Why Self Management Matters and How to Incorporate it into your STEM Classroom

This series of Social-Emotional articles is written by Victoria KirgesnerRead the previous one here! Keep tabs for more free social emotional learning activities.

Social Emotional Learning Activities

In the last post, we looked at self-awareness and how you can bring this social-emotional learning competency into your STEM classroom, no matter the age of your student or where they’re located. This time, we’re going to be taking a look at self-management, which goes hand-in-hand with self-awareness. Once you are aware of yourself and your emotions, you can begin to learn to manage and control them. 

I know that it’s been a while since we talked about the components and competencies of social-emotional learning. So what is self-management? How does it fit within the classroom? Self-management is the ability to control your emotions, thoughts, behaviors regardless of the situation you find yourself in, and in fact, to control these facets of your being in any situation. It is also the ability to harness your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in order to achieve goals and aspirations. Embedded within the competency of self-management are skills of organization, time management, self-discipline, self-motivation, and stress management. Having the ability and courage to take initiative or having autonomy also fall under the heading of self-management. Build this critical component with Social Emotional Learning activities.

Self Management and Covid

As I’m sure you all know, in the Spring of 2020, the entire educational community found itself upended overnight. Suddenly teachers were forced to figure out how to deliver content and lessons from miles away from their students. Not only that, but students had to figure out how to learn in a completely new setting, away from their teachers, classmates, and other support structures that had been in place to help them. Teachers weren’t standing over students, making sure they completed their work or stayed on task. Parents who had to work couldn’t shoulder this burden. And so, the schooling fell to the student. Which ones shone a bit brighter during the pandemic? The ones with sharpened self-management skills.

As a high school educator, I saw this in stark relief. I had students telling me that online school was hard because they “didn’t have anyone telling them what they needed to complete,” which at some level blew my mind. Our students needed to have the skills to organize their schedules, have the discipline and motivation to attend online class and complete the work necessary…and so many typically “good” students had grades that suffered in the spring and fall of 2020 – simply because they had continued to rely on outside sources because their self-management skills were not as developed as others. I know I’ve talked up the importance of SEL skills as a whole, but as the pandemic continues to influence education and how it is done, I feel it is important to mention just how self-management can help to mitigate negative effects caused by school closures. 

Self Management in Your Classroom

So now that we’ve had a refresh on what self-management is and how it can help students both in traditional learning settings and in remote learning scenarios, how can you bring it into your classroom? I’ve mentioned before that all of these SEL competencies can simply be added into part of your existing lessons, but I would also be willing to guess that you have some social emotional learning activities already – you just don’t know it! Do you ever have opportunities for teamwork and collaboration in your lessons? If the answer is yes, you can easily add some self-management work in there. Vivify STEM suggests helping students to create rules for working in groups at the beginning of each class. So before your students even get to the business of solving a problem or completing a challenge, they’ve already worked together to set rules that will guide their behavior and emotional management.

Remember all students must agree to these rules before the activity begins. These rules will help them learn to manage themselves and their emotional reactions, and rules that students create and agree upon are always inherently more powerful than those we impose upon our students. One former engineer-turned-teacher suggests even having your students recite an oath before they begin any STEM challenges. It is a great way to incorporate reminders to continue to hone and develop your self-management skills. Even the youngest students can agree to rules like “I will believe in myself” or “I will be nice to my classmates.” We have to lay the foundation at an early age in order to reap the best results and make these SEL skills automatic.

Social Emotional Engineering Challenge Activities

Carly and Adam’s blog continues to dive into the addition of self-management into your STEM lessons, noting that any open-ended engineering challenge is a great place where self-management skills are required, allowing students the space and opportunity to work on them and showcase them. In fact, this blog has so many great ideas for elementary teachers looking to incorporate more STEM and SEL activities into their classrooms. I’m going to highlight a few of my favorites here, but seriously, check out their blog. They have a series of STEM activities that tie into read-aloud books with protagonists of all backgrounds – it’s a great way to bring literacy into the STEM and SEL classroom!

As I mentioned, a lot of the ideas on the blog Carly and Adam pair STEM challenges with read-aloud-s, and they also highlight some social emotional learning activities within them. Honestly, I think any time you have a STEM challenge there is space for practicing and honing the various SEL competencies. I think one of the coolest ideas to integrate STEM, SEL, and a read-aloud that Carly and Adam have come up with is using the story “My Mouth is a Volcano” by Julie Cook to teach about self-control. This picture book, which you can find the author reading aloud here) teaches kids about not interrupting, manners, and self-control – all of which are important facets of self-management. After reading and discussing the themes of this story, including ways that they can keep themselves from interrupting, you can then do a science experiment to see which materials create the biggest explosions, whether that’s baking soda and vinegar, Sprite and mentos, mints, and Sprite…whatever you have on hand. Either way, you slice it, kids love to see these reactions (okay…and adults too!)

