Building Social Emotional Skills through Cooperative Learning

Building Social Emotional Skills through Cooperative Learning

Dr. Stephanie Knight

It seems as though the kids who enter my classroom have more needs than ever before.  Sure, they need the three R’s, but they also enter with social emotional deficits. This impacts their learning! On one hand emotions have the potential to boost students’ thinking, but conversely they can inhibit learning. Daniel Goleman, the expert on Emotional Intelligence, would stress teachers need to be not only discussing feelings but adding this emotional intelligence quotient into the day. (Goleman, 2001) I have found that Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills embedded into the curriculum + Cooperative Learning structures + Reflection = Optimum learning for life long skills.

Embedding vs. Explicit

Mastering the emotional intelligence skills (self awareness, managing emotions, self motivation, empathy, and handling social relationships), coined by Daniel Goleman (1995), is crucial for school and life success. SEL is a process for teaching these skills. One way to help students gain these skills (like lessons on empathy, etc.) is to teach them explicitly as part of the curriculum. This takes extra planning and perhaps can replace what must be covered. On the other hand, there is power in the embedded curriculum. Many seem to learn better when the skill is applied, such as a simple Think Pair Share (taking turns and sharing ideas), and Kagan would argue that the Cooperative Learning (CL) structures are a way of teaching by doing (Kagan, 2001).

Yes, but HOW?

CL is not new but many struggle with its implementation. Without structure, getting my students to work cooperatively never worked. However with the use of formal CL in the classroom, students have roles and participate in decision-making. There is safe expression of ideas while they foster positive social relationships. Simultaneously, there is the teaching of accountability and responsibility.

The key is STARTING my year showing that our classroom goal is to be a community. Students must have BUY-IN and that is why we discuss how we will work on the emotional skill goals. These goals are posted along with empowering quotes showing that we will be a cooperative learning classroom. However, practice and constant modeling is crucial. I use the structures for content, but I always will add in a fun icebreaker to keep us community-oriented. Class-builders should be done weekly too.

Practical ideas for using SEL in the CL

Each week, post the social-emotional goal on which you would like to focus. The

following are some great Cooperative Learning strategies developed by Kagan (2001). Again, this is part of the goal of being a community. Self-awareness can start the year because you might want to have students have journals, think pads, and personal space on which they can rely.

1.     Self-Awareness


  • Journal Reflections: Students keep a feelings journal in which they record their emotional reactions to anything which occurs in school including successes, failures, and relationships. (Kagan, 2001)
  • Always allow think time before they respond on a think pad or such.
  • (Each student should have a think pad (a blank notepad) so they can record a thought before answering in class. This also allows one to record any thoughts without blurting out impulsively).

 2.     Self-Control


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

3.     Self-Motivation


  •  Rally Coach: This method allows each student in a pair to solve a problem with coaching from the other partner, fostering self-worth and independence.
  • A pair could be working on a math problem or a lab report.
  • Partner A can work the first problem while Partner B watches, listens, coaches, and praises.
    • This part is going to require practice as many don’t know how to listen, coach, and praise.
    • Students’ confidence will build and they will want to solve problems because they won’t feel like failure is fatal.
    • Next, Partner B solves the next problem while Partner A watches, listens, coaches, and praises. Partners take turns until the task is complete.

 4.     Empathy


  • Jigsaw: With this method, each student on the team masters a different part of the lesson. Each teammate leaves the team, and works 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 other students become experts.
  • 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 Kagan Structures encourage empathy because they involve asking others questions, interpreting body language, and discussion.


5.     Relationship Skills


  • CenterPiece: This approach is a great interaction brainstorming opportunity.
  • Each group needs five pieces of paper per team of four, one paper each and one in the center.  There is a brainstorming topic, and each participant writes his/her choice. He/she says it, writes it, and exchanges the paper with the one in the center. Participants continue to brainstorm, each time trading their page with the CenterPiece.
  • Finally, the teacher leads in whole group discussion of each centerpiece title and allows groups to share/explain responses.  This can work great for writing prompts or reviewing math problems. At the same time, group dynamics continue to strengthen.
  • To build relationships, all of these structures or many others suffice.

Student Reflection and Self-Assessment

Ideally, reflection should occur daily and is perfect inside the journals or on a peer, self, or group reflection sheet. Without the process of thinking back on one’s experiences, one cannot truly grow into a deeper understanding of self. Plus, this creates accountability so students can stay focused on goals.

Choosing to embed Cooperative Learning structures into the regular curriculum enables students to practice using social skills throughout the school 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, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence: Five Years Later, February 23, 2001.



Hirsch, Joe. Teaching Empathy: Turning a Lesson Plan into a Life Skill, February 6,




Kagan, S. Kagan Structures for Emotional Intelligence. San Clemente, CA: Kagan

Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Fall 2001.

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