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by Tim Grivois-Shah, Ed.D., Director of Professional Learning and Community Engagement
Social and emotional learning begins with building strong, warm, and nurturing relationships with your students. Your Professional Learning Community could lead this work at your site.

Build relationships first. All the rest can come next.

In most elementary schools, students spend almost all of their day with one teacher. Recently, some schools have tried different ways to organize learning time. One idea has been to group students in “specialized” classrooms where they learn different subjects from different teachers. Another idea, called “looping” has been for students to stay with the same teacher for two or more years.

Researchers discovered that both classrooms with more than one teacher and classrooms where teachers loop with their students affect student achievement in important and completely different ways:

In specialized elementary school classrooms, students had lower test scores, worse attendance, and a greater likelihood of being suspended from school, while in classrooms where teachers looped with their students for two or more years, test scores were consistently higher than students who spent only one year with their teacher.

Why should having more than one teacher affect student achievement so much? And why would spending two or more years with a teacher support learning so well?

Relationships. Students who spend two or more years with their students have more opportunity to build warm, supportive relationships with their teachers and for a longer period of time than students who see several teachers a day. And, while looping with students may not be an option for every teacher or school system, all teachers, schools, and districts can take action to strengthen relationships with students.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
We build warm and safe learning spaces when we start at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and work our way up.

Take a look at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s theory is that we all work to meet similar kinds of needs, starting at the bottom of the pyramid. Self-actualization, or achieving our full potential, is a need we can only think about when we have food, feel safe, have friends, and have numerous opportunities to set and achieve our goals.

This means that classroom teachers are also first-responders. Already, teachers stock their classrooms with extra snacks, create reading spaces with soft furniture and greet their students at the door. Principals are free with hugs, fist bumps, and high-fives, and they take time to know each student by name. And entire school systems can organize their bell schedules to make time for each school adult to meet with small groups of students to help each student achieve socially and emotionally so that they are ready to achieve academically as well.

Social and emotional learning is necessary for academic learning, and must come first. Here are five actions teachers, principals, and school systems could take today to shift our focus to what matters most:


  • Greet your students at the door with a smile and a kind word.
  • Scan your classroom and ask, “Do I know how each of the children I see is feeling right now?” Check in with any child who might need you.
  • Tell jokes and laugh together.
  • Commit each day to writing a kind note to one of your students, and make sure every student gets a note by the end of the month or year depending on how many students you see.
  • Create secret handshakes with your students.


  • Learn the names of every student in your building.
  • Make time for advisory at the middle school and high school level. Elementary schools can implement class meetings and buddy up activities.
  • Print postcards with your school logo. Start staff meetings with you and your staff writing positive postcards home to families.
  • Look for students that you don’t often see in your office. Ask them if there’s anything they wish they could do more of at school.
  • Imagine what would need to happen at your school to make sure that every child had a meaningful connection with two or more school adults. Then do it.

School Systems:

  • Explicitly include social and emotional outcome data as a key part of assessing overall achievement of schools.
  • Model social and emotional teaching strategies in your professional development for teachers and staff.
  • Provide teachers time and space for training in evidence-based approaches to social and emotional learning.
  • Implement Professional Learning Communities that allow educators to discuss social and emotional learning and academic achievement and conduct action research on SEL.
  • Make social and emotional learning part of your system’s mission and vision.

We want our schools to be places where students are successful academically and where we help them become good human beings. Work towards both by building strong relationships with your students.

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