The Intersection of Social Emotional Skill Building and Productive Struggle

The quote that’s the featured image for this blog really resonates with me.  In particular, replacing the word ‘parents’ in the quote with the word ‘educators’ reminds me how important it is that we continually find ways to influence a child’s life so that they gain “…a lifelong way to build and repair their own confidence.”  In my view, this can only be achieved through opportunities of product struggle – which to me is defined as those challenges that help students build perseverance, confidence, and flexibility.

Social-emotional skill building is one area in particular where I believe we’re still finding how best to utilize productive struggle.  I have welcomed the intentional push in education over the past decade to raise social-emotional learning to a priority that is equal to the core academic areas, but I believe as educators we are still feeling-our-way through the intersection between social-emotional skill building and providing those all important situations for students to experience productive struggle which builds emotional resilience.

Our Soaring for Success Team at Ledge Street Elementary (the team of teachers/administration leading our Social-Emotional Learning work) is currently clarifying for our school the intersection between social-emotional skill building with students and allowing students ample opportunities to productively struggle through emotions.  It’s proving to be a complicated task.  In order to be successful achieving that balance, we need to purposefully structure emotional supports for children in a way that does some of the work for them, while at the same time allowing them to struggle through parts of the problem independently.  But at what point do we do the work for them?  And at what point do we let them fail-forward based on their own choices?  That’s the complicated part.

A lot is riding on educators finding this balance quickly and every interaction we have with a child matters.  For instance, if we address a situation too heavy on the social-emotional skill building side and over-support the child, we risk ‘doing the work’ for them and robbing them of an opportunity to build perseverance and strength in the face of adversity.  Inversely, if we come into a situation too heavy on the productive struggle side and don’t support them enough emotionally, that can lead to a child feeling helpless or not feeling a sense of belonging in their learning environment.  If the thousands of interactions we have each day with children are out-of-balance in either of those directions, it will adversely affect the learning culture within a school.  That’s the urgency that is currently driving some of the change at our school.

I am intrigued by this journey we’re on to find the balance between social-emotional skill building and productive struggle.  A lot is riding on us as educators to ensure that children are supported emotionally as they learn to independently build and repair their own confidence, but we also must allow children opportunities to struggle through the social-emotional challenges they face.  If we can find this balance, I know we’ll achieve much greater success overall as a school moving forward.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!



There is a great video that’s been around for a few years from that shows how making something ‘fun’ can get people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t want to do.  The video is called Piano Stairs and it’s worth a second look, even if you’ve seen it before.  I’ve used this video over the years during staff professional development, as well as at parent meetings, to start a conversation about the importance of ‘fun’, and how ‘fun’ can/should be incorporated into our schools.

I would guess that when most people traditionally think about incorporating fun into school, it’s in the context of a reading, math, social studies or science lesson.  As in, “Wow, that was a really fun science lesson today!”  But I have challenged myself, and my staff, to think about ‘fun’ in a more targeted manner as we reset our PBIS behavior expectations this month.  In general, I think it’s been harder to consider the idea of ‘fun’ when we are teaching replacement behaviors or behavior expectations to students.  After all, until PBIS hit the scene a few decades ago, schools would predominantly focus on changing behaviors through a deficit-mindset or through punishment-to-change-behavior.

I think it’s easy to forget that to students, letting go of old behaviors and relearning new replacement behaviors is not only uncomfortable and confusing, it’s simply not fun.  During our PBIS reset this past month I’ve spent a significant amount of time listening and learning from our students as to what type of ‘fun’ motivates them.  Previously at our school we’ve provided the relatively common ideas such as extra recess, pajama day, crazy hat day, etc., as motivators, but you can only get so much mileage from that sort of fun.  Sometimes with the more challenging behaviors there needs to be some serious thought – out of the box, unique thought – as to what type of ‘fun’ is needed to encourage the necessary productive struggle that leads children to a change in behavior.

It’s not as easy as it seems to define exactly what is fun for students.  That process can quickly turn into a generation-gap issue.  As much as I love old Atari games, Electronic Football, Electronic Battleship, and other 80’s retro-cool fun, many of the students in our classrooms today want Ozobots or iPADs…which means I have to do my research and learn how to use these items (which isn’t always comfortable for me!).  But I recognize it’s crucial to step outside myself to accurately define what fun looks like for students in 2018.  So I’m always keeping my eyes open for the latest educational tools/tech that I can bring into the school and use creatively with PBIS.  Tools/tech that can be used in large groups, as well as ones that can be used with individual students.

It’s been reassuring to discover that some old-school fun has stood the test of time when it comes to changing behaviors.  For instance, the simplicity of a Nerf basketball hoop.  I had one in my classroom when I began my career as a 1st Grade teacher in 1998, and still have one in my office as a Principal.  I have had hundreds of conversations with students about behavior while shooting hoops in my classroom or office.  As educators, we all know the science behind physical activity and it’s positive relationship to working through thoughts/feelings, but the hoop adds a ‘fun’ component.  “Let’s shoot hoops and you can tell me how your day is going.”  “Let’s shoot hoops and we can talk about what happened in the classroom earlier today.”

Sometimes it’s just that little bit of fun that moves a child into an emotional space to embrace the productive struggle needed to change behavior.

This type of thinking has been a part of me as an educator since the first day I stepped into a classroom many years ago.

This generation of students is expecting us to provide more fun for them in school.  They are expecting that productive struggle and fun will be paired to make their very complicated work a bit easier for them to handle.  And that includes the way in which we teach/reinforce behaviors and behavior expectations.  I’m sure the thought of an educator utilizing a Nerf hoop can be described as a bit unorthodox, and in many ways I recognize that it is.  But given all the conversations and all the behaviors that I’ve seen change because of those items, it’s worth it to find the fun.

I welcome your thoughts and comments!