Social awareness is a very complex competency when it comes to social-emotional learning. There are many, many facets to it, and we’re going to briefly address only a few at this point.
1: Empathy and perspective taking
Empathy, as we all (hopefully) know, is the ability to understand and/or share the feelings of someone else. This is something crucial that we want all of our students to have. When a peer is really struggling or sad, we want our kids to be kind to him, not act irritated. Once they can identify and respond appropriately to their own emotions, they need to be able to put the same skills into practice with others.
Perspective taking is similar, but less emotional. This allows students to see a situation from a different point of view, think through why someone may have done what they did, and even understand another party’s stance in a conflict. Both of these skills are crucial not only for our kids to understand others, but also to understand the impact that their behavior has the potential to have on others.
2: Non-verbal communication
This skill is important for our students in two ways: how they perceive and interpret input from others, and how accurately they can communicate to others.
I had a student that I could give the stink-eye to all day long. He would look up to my gaze, seem confused for a moment, then go back to what he was doing as though my death stare made no impact at all. I also had a student who assumed that any time I wasn’t actively smiling, I was upset. Both students had their own lack of skill in reading body language.
I’m not saying to get kids accustomed to interpreting nasty glances (primarily because I don’t think that stink-eye should be common practice in the classroom). In fact, this lack of understanding is fairly common in kids, especially younger ones. As they get older and start building their background knowledge, gaining exposure to more people and in more situations, their comprehension of non-verbal communication (body language and tone, especially) grows.
For the more extreme cases of over-thinking, narrate. For this particular kid, when I saw him start to exhibit anxious behavior because of my non-smile, I would state what I was doing. “I’m thinking hard about the answer to that question.” “I’m really focused on my paperwork.” “I’m trying to remember if we have art or music today.” This allowed him to eventually connect my more serious expressions with non-negative things, which reduced his anxiety.
Then you have the ones who don’t recognize how they are being perceived through their non-verbal communication. Some of your students who speak in the most disrespectful tone, or with the most confrontational body language, may not even realize that they’re doing it. A coworker had a student who would frequently come see her, mad because his teachers always seemed upset with him. “All I said was…” or “I just told her that…”
Her response to this was, “Well, did you say it as calmly as you’re saying it to me right now?”
*shrug* “I don’t know.”
So she got mom’s permission, and recorded him a couple of times. Then she met with him. “Earlier today you asked Ms. Burr about your supplies,” she said. Then she quoted him. “Ms. Burr, where’s my box of supplies?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said,” he agreed.
“Right. I said it calmly and respectfully. Now let’s watch you ask it.”
The video she had gotten included some arm-flailing, a scowl, and a very different tone of voice. He looked sheepish after watching the replay.
“Now,” she said. “If I had gone in to Ms. Burr and said it the same way you did, what would you think?”
He smiled a little, clearly imagining the scene. “I’d think you were trying to pick a fight.”
Sometimes it’s helpful to show them how they look and sound, even if it’s just through reenactment. Make it humorous. Get them to realize how they come across to people.
3: Understanding norms
This has less to do with understanding rules, and more to do with comprehending appropriate behavior. It is a norm not to yell when you are only inches away from someone. It is a norm not to intentionally cause anyone harm. It is a norm to keep your clothes on when you are around other people. For some students, this learning did not take place at an early age, and so these things must be explicitly taught. They can then learn to recognize violations, and advocate for themselves and others when they see norms being broken.
4: Understanding context
Once they have a grasp on norms, they can begin to understand that not all norms apply in all contexts. I had a student who got upset that her peers did not maintain a level 2 volume outside at recess, even though that was the expectation in the building. It took a long time for her to understand that some norms carried over (like appropriate language), but others didn’t, and still others did but looked different (playground safety vs. classroom safety).
I never tell my students not to cuss. That’s between them and their parents. What I do is remind them that they are in a professional, academic environment. Just like you wouldn’t write a letter the same way you’d write a research paper, how you behave at home is not necessarily what is appropriate for school. Neither way is necessarily wrong, they are just different because of their different contexts.
P.S. Don’t ever ask, “Do you talk to your mother that way?” First, you never know what response you’re going to get. Second, the answer doesn’t really matter. How they talk to their mom is rarely how they should be talking to you, anyway.
5: Anticipating consequence
Once your kids have a comprehension of norms and a grasp on context, they can begin to anticipate the consequences (positive or negative) of their actions. This means that you can have those amazing reinforcing conversations:
“Your area has been so organized! I’d like to put you in charge of our cleanup crew this week.”
“You worked really hard and got done a little early. You’ve earned some choice time.”
Or, those amazing corrective conversations:
“Because you and Jack were very distracted today, you’re going to have to find new desk-mates after lunch.”
“You haven’t been being safe. The playground equipment is off limits today.” (note that recess was not taken away)
Of course, this means that we have to implement natural consequences (more on that later) but it greatly reduces the negative feedback you will get during these situations, because they will understand why it is happening and that they are the ones who determined the outcome.
What is your experience with your students’ social awareness? Do you have ideas or strategies you’ve found successful? Please share them in the comments!