dismisses the student from deeper learning and is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Having positive discussions in Mathematics class is critical to student mastery of concepts. In looking at the Standards for Mathematical Practice, we can encourage positive talk and positive thinking by creating learning opportunities that integrate the following:

  • SMP1: Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.
  • SMP3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

3. Embrace productive struggle

Create a classroom environment where struggling through a Mathematics problem is celebrated. Teachers have to set that tone at the start of the school year and let their students know that asking questions and struggling through a concept is encouraged. Small things like allowing students to contribute wrong answers or telling students that you're not sure of an answer to a particular problem makes it okay to be wrong and encourages students to participate. Give your students open ended problems that support modeling, encouraging discussion and giving you opportunities to check in with your class on their understanding.

Make thinking the focus of your classroom, not worksheets and formulas. 

The SMPs that support productive struggle include:

  • SMP2: Reason Abstractly and Quantitatively
  • SMP4: Model with Mathematics

4. Create opportunities for inquiry

This really goes back to the productive struggle conversation, but the bigger idea behind inquiry is encouraging students to be independent thinkers in Mathematics. When you introduce inquiry into your classroom students are learning how to manage their time, regulate their learning, and assess their progress on a concept. Inquiry engages students and allows students to take ownership in their learning. 

The SMPs that support Inquiry are:

  • SMP7: Look for and make use of Structure
  • SMP8: Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.

5. Blend learning; blend assessments, blend instruction, and blend activities.

Blended is best. When we give students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in a variety of ways, assess students in a variety of ways, and integrate multiple methods of instruction, we provide every learner with the opportunity to be successful. When we blend learning, we create resilient students who are able to demonstrate their understanding AND learn in a variety of ways. When we blend learning, we show our kids that there is not just one way to do math and we build confidence. Math is it's own language and you cannot learn a language without being confident enough to try to speak it. 



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