How Self Awareness can Change the way you Teach for the Better

This series of Social-Emotional articles is written by Victoria KirgesnerRead the previous one here!

Why do you need Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Why do you need Social-Emotional Learning in the classroom? We’ve talked at length in the last few posts about what social-emotional learning is and how it is an important piece of any curriculum, whether for the preschool classroom or the K-12 classroom. We’ve also talked about how it is a natural fit for the STEM and STEAM classrooms, whether these are physical spaces or whether students are engaged in distance learning.

And if you’re like most teachers, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “okay, this is awesome, and I’m so excited to bring it to my students, but…how do I do that? How do I bring Social Emotional Learning to my classroom? I don’t have the time – or energy – to go scouring the web or my brain to try to figure out how to incorporate this into my lessons and units.”

CoderZ has Your Back

Never fear, because this next series of posts is here! Starting today, we’ll spotlight each of the five SEL competencies and take a look at how you can bring them into your lessons with zero hassle. We’ll give resources for SEL and STEM no matter the age or grade. It’s like a whole professional development series on STEM and SEL but without the icebreakers. What’s not to love?!

My deep-seated loathing for icebreakers aside, let’s take a look at how the first competency can be brought into your existing plans, and provide some new suggestions. If you’ll recall, our first competency is self-awareness. This is the ability to understand and recognize your own emotions and thoughts while understanding how they affect your behavior in a number of different circumstances. It’s also knowing your strengths and limitations, but maintaining a growth mindset, rather than believing your abilities are fixed. 

Self-Awareness: The First Competency

So how can you recognize self-awareness in your students? Bringing Social Emotional Learning to my classroom was a no-brainer. A developed sense of self-awareness often looked like a student coming up to me saying “I just really need to take a break right now. Do you mind if I go take a walk?” I can’t think of a single time in my classroom that I denied this request. Teens and even preteens with a developed sense of self-awareness can tell you when they’re approaching emotional overload and know that removing themselves from a situation would help them deescalate. I’d ask  “hey, do you want to run to the bathroom real quick?” if a student seemed like they were on the verge of a breakdown.

Sometimes they said yes, but other times they said no. It all depended, but offering that out helped drastically. Even younger students can recognize that they might need to leave a situation to calm down before they say or do something that they could potentially regret. Vivify STEM gives some great suggestions for developing this awareness in students by pulling them aside and speaking with them when you notice positive – or negative – emotions happening. Tell the students exactly what behavior you liked, especially in collaborative team environments. This can allow them the space to reflect and remember what they did or how they reacted in a way that was so noteworthy. 

Grit and Determination

Self-awareness also looks like grit and determination, especially in the STEM classroom. Consider how many times you might need to do an experiment or another task requiring trial-and-error. The ability to learn from setbacks and to continue “poking around” and trying new ways of solving a problem all fall under the category of self-awareness. Again, you can provide students with the tools to develop self-awareness while working on different tasks. Vivify STEM suggests giving students time after different STEM challenges to think, reflect, and discuss how their strengths contributed to the group effort and results, in addition to what they enjoyed most or even found most difficult. While this might seem mundane and ordinary, being directed to look inward and discover our reactions and feelings is key to developing self-awareness.

The Power of Reflection

As I mentioned in the “why SEL matters” post, once my students were directed to think about how the good and bad events in their weeks were affecting their emotional states, they began to see the connections. So often in our lives, we can forget to pay attention to something, even though it is staring us in the face. It is not until we are directed to notice and understand a particular aspect that we are made aware of it. It’s the same way with our students. If they’re not directed to take a moment and reflect on what they liked or didn’t like, what was easy and what was a challenge, they won’t learn to cue into it and might even brush it off as unimportant.

This alone underscores the importance of Social-Emotional Learning in the classroom. If we’re never taught that how we feel is something meaningful, we can’t expect it to just intuitively be on our minds.

Activities for SEL and STEM

One of the coolest ways to bring self-awareness into the STEM classroom I’ve actually found on a few different websites. These easy activities make it simple to get Social-Emotional Learning in the classroom. Both Vivify STEM and Start Engineering discuss how you can use Sphero robots to highlight and bring awareness to different emotional states. If you’re not familiar with Sphero robots (like me – no shame!), these are little programmable robots that look basically like little balls. They are great for beginner coders and robotics fans. After doing some research on them myself, I definitely want one! But these robots are more than a fun toy; they can also help students be more aware of their emotional states. To use these robots for an interactive, student-centered lesson, do the following:

