Building Social-Emotional Learning Skills Through Cooperative Learning


By Stephanie Knight

Knight SEL 300x300It seems as though the kids who enter my classroom have more needs than ever before. Sure, they need the three Rs, but they also enter with social-emotional deficits that affect their learning. On one hand, emotions have the potential to boost students’ thinking; on the other hand, they can inhibit learning. Daniel Goleman, an expert on emotional intelligence, stresses that teachers not only need to discuss feelings but also need to add the emotional intelligence quotient into the day (2001). I have found that social-emotional learning skills embedded into the curriculum + cooperative learning structures + reflection = optimum lifelong learning.

Mastering the emotional intelligence skills (self-awareness, managing emotions, self-motivation, empathy, and handling social relationships), as set forth by Goleman (1995), is crucial for school and life success. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a process for teaching these skills. One way to help students gain these skills is to teach them explicitly as part of the curriculum (e.g., specific lessons on what empathy is and how to show it). This takes extra planning and can sometimes take time away from other content that must be covered. The other way to teach the skills is to embed them into content-focused lessons. There is power in the embedded curriculum. Many students learn better when the skill is applied (e.g., a simple think-pair-share activity where students take turns and share ideas).

Cooperative Learning (CL) Structures

Spencer Kagan argues that CL is a way of teaching by doing (2001). CL is not new, but many struggle with its implementation. Without structure, getting my students to work cooperatively never worked. However, by incorporating formal CL in my classroom, students have roles and participate in decision making. They can safely express ideas while they foster positive social relationships. Simultaneously, I am able to teach them accountability and responsibility.

The key to a successful CL classroom is starting the year by showing students that the classroom goal is to be a community. Students must have buy-in, so we discuss how we will work on the SEL goals. I post the goals, along with empowering quotes, to remind them that we are striving to be a CL classroom. However, practice and constant modeling are also crucial. I use the structures for content, but I always add in a fun icebreaker and weekly class builders to keep us community oriented.

Incorporating CL into SEL

Each week, I post the SEL goal on which I would like my class to focus. The following are some great CL strategies, developed by Kagan (2001), for reaching different SEL goals. Again, all of this is part of the goal of being a community.

  1. Self-Awareness
  • Journal Reflections: Students keep a feelings journal to record their emotional reactions to things that occur during school (e.g., successes, failures, and relationships) (Kagan, 2001).
  • Think Pad: Students have a blank notepad so they can record a thought before answering in class. This also allows students to record their thoughts without blurting out impulsively.
  • Think Time: Students are given think time to gather their thoughts before they respond on a think pad or aloud.


 Talking Pencils: Students gather in four-person groups. When a student wants to share his opinion, he places his pencil in the center of the group. He cannot speak again until everyone has put in a pencil. Once all pencils have been put in, students take them back and start with the next question. This approach works wonders for discussion or even practice for multiple-choice answers (It can’t be “B” because . . . or It might be “C” because . . .).

  1. Self-Motivation  
  • Rally Coach: Students gather in pairs. Each student in the pair solves a problem with coaching from a partner, fostering self-worth and independence. Partner A works the first problem while Partner B watches, listens, coaches, and praises. Then, Partner B solves the next problem while Partner A watches, listens, coaches, and praises. Partners take turns until the task is complete. This requires practice, as many students don’t know how to listen, coach, and praise, but it builds their confidence and makes them want to solve problems because they don’t feel like failure is fatal.


  • Jigsaw: Students gather in teams. Each student on the team masters a different part of the lesson. Then, students leave their teams and work with like-topic members from other teams. Students then return to teach their teammates their portion of the content (Hirsch, 2014). This not only builds empathy as students learn to really listen, but it also builds self-confidence and motivation as students become experts on their topics. According to Hirsch (2014), “Cooperative learning creates what Daniel Goleman calls ‘cognitive empathy,’ a mind-to-mind sense of how another person’s thinking works.” Many CL structures encourage empathy because they involve asking others questions, interpreting body language, and discussion.
  1. Relationship Skills
  • Centerpiece: Students gather in groups of four, and each team receives five pieces of paper (one for each student and one in the center). Students are given a brainstorming topic. The first group member generates an idea, says it out loud, writes it on her paper, and exchanges her paper with the one in the center. Group members continue to brainstorm, each time trading their page with the centerpiece. Finally, the teacher leads a whole-group discussion on each centerpiece and allows groups to share/explain their responses. This approach is a great interactive brainstorming opportunity, and it works well for writing prompts or reviewing math problems. It also helps students continue to strengthen group dynamics.

Student Reflection and Self-Assessment

Ideally, reflection should occur daily, whether in journals or on peer-, self-, or group-reflection sheets. If students do not engage in the process of thinking back on their experiences, they cannot truly gain deeper understandings of themselves. Plus, reflection creates accountability so students can stay focused on goals.

Choosing to embed CL structures into the regular curriculum enables students to practice using SEL skills throughout the day. Optimum learning is contingent on healthy SEL, which comes from CL and reflection. If started early and continued consistently, things will change, and the classroom will become a true community.



Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New

York: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D. (2001, February 23). Emotional intelligence: Five years later. Edutopia.

Retrieved from

Hirsch, J. (2001, February 6). Teaching empathy: Turning a lesson plan into a life skill.

Edutopia. Retrieved from

Kagan, S. (2001). Kagan structures for emotional intelligence. Kagan Online Magazine.
Retrieved from

Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title One schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon University’s adjunct faculty where she teaches graduate level education and reading courses.



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