How Can We Make Time to Meet Students’ Emotional Needs?


Neely_m65x65My grandmother, Denolis Moore, is a retired teacher. The family recently threw her a 90th birthday party, at which many of her former students talked about instances when my grandmother had helped them get through a personal struggle that was hindering their academic performance. Reflecting on these conversations, I realized that my grandmother seemed to work intentionally to develop students’ character and academics while simultaneously meeting their social and emotional needs.

In this different era, teachers face an overwhelming landscape of educational initiatives, and we often find it difficult to strike a balance between academic development and meeting our students’ social and emotional needs. How do you make time to support your students emotionally, and how has that helped them academically?

—Michelle Neely, Teacher, Henry B. Gonzales Elementary School, Dallas, Tex.

Create a Safe Atmosphere

Although time is a big issue for us teachers, attending to students’ social and emotional needs is not a waste of time, but an investment. If students feel threatened or insecure, learning will be difficult. If we dedicate some time to make students feel that mistakes are part of the learning process, they will understand that we are there to help and not to judge. For students to feel comfortable and safe in a classroom, teachers must use specific strategies that create the necessary atmosphere—such as regular class meetings in which students can express their concerns. Pouiller_p65x65

—Patsy Pouiller, Deputy Head, Primary, St Andrew’s Scots School, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Meet Students’ Individual Needs

As a classroom teacher, I had my students complete the following statement on an index card on the first day of the school year: Two things I would like you to know about me as a person are ____________. I received so much insight and information about family situations, celebrations, learning styles, and likes and dislikes of the young people I worked with. During the year, I would revisit those cards often to remind myself that I had a classroom of individuals. Rather than rely on planned social time, I took opportunities every day to teach positive social interactions whenever the opportunity arose. Learning to read my students’ demeanor and body language allowed me to determine when they needed extra attention or understanding.

Over the years, however, I found the most important way to help my students feel supported was to design meaningful instruction that met their individual needs and challenged them to reach their full potential. Believing in students more than they believe in themselves is an amazing way to contribute to their lifelong emotional and social health. Mora_l65x65

—Lori Mora, Assistant Principal, Deer Valley Middle School, Phoenix, Ariz.

Establish a Support Network

In our school, we have created a network of administrators, teachers, special education professionals, and counselors who continually share information about our students. By understanding each student’s life within the school, I can support the work that my students are doing in their other classes. I can also learn from teachers who have had success with students who are having difficulty in my class.
At a classroom level, it’s important to give students voice so they become full participants in their own education. In my experience, meeting the emotional needs of our student doesn’t “just happen” because we care—it requires specific and measurable processes that are embedded in the way we do our work.Eliuk_e65x65

—Joanne Eliuk, Program Leader, English and Literacy, Iroquois Ridge High School, Oakville, Ontario, Canada

Keep Tabs on Students

I agree that it is difficult to balance academic excellence and character development. My school has built in a time to facilitate character development activities and discussions each week. In addition, I try to find some time when I can connect with my students on a more personal level. This might mean making small talk with them during lunch or sharing some personal anecdotes during appropriate teachable moments. It is also important to be observant and keep mental tabs on students who may be struggling with family and other issues. I periodically check in with the school counselor about these students. It is also important to maintain an approachable attitude so that students feel safe to share with me.Han_j65x65

—James Han, Teacher and Research Activist, St. Anthony’s Primary School, Singapore

Build Small, Real-Life Connections

The difference between good teachers and great teachers lies in the nature of their relationship with their students. As an administrator, I know right away when I walk into a class whether the teacher has connected with his or her students. Such teachers can sometimes be observed taking time to relate to students about their everyday life—for example, talking about how the local hockey team played the previous night or about a favorite movie. As a classroom teacher, I tried to take some time to find out something about each of my students that allowed me to connect with them. When we make those small, informal, real-life connections, we created a more relaxed atmosphere that supports academics—students seem to feel a greater level of trust and to be more willing to accept extra academic support. Potvin_a65x65

—Andre Potvin, Principal, Notre Dame High School, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Each month in Educational Leadership‘s “Among Colleagues” column, practicing educators will draw from their own experience to share advice about challenges their colleagues face. This month’s participants are some of the 2011 ASCD Annual Conference Scholars.


