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The School Practitioner's Concise Companion to Preventing Violence and Conflict$

Cynthia Franklin, Mary Beth Harris, and Paula Allen-Meares

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195370706

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195370706.001.0001

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Using Social and Emotional Learning to Address Conflicts in the Classroom

Using Social and Emotional Learning to Address Conflicts in the Classroom

(p.83) 7 Using Social and Emotional Learning to Address Conflicts in the Classroom
The School Practitioner's Concise Companion to Preventing Violence and Conflict

Jacqueline A. Norris

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines social and emotional learning (SEL) as an approach to building respectful and trusting relationships in the classroom. It shows how the school social worker or counselor and other school-based professionals can introduce SEL skills to a classroom, and how teachers can promote transference of these skills by integrating them into classroom management and instructional strategies.

Keywords:   emotional learning, respect, trust, student—teacher relationships, school-based intervention

Getting Started

At one time, classrooms in the United States had desks arranged in straight rows. The furniture was bolted to the floor, and the teacher’s desk was on a raised platform in front of the room. Within this classroom, the teacher lectured and the students spoke when they were spoken to, and when a student misbehaved, the consequences were often swift and severe (Ryan & Cooper, 2000).

It may seem as though this classroom was more fiction than reality, but it did exist. To many veteran teachers across the country, “those were the days.” They long for the reverence in which teachers were once held. They believe that students today are disrespectful and lack discipline. The 35th annual PDK/Gallup Poll supports their belief. For 16 of the first 17 years that the poll was conducted, when asked, “What do you think are the biggest problems with which the public schools of your community must deal?” participants most commonly answered, “lack of discipline, more control” (Rose & Gallup, 2003). In fact, lack of discipline has never left the top 10 “biggest problems” over the 35-year history of the poll. A 2001 report on teacher turnover revealed that of teachers who left the field because of job dissatisfaction, 68% identified student discipline problems and lack of student motivation as their reasons for leaving (Ingersoll, 2001). Obviously, lack of student discipline is a major concern for schools today.

With the emergence of constructivist theory and brain-based education, metaphors for the ways in which people learn have changed. No longer do we see students as empty vessels or blank slates that teachers must fill with knowledge. Now we know that students come to the classroom with a wide range of experiences and knowledge. Teachers who are able to recognize and help students make connections between their life experiences and new content are much more likely to help improve their students’ academic achievement (National Research Council, 2000). This means that a different relationship must be established between teacher and student, one in which teachers know, accept, and understand their students and students trust and respect their teachers. Research shows that in classrooms where everyone feels accepted, valued, and affirmed, there are fewer conflicts, and when problems do arise, they are resolved more amicably (Elias et al., 1997; Osterman, 2000; Blum, McNeely, & Rinehart, 2002; Frey & George-Nichols, 2003). What knowledge must a teacher (p.84) have to establish such an environment, and what competences must students have in order to maintain it?

This chapter examines social and emotional learning (SEL) as an approach to building respectful and trusting relationships in the classroom. It will show how the school social worker or counselor and other school-based professionals can introduce SEL skills to a classroom, and how teachers can promote transference of these skills by integrating them into classroom management and instructional strategies.

What We Know

Social and Emotional Learning

SEL plays a critical role in creating the positive learning climate in many schools today. It grows out of the theory of emotional intelligence developed by Peter Salovey of Yale University and John Mayer of University of New Hampshire in 1987. These two psychologists recognized that although emotions and rational thought are commonly thought to be at opposite ends of the thinking spectrum, there is a strong relationship between them. Daniel Goleman built upon their work and popularized the concept with the publication of his highly successful book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ (1995). Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a different way of being smart. Combining interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence, two of the multiple intelligences identified by Gardner (1983), emotional intelligence refers to one’s ability to know oneself and to know how one is feeling at any given time. It also means understanding and caring about others. The Collaborative for Academics Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a group of researchers and practitioners, looked at how schools play a critical role in disseminating and reinforcing these life skills. A book by members of the collaborative, Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators (Elias et al., 1997), provides a list of skills necessary for emotional intelligence.

