How Group Work and Social-Emotional Learning Go Together

In most school districts, there’s a consistent drive to hit the common core standards. Students need to have basic knowledge of math, reading and critical thinking in order to advance to higher grades and into college or the workforce. However, teachers do so much more than teach arithmetic and grammar. They also contribute to the social and emotional development of their students so they can become future leaders and responsible citizens. 

Group work plays an important role in this development. It helps students learn how to problem-solve, compromise, communicate and work toward a common goal. Learn how social-emotional learning and group work go together and why these are so important for students. 

Projects Are the Foundation of Social-Emotional Learning

Group work allows you to put the social into social-emotional learning. It’s an opportunity to take an idea and apply it to the classroom environment. Many teachers teach social skills like conflict resolution and compromise in class, but group work creates a space for students to experience conflict and resolve it for themselves.

“Project-based learning can help facilitate soft skill development and create the context for students to engage in social-emotional learning,” says the author of “Empower: What Happens When Students Own Their Learning,” John Spencer, who is an associate professor of education at George Fox University in Oregon. 

“At the same time, when students also engage in social-emotional learning, they develop critical soft skills that help them create better projects,” Spencer writes. “This leads to a reciprocal relationship, where project-based learning (PBL) leads to social-emotional learning (SEL) and SEL improves student performance in PBL tasks.”

Group work is particularly important for students in developmental years and for kids who might not have as many opportunities to develop healthy social skills outside of the classroom. 

“Studies have shown that environmental factors such as poverty, chronic stress, and trauma can impact students’ brain development and ability to pay attention, recall information, practice self-control, and get along with classmates,” writes Jordan Friedman, content marketing manager at education platform Emeritus. “This makes SEL especially important for low-income students who are more likely than their affluent peers to face social, emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges.”

When students successfully work together in a group, they have a positive experience with self-control and teamwork. Even students from well-off backgrounds can benefit from working together after the past few years, where many were collaborating remotely because of the pandemic. 

“All of us are growing more aware of the mental health effects of the pandemic,” says Amanda Merritt, senior leadership coach at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. “We know that the social interactions schools offer are just as important as academics, and opportunities to collaborate positively impact students’ social and emotional well-being as well as their learning.”

Group work allows you to be creative with your lesson plans and is also the cornerstone of social-emotional learning.

smiling student in black and white sweater looks at camera while working on homework; group work and social-emotional learning concept

Group Work Establishes a Collaborative Classroom Environment

There are instances where school work is competitive. Students want to prove that they can keep up with their peers and exceed the expectations of their teachers. However, there are benefits to learning collaboratively, where the success of the entire class is the ultimate goal. Group work facilitates this collaboration. 

“When children collaborate, they learn to trust each other,” writes Corinna Keefe at The Hive. “They become more confident because they know that the group has their back. Collaborative learning has been scientifically linked to higher self esteem, achievement, and positive relationships.”

When done well, group work teaches students that their peers are there to help them. That means they don’t just have to rely on their teacher. By instilling this confidence, your students can test their boundaries and challenge each other.

“Through defending their positions, reframing ideas, listening to other viewpoints and articulating their points, learners will gain a more complete understanding as a group than they could as individuals,” writes the team at Valamis, a digital learning company specializing in workforce development.

Group work is about creating a safe space for students and then asking them to push out of their comfort zones. Students can voice their opinions and know they won’t be immediately rejected — but also not immediately accepted. 

Through collaboration, students learn self-awareness. They identify their own personal strengths and weaknesses. This will be useful to them long after they leave your classroom. 

Group Work Promotes Positive Interdependence

As you work to make your classroom more collaborative, you can use group work to foster a sense of teamwork and support. Former school psychologist Laura Driscoll encourages teachers to create a culture of positive interdependence — otherwise known as “group sink or swim.” 

“When the group has a goal and the group efforts will cause them to succeed or fail together… each person’s efforts benefit themselves and everyone else in the group,” she writes. 

For example, the team at Teachers of Tomorrow shared a team-building activity. You hand out cards to each student with a character, item, or place. You start the story with an introduction and then move on to a student who adds to the story in a way that is related to the card they are holding. The story builds with each student participating and adding their person, place or thing. The whole class succeeds together.

