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How to embed social skills into your content

The thing we need most… is each other
Illustration by Courtnay Hough

Social skills are essential for all students to properly prepare them for establishing fulfilling lives for themselves. This can be especially important for students with IEPs as they may not automatically absorb social cues and norms if not explicitly taught, modeled, and/or practiced. However, all students benefit from safe, and structured opportunities to explore their individual identities and create positive classroom communities. 

There are many ways to embed social skills activities and development into your classrooms and content. These are just a few options that could easily work into the classroom environment you’ve worked so hard to cultivate. 

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Groups! 

One awesome option is Kagan groups! Kagan groups are the perfect opportunity/vehicle to incorporate social skills no matter the content you teach. 

If you haven’t been trained in Kagan cooperative groups, no worries! The premise is simple: structured student groups of four. Students can be grouped by ability level, behavior, data, and/or whatever best suits your classroom needs.

Personally, I grouped my students with 1 leader per group (sometimes those leadership qualities were spread between two students 1. Initiator/bossy and another student who wanted to complete all their work). 

Since I mostly taught self-contained English Fundamentals, I would also try to make sure each group had a strong reader (relative to the class level) and a strong writer (or a student who always got out their notes/interactive journal). 

One or two groups always ended up shy a skill or two, and I tried to place those groups closest to wherever I spent the most time in my classroom. Maybe that’s your desk, near the board, or wherever you tend to be while teaching. 

You can absolutely structure your groups to meet your class and content’s specific needs. However, I do really recommend trying to give each group a leader.

Open mind
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Leadership development 

I would always try to pull my leaders outside or into the hallway (you can do this individually or as a group) and give them a quick pep talk. I would tell them that I saw leadership skills in them and selected them to be the leaders of their group. 

I said that meant I wanted them to help and encourage their group mates. I also told them that if they had any issues or concerns to bring them to me, and I would help 🙂 

I structured my classroom activities and expectations around these groups. During reading, each student took a turn reading a paragraph. Then, they could work together to answer the comprehension question. 

In the beginning, this was an investment of time, effort, and modeling appropriate group behaviors. However, after a month or two the benefits were enormous!

My self-contained groups ran independently. I could walk the room or step back and enjoy their sense of independence and confidence. They relied on each other to complete tasks and find success. 

I still gave the comprehension questions to make sure they were understanding the material, and occasionally stepped in for behavior redirections or reminders return to a task. But overall, the students loved their groups (as long as expectations were clear and everyone had a job/role). 

All students want to feel confident in their abilities and to find success. Group work helped them with this and allowed them to develop their social skills along the way. 

Groups provided opportunities for them to deal with conflict and disagreements positively and productively in a safe environment. With my presence, I could ensure they felt supported and that no one was being treated badly or unfairly. 

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Play before work

To benefit the most from embedding structured groups into your classroom, you need to develop their cohesion from the beginning. This means opportunities for students to learn about each other and play in their groups.

Students need to feel comfortable sharing ideas and who they are. The best way to establish rapport and help students to open up is to provide fun, non-academic opportunities to work together and develop leadership.

The start of the school year is the perfect time to embed class-builders (activities where the whole class participates at once) and teambuilders (where the groups of four you created work together to accomplish a fun goal/task).

At first, I was hesitant to expand these class-builders and team-builders beyond the first few weeks of school. However, I had gone to some Kagan trainings and read many studies that toted how effective time for play and bonding was in the classroom.

So, in my fifth year of teaching, I decided to go all in and give it a go!

At my school, we had a different time schedule on Wednesdays. My incredible instructional aide used to call them, “Wacky Wednesdays”.

My students especially were always thrown off balance to this change of routine. I found it difficult to complete normal daily tasks even though class periods were only 10 minutes shorter.

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Work Together Wednesdays 

I figured Wednesdays would be the perfect day to try out class-builders and team-builders. I started calling them, “Work Together Wednesdays”. 

To keep with the routines of my classroom (and my sanity), we still did Bellwork and our Letter Sounds. Students had the opportunity to work on missing assignments (I passed out missing assignment reports every Monday and students could earn free time on Fridays if they had no missing assignments) while everyone finished up their Bellwork and Letter sounds. 

Once everyone was ready we would begin our Work Together Wednesday activity. I alternated between a Classbuilder one week and then a Teambuilder the next, and so on. 

The students loved it! And honestly so did I. It was such a joy for my heart to watch my students (many of whom had challenging home/community lives) just play and be themselves. 

Many students stepped up as leaders in situations that surprised me. I had the opportunity to honor and hold up the strengths of all of my students throughout the year. I was able to encourage those strengths and leadership. Plus, I enjoyed the pleasure of nominating students for school positions/honors as well. 

And the students bonded. They naturally began to talk more kindly to one another because they genuinely cared for each other. Sometimes, I’d even see them helping each other around campus or in other classes. 

You know what else? We got further in our novel study in that first semester than I ever had before in my teaching career. And that was without reading on Wednesdays like I had every other year. 

They worked better together and thus got more accomplished in their groups. Later on in the school year, sometimes classes would vote to have missing assignment time instead to work on items from my class or other classes. 

These groups and activities also helped my students become better motivated and develop prioritization skills. As the year went on, I’d let students vote for which class-building or team-building activity they’d like to do that day. 

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Make it your own 

As students become accustomed to the routine, you can personalize and individualize it to match your teaching style and your students’ needs. 

Maybe you want to do a monthly activity. Maybe you have the same students all day so you want to make it into more of a daily routine. 

You know your students best, and we totally trust your judgement. Play around with it, reflect and then try something new. Just be sure to model how you’d like your students to interact. 

If you notice they are struggling with kindness or how to disagree, that’s okay. Call the class back together and role-play some situations. Practice it together. 

Your students know you care about them, so they feel safe. They can practice interacting with each other. They know you’ll protect them and push them to be their best selves. 

You've got this
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No matter how you decide to incorporate social skills practice into your lessons/classroom, these things are vital:

Model 

Maybe even have students help model what playing the game or activity nicely looks like. Even if you teach neuro-typical students, every home environment is different, just like every classroom. Show what you want play/cooperation to look like in your room. Are you encouraging competition? Do you want students to congratulate each other? These are important elements to consider and then show students what it should look like 🙂 

Set up your student groups for success. 

Be intentional about who you put together. I always picked my leaders first, and then matched them with my highest need students. Then, I filled in the rest of my lovelies to match personalities and skills the best I could. If there’s one group that ends up a little funky, no worries. Just put that little bundle of energy the closest to where you spend the most time during their class hour. Even if you don’t use these student groups for all your classroom activities and learning, still it is worthwhile to put them together with care 🙂 

Bond and play time. 

Make sure students have the opportunity to get to know each other before academics come into the equation. Provide quality time for them to bond and build rapport before they tackle challenging assignments in their groups. The more comfortable they feel with each other, the more willing they will be to show their skills and take changes. And that is what learning is all about. 

Space

Be prepared to step back and watch them solve problems together in their groups. It can be challenging and difficult at first, no lie. You got into the education profession to help students. You have to ignore the urge to get involved, and bear with it. Give them a chance to work together to solve any issues. They’ll build confidence and independence. And there is so much joy to be had in watching students work together and achieve success. Plus, they’ll feel how much you believe in them 🙂

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