Inside the Classroom: Social-Emotional Learning in 4th Grade

Receive the children in reverence; educate them in love; let them go forth in freedom. – Rudolf Steiner

Being in school is a hugely social experience as children interact throughout the day with their same-grade classmates, teachers, teammates, coaches, recess buddies, aftercare group, younger reading buddies, and others. Even independent activities such as reading a book to oneself or visiting the bathroom are done within a social context where an awareness of others is at play. As they make their way from one social setting to another—from home to school, from the classroom to outdoor recess, or from math class to strings class—children are learning to navigate a range of individual personalities and social norms for the group.

How a child is able to get along with others in any situation and how she views herself has a great impact on the her overall success and happiness—not just at school, but in life. Since September, the fourth grade has been making beautiful progress in areas such as awareness of tone and facial expressions, stamina, self-confidence, supporting each other’s learning, discussion skills, and standing up to others, to name a few. In February, beginning with a class reading of Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel (see “Learning About Empathy Through Literature and Theater,” below), the fourth graders’ social-emotional learning came to the forefront as a unit of study in and of itself, with part of morning lesson and homework time intentionally devoted to the topic.

Showing Appreciation

At the beginning of February, the fourth grade discussed various ways to show appreciation for others and brainstormed the ways they could say thank you to seventh-grade parent and Assistant Conservation Director for the Snow Leopard Trust, Jennifer Rullman, for coming to the classroom to educate the class about her work with snow leopards and poachers in different parts of the world. Since Jennifer’s work includes educating others, the group’s final decision was to, first, show her how much they had learned from her presentation, and second, contribute to her cause in some way.

Jennifer Rullman, Assistant Conservation Director at Snow Leopard Trust, with 4th grade students.

The projects that the children came up with were meant to serve as teaching tools for Jennifer to use with other children, whether in California or Mongolia. Three students decided to write and illustrate a picture book, while the other two students created a fact-filled poster. The students were genuinely excited to share their gifts and further gratified by Jennifer’s heartfelt response.

On Valentine’s Day, following a homework assignment that asked the students to reflect on ways that others made their life better in some way, the class came up with a list about how to show appreciation:

  • Tell the person what you appreciate about them or something they did
  • Say thank you
  • Write a note/card/letter
  • Look at the person when they are speaking or when you are speaking to them
  • Compliment them
  • Tell them that you noticed what they did
  • Be positive
  • Listen to the person
  • Be kind
  • Be generous

Learning About Empathy Through Literature and Theater

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy can start with tuning in to how someone else may be feeling. Expressing empathy can be a simple acknowledgement of what you observe. For instance, if a child looks sad and another child simply says, “You look sad,” he may be seeking connection and understanding of his friend’s feelings. Another way to empathize is by allowing someone to feel what s/he is feeling without expectations that s/he does or feels anything different. Just simply sitting next to someone who is angry or upset is an empathetic gesture if intended to understand or share in another person’s mood. As a parent, it can be hard to do this as our instinct is often to ask questions and try to make things better for our children right away when we see they are upset.

Illustration by 4th Grade Teacher Danielle Harrington inspired by the book “Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel” by Nikki Grimes

At the assembly just before February break, members of the fourth grade class performed two pivotal scenes from a book they read called Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel. The book centers on the main character, smart-as-a-whip Dyamonde Daniel, who has just moved to a new city and is courageously navigating the ins and out of being the new kid in the neighborhood. At her new school, Dyamonde meets another newbie, Free, who she sees as grouchy and unkind. Dyamonde doesn’t understand Free and his negative attitude and decides to get to the bottom of what’s bothering him.

The students took on acting out two scenes from the book that illustrate how moving beyond anger, digging deep, and finding genuine empathy for another person can lead to surprising revelations, a sense of understanding, and, eventually, real connection.

Mindset and Responsibility

Chalkboard notes from a discussion about how the students contribute to dinner time routines at home. The fourth graders assessed their own level of contribution to tasks as well as their own level of commitment and attitudes while completing these responsibilities.

Having an open or ” growth mindset” is essential to learning. It includes being positive about one’s learning and one’s abilities and is rooted in a belief that intelligence is a living, growing thing that a person can improve. Any skill can be improved through practice and commitment. Such an outlook may be expressed through honest, positive phrases like, “This is hard, but I’m working on it,” or “I’m not feeling confident. Could I have some help with this?” It is the opposite of a closed mindset, which may be heard through complaining, groaning, criticism, and fixed-attitude phrases like, “My brain can’t do this,” “I’m terrible at this,” or “This is pointless. Why are we learning this?” which all slam the door on experiences. A closed mindset is often based in fear and meant to protect the learner from struggling or from being exposed for not being good at something. A closed mindset undermines oneself and can also be disrespectful to others’ ability to learn. Negativity in the form of complaining may also suggest a lack of appreciation of others’ efforts, or taking things for granted. It is heard in phrases like, “Ugh. My dad forgot to pack me my favorite cheese AGAIN!” or “Gym class isn’t for gymnastics. Why are we even doing this?”

In an attempt to help the fourth grade students develop more self-awareness and a more positive outlook, part of their work has involved trying on a different lens; instead of seeing what’s missing (or what they are not getting), students are invited to think about how they can contribute—to their own experiences and to the experiences of others. Moreover, they are being asked to actively express appreciation for simple things and big things throughout the day, both at school and at home.

Why Is Social-Emotional Learning Important and Why Do We Teach It This Way?

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy towards others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”*

At Waldorf School at Moraine Farm practicing a positive mindset on a daily basis, teaching the students methods to resolve conflict, and providing a platform to express feelings and emotions, are core principles and expectations that are established early on in the school year. This environment invites students to become self-aware of their feelings, actions and effect on others. Through modeling and practice, these “processes” become more and more inherent in the students, allowing them to engage more fully in their learning while growing into moral and compassionate human beings.

* Source:


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