Interdependence makes your classroom less competitive. Students won’t focus exclusively on their learning process and can help others. This benefits students who are struggling while reinforcing the material for advanced learners.  

kindergarten class plays with a parachute; group work and social-emotional learning concept

You Will Develop Your Classroom Culture With Groups

Your efforts to develop social-emotional learners can benefit the overall culture in your school. Students begin to understand that they contribute to the group rather than singular efforts and are part of the larger learning environment.

Danny Wagner, project manager at ISTE and former science and robotics teacher points to insights from Google on what makes a good team. The company found that it doesn’t matter who is on a team, but rather the culture surrounding the group. 

“Our natural tendency is to rotate students to discover the right chemistry; however, Google’s research shows this isn’t the right approach,” writes Wagner. “Instead, we should help students understand how good teams operate and then build a shared set of skills that work no matter the team’s composition.”

You don’t want students to work together in just one set of groups. Instead, you want to be able to change up your groups (and even switch students between classrooms) and feel confident that the same quality of work and collaboration will occur. 

“Establishing a positive learning environment within the course may be the most important element required to be successful in creating those meaningful discussions and learning experiences, which come from collaborative learning experiences,” write Katie Lewis and Nicole Hesson at York College of Pennsylvania. “Creating opportunities for students to get to know each other is essential to student engagement. When students feel connected to the class, they will participate more actively.”

This is easier said than done. 

Many teachers notice cliques as early as elementary school and the idea that students would willingly work together with any of their peers seems outlandish by the time they reach more advanced grades. However, teachers can’t stop breaking down these barriers. Any new group is an opportunity for connection and growth.  

“Most middle and high school students choose to associate with their friends in class or students with whom they feel comfortable,” says English teacher Christina Schneider. “Maintaining an element of group work in the classroom allows students to work with other people that are not in their immediate circle. This process helps to integrate students into different circles of people, even if it’s just for a short time.” 

College Students Collaborating On Project In Library; group work and social-emotional learning concept

Teachers Benefit From Group Work As Well 

Teachers can also use group work to gain a clearer understanding of their students. 

“Group work gives teachers a fantastic opportunity to monitor and observe as students collaborate,” writes elementary school teacher Lori McDonald. “By observing students working in groups, teachers are able to identify strengths and areas of concern, both academically and socially,”

Group work can create a low-stress environment for students. Many students might feel anxious when talking to a teacher or speaking in front of the whole class. This makes it seem like they know less than they do. Some English language teachers use group work so students feel safe practicing what they learned. 

“It can be hard for ESL teachers to assess speaking performance in their students,” says Susan Verner at Busy Teacher. “Putting students in groups and unobtrusively listening to them is a perfect way to see how much they are really putting to use. You can hear pronunciation, spoken grammar, and ability to communicate just by listening in on some classroom group work.” 

With this information, you can alter your lesson plans and create opportunities for shy students to feel safe speaking up.

There are Drawbacks to Group Work

While group work can serve as a foundation to social-emotional learning, there are some risks with leaning too heavily on group projects and activities.

“As a teacher, it’s difficult to make sure everyone is doing the task they’re supposed to for the entire session, not just as you approach their table to see how they’re doing,” writes the team at mental skills training company InnerDrive. “For some teachers, it feels that they have to micromanage the task in order for the task to be effective, diminishing the purpose of working in a group.”

While kids are easily distracted, some students might use group work to have their lack of participation fall under the radar. Everyone can remember a time in work or school when one member of the team did nothing and still received the same level of credit. This is called social loafing. 

Even the best classroom culture can’t prevent some students from slacking off or getting distracted. Your role as a project facilitator is to keep students engaged while making sure everyone stays on task. Tim Franz, psychology professor at St. John Fisher College, encourages instructors to make sure they are visible and active members of group projects. You can walk around the classroom, attend some discussions and even sit in with different groups. This keeps students on track because they will need to show you how they are working when you come by.  

Group work and social-emotional learning build on each other. Good social skills lead to better teamwork while group work is used to build up social competencies. Moving forward, consider how your group projects can reinforce the core materials while also helping students become more socially rounded.

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