How to Bring Social-Emotional Learning to Your Math Classroom (And Why You Should)

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of using and managing emotions through the learning process. Students can reflect on a lesson to think about what they learned and apply context from other lessons and their own lives to build connections to the material. 

While SEL is increasingly used in literature and history classrooms to connect students to characters, it can also be used in your math classes. Here are some of the benefits of this learning style and how you can apply it to your lessons.

Fighting the Fear of Math

For many students, fractions and long division instill more fear in students than bee stings or the boogeyman. The fear of math is still alive in many classrooms, and causes students to put up walls and disconnect from the learning environment. 

Some school districts are taking steps to counter this fear by better understanding the emotional needs of students. Jon Wray, the coordinator of secondary mathematics for the Howard County Public School System in Maryland, shared his experience when the district launched a pilot program that focused on emotions in the math classroom. He says that the program first seemed like it belonged in a health classroom rather than a mathematics course. But then he saw the positive results.

“If we don’t attend to students’ emotions in the math classroom, we’re missing a huge piece of supporting them,” Wray says.  

If teachers can tear down the walls that students have — or prevent them from putting them up in the first place — they can engage kids at all grade levels in math. 

“Any curriculum worth its salt should have SEL woven into its very fibers—and that includes math programs,” write Kris Good and Gita Dev at Open Up, a provider of free curricula. “High-quality math programs empower students to become effective problem-solvers, rather than to quietly decide they’re just ‘not good at math’ or that they’re not ‘math people.’”

Social-emotional learning embraces the process of learning. It encourages students to focus on how something works and why it works that way, rather than placing pressure on learners to always end up with the correct result. 

“By approaching math with a growth mindset, teachers and families can help prevent kids from ending up with anxiety about math, or that feeling that some people are good at it and some are not,” says Jessica Young, Ph.D., senior research scientist at Education Development Center. “Getting kids to see mistakes not as failures but as opportunities to learn is really important, so that children can persist through that struggle.” 

This is why educators are also adding more project-based learning to the math classroom. The project engages them and makes them want to learn because they are working on something they are deeply interested in. 

Social-Emotional Learning in math

Math is Logical, But Also Emotional

The fact that so many students fear math proves that the concept is inherently emotional, rather than just logical. Other educators have noticed this and used it to their advantage. 

Paul McCreary, Ph.D., a professor at The Evergreen State College, taps into the emotional nature of learning math, reports Anya Kamenetz at NPR. He asks his students to write a “mini-memoir” about math class, so they can share a positive or negative experience about the subject. 

McCreary has found many students have profound emotions about math — some can remember the exact day, teacher’s name, and topic that made them hate math or develop a math phobia. The process helps students understand the source of their own feelings about the subject. It can give teachers the insight they need to help students potentially overcome those negative feelings.

Additionally, a lot of educators are trying to break down the idea that understanding math is a genetic trait — like having blue eyes or the ability to roll your tongue. 

“You don’t hear adults bragging about not being a reading person, but you do hear them brag about not being a math person,” Sian Beilock, Ph.D., president of Barnard College, says. Beilock doesn’t want students to accept the idea that they can or cannot do something at face value. 

Breaking down stereotypes often means contending with decades-long gender roles and beliefs about biology, like the idea that boys are just naturally better at math.

“There’s a well-known stereotype that women and girls aren’t as good in math and science as men and boys, and that kind of permeates our culture,” says Bettina Casad, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience Program at the University of Missouri-Saint Louis. “That in and of itself puts women and girls at a disadvantage because they’re fighting against a cultural stereotype.”   

Countless studies have proved that boys and girls process math in the same way and at the same pace. Yet many girls still chalk up their dislike of math to their gender. 

Social-Emotional Learning in the math classroom

What Does SEL in the Math Classroom Look Like?

While many educators want to break down math stereotypes, they aren’t sure how to do so. This is where social-emotional learning comes in. 