Key Skills in Social and Emotional Learning


  • Recognizing and naming one’s emotions

  • Understanding the reasons for feeling as one does

Self-Regulation of Emotion

  • Verbalizing and coping with anxiety, anger, and depression

  • Controlling impulses, aggression, and self-destructive, antisocial behavior

  • Recognizing strengths in and mobilizing positive feelings about self, school, family, and support networks

(p.85) Self-Monitoring and Performance

  • Focusing on tasks at hand

  • Setting short- and long-term goals

  • Modifying performance in light of feedback

  • Mobilizing positive motivation

  • Activating hope and optimism

  • Working toward optimal performance states

Empathy and Perspective Taking

  • Learning how to increase and develop feedback mechanisms for use in everyday life

  • Becoming a good listener

  • Increasing empathy and sensitivity to others’ feelings

  • Understanding others’ perspectives, points of view, and feelings

Social Skills in Handling Relationships

  • Managing emotions in relationships, harmonizing diverse feelings and viewpoints

  • Expressing emotions effectively

  • Exercising assertiveness, leadership, and persuasion

  • Working as part of a team/cooperative learning group

  • Showing sensitivity to social cues

  • Exercising social decision-making and problem-solving skills

  • Responding constructively and in a problem-solving manner to interpersonal obstacles

Though many educators see the importance of social skills in academic achievement, many do not know how or where to infuse instruction on social skills into their classrooms. Still others believe it is not the job of the school to teach these skills; they want children to come to school already knowing them. With the pressure of high-stakes testing and the mandates of No Child Left Behind, it is more critical than ever for classrooms to be nonthreatening, supportive, and caring. The ability to attend to academic content is directly influenced by the ability to manage emotional impulses (Salovey & Sluyter, 1997). “Researchers have found that prosocial behavior in the classroom is linked with positive intellectual outcomes (e.g., Diperna & Elliott, 1999; Feshbach & Feshbach, 1987; Haynes, Ben-Avie, & Ensign, 2003; Pasi, 2001) and is predictive of performance on standardized achievement tests (e.g., Cobb, 1972; Malecki & Elliott, 2002; Welsh, Park, Widaman, & O’Neil, 2001; Wentzel, 1993; Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004).

A recent study on managing disruptive student behavior found that effective practices for school social workers should focus not only on individual or (p.86) group work but on “implementing systems change by collaborating, consulting, developing behavior plans, and training others to work with the difficult children in the context of a child’s daily school experiences” (Frey & George-Nichols, 2003, p. 99). Following this train of thought, everything in the child’s school environment needs to support efforts being made to change his or her behavior. Classrooms that promote the skills of SEL do not teach them just to those who appear to be lacking in them, but to all students. Everyone learns together about themselves and the people with whom they will interact. All students learn how to actively listen; how to communicate effectively, verbally and nonverbally; and how to resolve the conflicts and problems they face. Students come to see that their emotions are precursors to their actions and that controlling their emotions allows them to choose actions, especially in response to stressful situations, in a manner that preserves everyone’s dignity.

As with all effective teaching, teaching these skills must proceed in an organized, well-planned, and purposeful way. Intentionality is critical because these are not just skills for occasional use; these are life skills. There is a difference between teaching a fact or concept and teaching a skill. A skill is performance based and thus requires rehearsal followed by feedback and more rehearsal (Gagne, 1965). By incorporating SEL into instructional methods, many more opportunities to rehearse can be given. As Elias et al. put this point (1997, p. 33), “It is most beneficial to provide a developmentally appropriate combination of formal, curriculum-based instruction with ongoing, informal, and infused opportunities to develop social and emotional skills from preschool through high schools.”

What We Can Do

Though hundreds of packaged programs address the concept of SEL, there may be little need to purchase a program because SEL is more a philosophical approach than a program. As such, it permeates every aspect of one’s life. It simply means that we treat people with respect, give them the opportunity to be responsible and caring individuals, and expect the same treatment from them. Therefore, as teachers develop their classroom management plans, discipline practices, lesson plans, and patterns of interaction between themselves and their students, SEL is an ever-present foundation. For those teachers who struggle with or may be unaware of the importance of addressing the social and emotional components of their class, the social worker or counselor can play a pivotal role in helping to create a true community of learning.

A list of programs appears at the end of this chapter for the reader to explore. What follows are tools and sample activities that represent the major components of the most effective SEL programs used in schools today (Collaborative for Academics Social and Emotional Learning [CASEL], 2003).