Diversifying Activities

If you’re in need of social emotional learning activities to highlight diverse experiences and showcase a number of backgrounds, Carly and Adam have you covered too. Using Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s book “Turning Pages: My Life Story” as a source of knowledge and inspiration, students work together to create a “tower of knowledge” made out of books and index cards. The challenge can be something as simple as making a tower as tall as you can using these index cards and books. It needs to be standing for at least 30 seconds (or really, any time that you choose). Self-management comes into play here because this is going to be a challenge. Books are going to fall. Index cards are going to rip, and it will most certainly happen when you’ve got a few layers going already. The ability to persevere, to not completely break down in such an emotionally intense space, and the tenacity to keep going are all needed in this activity. It will challenge students mentally and emotionally while being fun. Building the tallest possible tower is a time-honored childhood tradition. 

Another really awesome STEM/SEL challenge that Carly and Adam have devised is built around the book “Rosie Revere Engineer” by Andrea Beaty, which tells the story of a young girl who likes to build things out of whatever she can find. She wants to be an engineer but starts to doubt herself after she experiences failure. With the help of a family member, she learns to work past failure to realize her dream. The hands-on activity with this story is the development of a flying machine to glide a paper Rosie down a zip line. Students are challenged to design, build, and test their own machines to help Rosie fly. In this activity, not only are they learning about engineering and physics principles, but they’ll have to be okay with failure, working together, and many other components of self-management that we’ve discussed at length. 

Conservation as Social Emotional Learning

Finally, as a social scientist, I love that Carly and Adam have tied in Jane Goodall and anthropology with their STEM and SEL series. So often we focus on the so-called “hard” sciences like biology, chemistry, physics, and we forget about the social sciences, which are subjects like anthropology, linguistics, psychology, etc. Using the story “The Watcher” as the base, which is focused on Jane Goodall and her life with the chimps, Carly and Adam propel students into a conversation about conservation and even why it is important to be able to study animal behavior, what that can tell us about ourselves, etc. After discussing the story, students then work to create a tool or device that they could use to capture bugs, much like how chimps use termites to eat. Self-management comes into play as students need to work together to try and design a device for capturing bugs. They will need to use their skills of self-management to facilitate productive teamwork and create a viable solution. 

We’ve talked about emotional regulation and management with engineering challenges and other experiments, but learning from failures and the ability to see “failing” as a stepping stone to success is another crucial component of self-management. It’s like Thomas Edison said “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” We need to cultivate in our students the ability to learn from failures, and apply what they know doesn’t work in order to create that which does work. Vivify STEM suggesting making failure a part of the activity or challenge itself. In their “Space Lander Challenge” students work together to design a device that keeps ping pong balls (or “astronauts”) from popping out of a plastic cup (or “spaceship”) when they drop it from a certain height.

Once students successfully complete this challenge, flip the script! Now the group needs to “sabotage” the landing so that the ping pong balls do fly out when the spacecraft is dropped from a certain height. In this twist, both being successful and learning from failures are crucial parts of completing both pieces of the activity. What students might have seen as horrible failures that are best forgotten and ignored turn out to be exactly what they need to do to be successful at sabotaging the alien spacecraft’s landing. 

Middle and High School Activities

I know that many of the ideas that I’ve discussed in this post have been rather elementary-centric, focused on developing self-management skills in the youngest students. But I don’t want to leave out my middle school and high school friends. Sometimes – as I’ve learned from experience – these students benefit from reinforcement of self-management skills. SEL knowledge isn’t something we’re innately born with. They are skills we need to cultivate and grow. Even at the high school level, giving students design challenges, where they need to build something or solve a global/community challenge (think about what you’d see in project-based learning examples) provide tremendous opportunities for collaboration, self-regulation, and chances to learn from failure.

But just as important as giving them opportunities to fail is creating an environment where it is okay and even encouraged, to fail. I noticed as a high school classroom that there is such an intense focus on getting amazing grades so you can get a great scholarship so that you can afford to go to a good college. This is great and all, but it creates an environment where failure is seen as innately negative and something to be avoided at all costs. I’ve seen students get stuck because they are afraid that failure means they aren’t good enough or that it will blow their shot at the future they want. You and I know (hopefully) that this isn’t true, but at 16, sometimes we don’t see the nuances in the world. Provide your older students with opportunities to fail and a supportive environment that encourages trial and error and “failing forward” (as Vivify STEM calls it) where students learn from their mistakes and failures, incorporating that knowledge into future potential solutions until they find the one that works. 

In Summation

Hopefully, I’ve gotten your gears turning on how you too can provide self-management practice and build your students’ knowledge of SEL while working through STEM challenges and highlighting those “hard” skills (as opposed to the “soft” skills of SEL). In the next post, we’ll start looking at the community-based competencies of SEL, starting with social awareness. 

Victoria Kirgesner Social Emotional Learning Coding and Robotics

Georgetown University graduate, Victoria Kirgesner, has been a Latin educator since 2015, teaching both in traditional settings and more. She is a passionate educator, and forever linguist. Her academic background informs her research and exploration and became finding the best EdTech tools to reach all of her students based on their interests, passions, and backgrounds. She spends many hours giving life advice to her students, while also teaching them. Her favorite part about her career has been helping her students navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood. All of these hats culminate in her ability to connect with colleagues nationwide, improving education for all.