The team at Math & Movement say math can be fun and encourages teachers to have their students move around and try new projects and games to grow their skills. SEL develops a growth mindset by taking the focus away from the student. So, when a student says, “I am bad at math,” the teacher can deflect by agreeing that the problem is challenging but doable. This prevents them from enforcing the idea that students should be either good or bad at the subject.

In an article for math platform Prodigy Education, Maria Kampen breaks down social-emotional learning needs for each age range. The needs of younger students are different from those from older learners, but every student needs care and attention during the learning process. A few top points from Kampen’s chart include:

  • Preschool. Children in these classes learn basic social skills and self-regulation. 
  • Elementary. Young learners need to develop social skills and healthy classroom behavior.
  • Middle school. Students are starting to transition classes and adopt a more advanced learning style. 
  • High school. Students need to learn how to manage stress and prepare for their futures. 

When teachers understand these social needs, they can build them into the classroom experience — with a particular focus on math lessons. This will help students thrive in the current learning environment and in the future.  

“If students don’t manage their interpersonal skills in the classroom, how will they learn professional norms?,” asks Janet Tran, director of learning and leadership for the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. “Principles of SEL learning help students develop self-control and social awareness while fostering self-confidence — skills vital to a successful professional future.”

Today’s social-emotional-based learning in math is preparing students to be problem solvers and creative thinkers. 

Math in the Time of COVID-19

The coronavirus pandemic changed how students learn. Many parents became tutors, if not secondary teachers, as their kids learned remotely

“The current COVID-19 crisis has brought social-emotional learning (SEL) to the forefront in a new way as districts, teachers, parents, and students deal with anxiety, uncertainty, and the potentially devastating impact of school closures on student achievement,” former teacher Mary Resanovich writes at assessment solution provider NWEA.

This has been a traumatic time for kids, who are facing the stress of a pandemic along with loneliness from missing friends and uncertainty about the future. However, many parents also had to face their “math anxiety” in order to help their children. 

“Avoid telling your kids how much you hate math/used to hate math/were a terrible math student,” write Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer, authors of “Taking the Stress Out of Homework” and co-founders of Teachers Who Tutor. “If kids hear your negative messaging, they are more likely to develop a poor long-term view both of math and of themselves as math students.” 

As an educator, you can help parents practice some social-emotional learning on themselves, especially as they’re helping their children learn at home. Educator and parent coach Oona Hanson encourages parents to go easy on themselves if they don’t understand the math concepts that their kids learn. How students handle math problems is different today than in previous years. 

Instead, let the parents of your students know that you are available to offer help where it is needed. 

Social-Emotional Learning with math  

There is Hope for Struggling Math Students

While some people still struggle with a fear of math, these efforts to engage students and use social-emotional learning are paying off. 

“Many kids today are not just ‘math people,’ they are math lovers,” Peter Balyta, Ph.D., president of Texas Instruments, writes. “They understand how math shapes their world, and they crave math knowledge they can relate to.” 

A survey of 1,000 students found 46 percent say they love or really like math, compared to 30 percent who are indifferent and 24 percent who hate or dislike math. Balyta says the fact that nearly half of all kids have positive feelings about math is “an encouraging statistic.” While there is still a long way to go, this move toward math positivity is a good sign.

SEL Math Resources and Ways to Continue Learning

There are plenty of ways to bring social-emotional learning to your math classroom. The best part is you don’t need to uproot your lesson plans.

Kristina Scully at Pathway 2 Success developed a list of 25 ways to incorporate social-emotional learning into your classroom. These are small steps (like incorporating daily greetings) and big ideas (like building art activities into the classroom). Find what works for your class and your math lessons. 

To continue learning about SEL in the math classroom, check out the podcast The Staff Room with Chey & Pav, which dedicated episode 53 to embedding SEL into math programming. The podcast is a little more than 45 minutes long and brings a meaningful discussion to the classroom environment.

The math class has changed significantly in the past decade. Through social-emotional learning, today’s students are doing projects, making artistic creations, and focusing on the big picture to understand processes. This is creating a generation of students who are at least math curious instead of math-anxious.

Images by: Andrea Obzerova/©, Tatyana Tomsickova/©, klimkin, tjevans