(p.87) Tools and Practice Examples

Skills That Build Respectful and Trusting Relationships

Optimally, the time to start building respectful and trusting relationships is even before the students arrive on the first day of school. If activities are planned that allow students to begin to know each other, their likes and dislikes, their interests and the things that are important to them throughout the school year, commonalities and familiarities take root.

Class Meetings

The social worker, school counselor, or other mental health professional can be the one who introduces the concept of class meetings. Rules for conducting acceptable patterns of interaction must first be established. Common rules are: only one person will speak at a time, everyone must listen to and be respectful toward the speaker, each person will have an opportunity to speak, and put-downs will not be allowed. For young children, each of these rules will need to be explained and modeled. We should not assume that everyone knows what listening looks like or what waiting your turn to speak feels like.

Here are sample icebreaker questions for class meetings:

  • If you could spend a day with someone you admire, with whom would you spend it, and why?

  • If you were to be an animal instead of a human, what would you want to be and why?

  • What is your favorite food, or what is your favorite restaurant?

  • If you could go anywhere on a vacation, where would you most like to go, and why?

  • What have you done for someone recently without expecting something in return?

These questions start out as very nonthreatening but begin to offer insight into the students’ values and beliefs as the year goes on. A teacher can reinforce this personal sharing process by connecting academic material to class meetings:

  • What events led up to the Revolutionary War? Which do you believe was the most influential and why?

  • If you could spend a day with a character from Tuck Everlasting, who would it be and why?

  • In reviewing for the chapter test on fractions, what was the most challenging skill for you and why?

Class meetings can also incorporate role playing of social situations. Here, students may act out a problem or conflict that has occurred or might occur (p.88) among class members or between the teacher and a student. Together the students and the teacher identify the problem, generate possible situations, and act out a plan for addressing the problem in the future. If teasing is a problem in the class, for example, have the children write skits about this problem (if they are not capable of doing this, then an adult can tell them a situation) and have them act it out for the class. In the class meeting, discuss with students the feelings they see in the role playing and the things that may be done to solve the problem. Then have the actors use the solutions generated by the class to end the play.

One of the most powerful skills of communication is the ability to listen well; Daniel Goleman says it is the root of empathy (Goleman, 1995). Active listening involves being able to hear what someone has said and paraphrasing or retelling it in your own words. The retelling is a way the listener knows that he or she has understood and interpreted words the way the speaker intended. SEL also includes being able to sense what the speaker is feeling. The listener gives eye contact, pays attention to what is being said, and indicates openness to what is being said by using body language of acceptance (nodding, appropriate facial expressions, leaning forward slightly).

Active Listening Steps

  1. 1. Listen carefully to the speaker, and look for facial expressions and body language that might reveal how the speaker feels about what he or she is saying.

  2. 2. Rephrase the words you heard back to the speaker to check for accuracy.

  3. 3. State the feelings you perceive are being felt and tell why.

Examples of Active Listening

Case #1

  • Speaker: I hate going outside for recess. The kids never let me play kickball with them. I just end up being all by myself.

  • Listener: So you really don’t like to go outside for recess because there is no one for you to play with, right?

  • Speaker: Yeah!

  • Listener: That makes you feel hurt and upset; I can tell because your face looks sad, and your voice is weak. That is a good reason for not liking recess.

Case #2

  • Speaker: My dad is going to go off the deep end when he sees my report card!

  • Listener: He’s going to be mad because of your grades?

  • Speaker: Yeah, I sort of didn’t tell him about the last two tests I took and got “D’s” on.

  • (p.89)
  • Listener: I guess you must be scared because you think he’s going to be mad with you, and you must also be sorry because you didn’t tell him about the tests when you got them back, huh?

The social worker and teacher can co-teach active listening to students in a class meeting session. This way they can role play one of the above cases so students see the correct behavior being modeled.

When in an emotional state, a person may well find it easy to blame others for what has happened, but blaming does not move the situation toward a peaceful resolution. Using “I” messages eliminates placing blame on others and shows that you are responsible for the way you feel.


