When I first began teaching second grade inclusion, something surprised me. The activities I anticipated being the most fun and enjoyable parts of the day ended up being the most challenging. Learning games, independent literacy stations, recess, and PE were the most challenging parts of our day. I found that almost every day, students would return from recess yelling at each other, hitting each other, and crying.
As an inclusion teacher, I have five students in my room with a disability. For some students, their disabilities would lead to difficulty with impulse control, emotional regulation, and perspective taking. However, I began to understand that most of my students, not just those on an IEP, had similar difficulties. Because of their lack of social emotional skills, my students could not handle the unstructured play time. They were not able to solve problems on their own and needed an adult to intervene before yelling, crying, and hitting ensued.
I quickly realized that my students needed support in building the social emotional skills required to independently problem solve. If there was a disagreement in a game, or if a student lost the game, they did not have the tools necessary to self-regulate and manage their emotions. They certainly did not have the tools to identify the size of their problem and match their reaction.
As I continued to reflect on what was happening in my classroom, I started to note key skills I felt my students needed the most. With support from my school’s inclusion specialist, I came up with the following list:
- Identifying their emotions
- My students needed to be able to name how they were feeling and why they were feeling that way.
- Identifying the size of the problem and matching their reaction to the size of the problem.
- My students needed to be able to differentiate between a big problem and a small problem. They needed to be able to match their reaction to the size of the problem and utilize strategies to do so.
- Perspective taking
- My students needed to be able to see the problem from their classmates’ perspective and come together to solve the problem.
- Problem solving
- My students needed a toolkit of problem solving strategies that were consistently practiced throughout the academic day.
Once I identified the skills I thought my students needed the most, I began researching and planning. I set aside one hour a week that was dedicated to a social-emotional lesson. Through my research, I found the Zones of Regulation Curriculum and adapted it to meet the needs of my students.I planned whole group lessons where we sorted emotions into the four Zones of Regulation. We discussed when it is expected to be in each zone. For example, it’s not unexpected to be in the “Yellow Zone” and frustrated when you lose a game. We discussed that it is okay to feel all emotions and to be in all the zones. However, we identified ways to deal with these emotions in a helpful and expected way. For example, if a student lost a game and was feeling frustrated, then the student could use a problem solving strategy such as self talk instead of yelling at a friend.
Next, we used the Zones of Regulation Size of the Problem poster to sort problems by their size. The poster identifies problems that are a size 1 which is a tiny problem all the way up to a size 5 which is a huge problem. I used scenarios that were difficult for students to manage in our class as well as problems that they may encounter in their daily life. The students matched the problem to a number on the poster. Examples of the problems we sorted were you lost a game at recess, you break your arm, you don’t want to do your math work, and etc. We discussed appropriate ways to react to the problems.
We read books that showed characters perspective taking. My favorite books for teaching social emotional skills are by Julia Cook. She has so many great books on everything from problem solving, to growth mindset, to tattling. I modeled appropriately using these skills, and I had students model these behaviors in front of the class. We created our own strategy toolkit books that were accessible during the day and in the classroom break space. These toolkit books contained the four zones of regulation. The students wrote what their body looks like and feels like when they are in each zone and strategies that work for them to get back to the green zone. I re-enforced these skills during every opportunity. For example, if a book character did a great job managing her emotions, I pointed it out to the class. If I noticed a student appropriately problem solving, I would praise them in front of their peers. As a result of these weekly lessons, I noticed that the students began to use the strategies. Over time, they became much more comfortable attempting to solve problems independently, and the most challenging parts of our day became much more enjoyable.
In order to create an inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome and safe, it is imperative that social-emotional skills are directly taught to our students. We should never assume that they already have the skills and tools needed to problem solve on their own. While explicitly teaching, we set standards and expectations for all of our students. This ensures that students are developing lifelong skills that will help them become problem solvers, collaborative learners, empathetic friends, and rational thinkers.