Ways to Bring Social Emotional Learning to Your Classroom

  1. Start class with a discussion on emotions. Talk with your students about the different emotions that they experience in a day, and different emotions that come up in the classroom or that they might encounter when interacting with others. Talk about how they deal with and manage these different emotions, and how they can be supportive of each other throughout a myriad of emotional states
  2. On the Sphero mini robot, there is a function called “face drive.” This allows you to control the robot using just your face! The student controlling or driving the robot can open the Sphero app on their device, enable “face drive,” and then they can use their different facial expressions to move the robot. Smiling makes it go forward; frowning makes it go back. A head tilt to the side makes the robot turn. Face drive has some fun surprises too; an angry face will make it roll away and if you want it to do a little dance, make a surprised face. Challenge your students to drive their robots through a maze. You can make it as easy or hard as you’d like. Maybe change it up from student to student or do a robot-race relay. 
  3. While Vivify STEM ends their lesson here, I would add on a reflection component at the end to recap and reinforce what’s happened in the lesson. See if students found their emotions influenced by the faces they were making. Did they feel good when they made an angry face and the robot rolled away? The questions and introspection you ask can vary based on the students’ ages and levels of self-awareness. Some students can tell you more about what they’re feeling and thinking than others. Find out where your students are and you can meet them there.

Social-Emotional Learning with Picture Books

Carly and Adam’s blog have some great STEM/SEL activity collaborations that center around picture books, all of which feature a diverse array of protagonists. While this is a different conversation entirely, it’s so important to have characters in books that reflect all of the students in your classroom. But anyway, one of the ideas that they suggest revolves around the book “The Day You Begin” by Jacqueline Woodson. This story celebrates and highlights the things that make us unique, different, and special. The main character learns to harness these differences and use them as her strengths and gifts to the world. The STEM tie-in for this particular story revolves around the creation of a personal coat of arms and a stand for it.

Students can either draw a coat of arms which is then pasted onto a sturdy background. Older kids – or more technologically advanced classrooms – might be able to program and 3D print a coat of arms. However, the coat of arms is created it should spotlight all of the things that make each student wonderfully unique. Once the coat of arms is created, students need to create a stand for them using whatever materials you would like: paper, cardboard, straws, 3D printed…whatever would be a suitable engineering challenge for your student population. Once they’re all standing upright, you can reflect on the successes, the challenges, and all of the things that make each student in your room unique. 

The Power of Unplugged

While this next idea isn’t necessarily 21st century STEM, it incorporates necessary knowledge with self-awareness. If your curriculum includes a unit on the five senses (or really any body system), allow the students time to self-reflect. Have them close their eyes and try to identify a mystery object by using only their other senses, or have them identify an object using only one sense. Have them reflect on what happens when they breathe in or what their nervous systems do when they see a scary/happy image etc. Allowing students the space to actively notice and think about what their bodies are doing naturally makes students more in tune with themselves, and enables them to continue to be more self-aware and reflective.

Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom Starts with You

A final, powerful tool that you can use to bring self-awareness into the STEM classroom is yourself. How many times have you reacted to a student’s behavior only to regret your course of action? How many times have you snapped or been a bit short with a question, but only because you were concerned with other things happening in your life outside of that immediate situation? If you can honestly say “never” to both of those questions, you are a more saintly teacher than I will ever be – and my patience was seemingly unlimited for many days in my classroom.

Obviously, judge your students and their abilities/knowledge, but model self-awareness for them. Take a step back from a stressful situation before you react. Close your eyes, steady your breath, then react with a cool head. One of the most powerful things we can do for our students is to show them that adults are still human and that we need to practice the same things that they’re being told to do. I know so many times as a young child I would mimic what I saw my teachers doing because I saw it repeatedly almost every day for a year – little quirks, phrases, mannerisms, etc. Kids today are no different. Let’s give them something positive to model and reflect on.

In Summary

So to recap, here are the ways that we’ve discussed that we can bring self-awareness into the STEM classroom – for any age!

  • Allow students to take a quick break if they are quickly reaching frustration or emotional overload
  • Conference with students after collaborative group sessions to tell them what about their behavior/performance that you liked
  • Provide space for reflection after challenges to talk about how their strengths helped, what students enjoyed, and what might have been more of a challenge
  • Simulate emotional states to maneuver a Sphero robot
  • Create a coat of arms and a stand for them
  • Sensory reflection and understanding
  • Model self-awareness for your students

Remember that students can always journal reflections, either with words or images, or they can be something that you talk about in mini-conferences, small groups, partners, or as a whole class. The possibilities are endless!

A Foundational Skill

Self-awareness, in my opinion, is a foundational skill in SEL, and one that will drastically help a students’ behavior and their interactions with others. Just like in the airplane safety videos, you have to help yourself before you help others. Allowing children the space to focus on themselves makes them already more apt to notice emotions in others in future interactions. And as we’ve talked about at length before, emotional intelligence and SEL are crucial to the future of meaningful STEM. In the coming posts, we’ll dive in-depth into the other 4 competencies and how you can bring them into your lessons to make your STEM classroom something to “SEL”ebrate. 

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.