  1. 1. State how you are feeling: “I feel _____”

  2. 2. State what made you feel that way (without blaming or judging others): “when or because _____”

  3. 3. State what you want or need to happen (as developmentally appropriate): “I need or want _____”

Examples of “I” Messages

  • “I feel angry when I am teased about my braces; I need you to stop calling me names.”

  • “I really get distracted when I’m trying to study and loud music is playing. Would you please turn it down?”

Emotional Vocabulary

Most children have a limited emotional vocabulary. They know that they are happy, sad, or mad. Yet, if we expect them to be able to name what they are feeling when they are feeling it, we must provide them with the words to do so.

Feelings vocabulary may be introduced in small- group sessions or to a whole class. Introduce several words from the emotions word list (see Box 7.1) (the number will vary depending on the age and development of the children). Ask if they know what the word means and if they have ever felt that way. If they have, have them explain what happened to produce that feeling. If they do not know the word, give them a definition and create a context into which the child can place the word.

Suppose, for example, that the word is anxious. You might say: “Do you know this word? It means to be worried about something that is going to happen or may happen. When I had to make a speech in front of a large audience, I was anxious. I was nervous because I did not want to make a mistake. Have you ever been anxious? What happened to make you feel that way?”

Again, the purpose here is to get students to accurately label what they are feeling when they are feeling it and to distinguish one intensity of an emotion (p.90) from another. Also, since we know that children who are very angry or aggressive tend to interpret even the most neutral facial expression or event as being hostile (Goleman, 1995), this means they often believe that they are being attacked and must defend themselves with aggression. Having children identify and share times when they experienced different emotions allow you to see how they interpret the world around them. It also allows you to make corrections to these perceptions

(p.91) when the need arises. It is extremely important to let children know that the emotion is neither negative nor positive. It is only the actions that one takes and the choices that one makes as a result of the emotions that are positive or negative.

Once children have acquired an emotions vocabulary, can recognize and identify what they are feeling, and have begun to make connections between their feelings and their actions, we can begin to teach ways for them to manage their impulses and negative social behaviors. The social worker may review the fact that when in a highly emotional or stressful state, it is very difficult to take in information or make good rational decisions.

“Here is a list of things we can do when we start to lose control. Is there something else you can add, something you do when you need to calm down? (Tell the children about something that you do as a model.) Look at the list and pick one or two things you have used or think would work for you so that you can stay calm.” (see Box 7.2)

(p.92) Decision Making and Problem Solving

At the heart of all conflict resolution programs is the process of decision making and problem solving. The steps of problem solving vary slightly from program to program; however, they all generally include the following steps:

  1. 1. Identify the problem.

  2. 2. Set a goal to resolve the problem.

  3. 3. Generate possible solutions.

  4. 4. Pick one solution.

  5. 5. Try it.

Each possible solution must be examined for both positive and negative consequences. “What might happen if I do this?” Planning, a step that is often omitted, requires thoughtfully designing how, where, and when one should proceed with a chosen solution. Finally, an integral step is to evaluate the action you took. Did it get you to your goal?

In effect, decision making and problem solving are the culmination of all the skills and strategies in an SEL classroom. Having a “feelings” vocabulary to accurately label what they are feeling when they are feeling it and being able to manage their emotions so that they can interact in prosocial ways and attend to content in the classroom all work together to cue into a problem that needs to be solved. Even young children can be guided through the problem-solving process with questions that will help them to think about the conflicts, problems, and decisions they face (see Table 7.1). Individuals can self-monitor behavior by using the same questions developed into a problem-solving diary. Diaries can be tools that teachers, counselors, social workers, and even administrators use when discussing progress made in behavior over time with students.

Final Thoughts

For children who are deficient in the social skills needed to function in a learning community, the classroom can be a threatening place. These are the children most likely to be involved in school conflicts (Zins et al., 2004). We now know that children are also not likely to acquire and perform these skills in any effective way unless they are generalized to the entire school environment. Administrators, teachers, and parents sometimes look for a silver bullet that will magically make schools safe and caring, protect our children, and raise the academic achievement levels so that truly no child is left behind. There is no such quick fix. What will improve safety and a sense of caring within classrooms are planned and purposeful efforts. The role of the school mental health professional is uniquely positioned to lead the way in building such a comprehensive approach to social competence.