  1. I taught first grade in my third and fourth year of teaching and I discovered that there seemed to be less time to sit and let the children talk. When everyone had unpacked and at their seats, they could share something exciting that happened to them, going on vacation, or if they were sad or upset they could share the problem and as a group we could help brainstorm some ideas that the student could try in order to solve their problelm. If I children did have anything to say they could pass. I would always go back to the students that passed and give them a chance because by the time everyone was finished these students wanted to comtribute too. Just after a few months of doing this exercise the boys and girls were coming in and starting this activity on their own. It was exciting how they started to became good listners and problem solvers. The students had a sense of importance after completeing this activity. Also I would take one student and have them eat their lunch with me. Then there were times that I would eat my lunch in the lunch room with my class. The students would always ask are you eating with us today?

  2. Engage students in reflective activity.
    Reflective activity attends to pupils needs and as a reflective teacher my practices have become more intuitive and efficient in addressing individual student needs. It is challenging to meet the needs of individual students in my classroom on a daily basis. However, students’ needs must be met if effective learning is to take place. Teachers must find ways to rise above the challenges and address the needs of children to make maximum use of the teaching learning opportunities. I have formed partnership with my students to establish relationships. I work assiduously to design meaningful activities that cater for their needs and challenge them to go beyond their expectations. I also use practical examples that allow them to relate what they have learned to everyday life. They are given opportunities to express their thoughts on what they have learned and how they feel about what they have accomplished. They communicate the difficulties faced and suggest what can be done to enhance their progress. Engaging in such activities give students a sense of comfort and safety. It also helps them to perform better on tasks and thereby improves their academic performance.

  3. It is very easy to become overwhelmed by daily curriculum, monitoring progress, assessing concepts and data, readjusting lessons and attending school meetings. Even though time is limited, if childrens’ emotional needs are not met, then learning cannot take place. Every classroom should be a safe, respectful, supportive and caring place for students to grow. When students feel a sense of belonging and ownership, they are willing to contribute and participate. This environment happens only when teachers and students have supportive and respectful relationships with each other. In order to establish this, I believe open and honest communication is key. Therefore, a caring community should have respect for opinions, opportunities to collaborate, and more opportunities to make decisions together as a whole. Establishing a caring community must begin at the start of the year. To ensure that all students will be respected, there must be a set of commitments established. It is important that students participate in this process because it will allow them to feel included in the community. Once these rules are set, we can focus on keeping them to guarantee all students can engage safely and orderly to feel successful to the learning that is happening in the room. Some commitments may include, being respectful to yourself, others and property, listen when others are talking, and be kind and considerate of others. Having students discuss problems within the classroom and finding possible solutions allow students to learn from other peers and prior life-experiences.

  4. As a pre-k teacher, my curriculum is based on the social-emotional needs of my students. Many of the activities and our daily routine have to do with students socializing, learning how to solve problems without the help of the teacher, talk and work out conflicts with one another. In the beginning of the school year, I model for my students when something comes up. After a few months when nothing new has happened, I watch how my students handle the situation. Also, I listen and take anecdotal notes on to the conversations my students have with each other and the adults around them. Academically, it seems to be easier to teach children if you are able to have a conversation with them. Listen and to how they solve problems and do their work.

  5. I am a first grade teacher and I believe that teaching social and emotional skills are just as important as academics at this age. Yet, all we seem to be teaching, even pushing, is academics. We rush, rush, rush through the day cramming in as much academic education as possible. I try my best to take time to tend to my students emotional health but I could really use more time. The idea of not only teaching students academic skills but specifically teaching them social and emotional skills is something I think elementary schools have been lacking in for a long time. I think the simplest solution for this problem is to give students more time to explore their social and emotional selves instead of constantly pushing them toward academics. Knowledge is powerful but personal skills and emotional well being is also very important in growing up to be a productive and well balanced adult. As teachers, we need the time in the classroom to facilitate this growth process in a safe and loving environment. This way, students can explore their social and emotional skills without the repercussion of “playground behavior” and quick judgment calls. I read an article on a PLC website about developing PLC groups within the classroom. What a great idea for not only academic growth, but also facilitating social skill building and emotional debriefing for students. In these professional learning communities, students have the ability to feel in control of their education while being able to learn about group norms, their function, and their natural structure for sharing emotions about life.

  6. As a teacher educator who sometimes gets to teach K-12 one key is to take time to
    – know students
    – listen to them
    I think Ann Brown decades ago called it “kidwatching”. Sometimes a second pair of eyes helps. When I observe student teachers teach their faculty mentors are sometimes surprised at learning things about their students they did not think of because they were too busy performing up front. For example, the “quiet” student may either be shy or struggle with English. That second pair of eyes may ,more easily see this.
    And, as noted in previous posts, be proactive. If you a have question about a student, check. In the case of middle and high school sometimes the behavior is symptomatic of something other faculty have seen or may have knowledge you can use. Sometimes it is you and the student and not a general thing.
    In any case, best to figure it out early.


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