Table 7.1 Facilitative Questioning

To Help Children Think Using Problem-Solving Steps

Consider Asking Questions Like These

1. Look for signs of different feelings.

1. How are you feeling? You look a little upset (sad, nervous, angry, etc.). Am I right?

2. Identify the problem.

2. What do you think is the problem?

3. Decide on a goal.

3. What do you want to have happen? What is your goal?

4. Stop and think of as many solutions as possible.

4. Let’s stop and think of all the different ways you might reach your goal. What could you do? What else could you do?

5. For each solution, think of all the things that might happen next.

5. If you _____, what do you think might happen? What else could happen? (Prompt for both positive and negative outcomes.)

6. Choose the best solution.

6. Which of your ideas do you think is the best for you? Which idea has the best chance of getting you to your goal?

7. Plan it and make a final check.

7. What will you have to do to make your solution work? What do you think could go wrong or block your plan?

8. Try it and rethink it.

8. What happened when you tried your plan? What did you learn that might help you next time?

Source: Adapted with permission from Elias and Tobias (1996), Social problem solving: Interventions in the schools. New York: Guilford.

The term social and emotional learning is fairly new on the school scene, although the understanding that SEL skills are important to success in school and in life has been around for decades. Educators, particularly with their attention so focused on the No Child Left Behind mandates, may need a broader perspective from those who see clearly that building a mentally, socially, and academically healthy individual is precluded by first building a healthy, caring, and accepting school environment (Elias et al., 2002; Zins et al., 2004). SEL is neither a silver bullet nor a quick fix. It takes time to change human behavior, but it is time well (p.94) invested and recaptured when the teacher can spend less time resolving conflicts and more time in academic pursuits.



Charney, R. S. (1992). Teaching children to care: Management in the responsive classroom. Greenfield, MA: Northeast Foundation for Children.

Educators for Social Responsibility. (1995). Conflict resolution workshop and implementation manual. Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.

Elias, M. J., Tobias, S. E., & Friedlander, B. S. (1999). Emotionally intelligent parenting: How to raise a self-disciplined, responsible, socially skilled child. New York: Harmony.

Elias, M. J., Tobias, S. E., & Friedlander, B. S. (2000). Raising emotionally intelligent teenagers: Parenting with love, laughter, and limits. New York: Harmony.

Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M, Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M. E., & Shriver, T. P. (1999). Promoting social and emotional learning: Guidelines for educators. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Goleman, D. (1997). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Lantieri, L., & Patti, J. (1996). Waging peace in our schools. Boston: Beacon.

Salovey, P., & Sluyter, J. D. (Eds.). Emotional development and emotional intelligence: Educational implications. New York: Basic Books.


Child Development Project (CDP): www.devs0tu.org

Don’t Laugh at Me (free materials): www.dontlaugh.org

PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies): www.colorado.edu/cspv/blueprints/model/programs/PATHS

Primary Mental Health Project: www.pmhp.org

Resolving Conflicts Creatively Program (RCCP): www.ersnation.org/about-rccp

The Responsive Classroom: www.responsiveclassroom.org

School Development Program (SDP): www.info.med.yale.edu/comer

Second Step Violence Prevention Curriculum: www.cfchildren.org

Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Network: www.6seconds.org

Social Decision Making and Problem Solving:

Social Development Research Group (SDRG): www.dept.washington.edu/sdrg


Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: www.ascd.org

Character Education Partnership: www.character.org

The Collaborative for Academics Social and Emotional Learning: www.CASEL.org

Social and Emotional Parenting: www.EQParenting.com

Key Points to Remember

  • Helping a student to develop social skills in the classroom is more effective in the long term when the classroom culture is supportive of those social skills.

  • (p.95)
  • A classroom environment that promotes caring, respectful, and responsible behaviors has fewer conflicts, and when conflicts do occur they are resolved more amicably.

  • Effective communication skills such as active listening and “I” messages are critical components of a caring community.

  • SEL promotes prosocial and self-management skills.

  • SEL must be integrated into regular rules, routines, and academic instruction so that ample opportunities for practice arise.

  • SEL teaches that emotions are neither good nor bad; they just are there. It is the actions taken while in the midst of a strong emotion that can become problematic.

  • The time it takes to teach and reinforce these skills is not wasted. In fact, time for academic content is increased as time needed to resolve conflicts is decreased.