Social Emotional Learning

In the Classroom

SEL, or social-emotional learning, is a hot buzzword in education right now. But, what exactly is it and how can educators begin implementing high-quality SEL? CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Educators at The Mount Vernon School are using a tool called The Emotion Wheel to build learners’ skills in each of the CASEL core SEL skills: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.

What is the Emotional Wheel?

The Emotion Wheel is a social-emotional mindfulness strategy that is designed to scaffold identifying and naming emotions in order to respond appropriately to those emotions and highly emotional situations. There are many versions available, however, the original emotion wheel was created in 1980 by psychologist Robert Plutchik as a way of visually representing and patterning emotions. In 1982, Gloria Wilcox created a similar tool which she called the Feeling Wheel, a tool for expanding awareness of emotions. Another popular emotion wheel for using with learners is available through Scholastic.

The Emotion Wheel is a way of teaching learners to identify emotions and patterns in highly emotional scenarios, and process and respond to those emotions in a responsible way. This strategy is also a way for students to see that “different people respond to the same stimulus in different ways and that’s ok.”

Matt Neylon – Director of Visual & Performing Arts, The Mount Vernon School

The Emotions Wheel from Scholastic. Help your students to widen their vocabulary and express their emotions with this word wheel.

Why Would You Use This Strategy?

Learners of all ages have a lot of competing demands on their attention. We know from neuroscience research that stress and negative emotions make it harder to focus and retain information. Matt Neylon, Director of Visual and Performing Arts at The Mount Vernon School, says that “the only way that deep learning can happen is by processing and managing emotions.” The Emotion Wheel is a way of teaching learners to identify emotions and patterns in highly emotional scenarios, and process and respond to those emotions in a responsible way. This strategy is also a way for students to see that “different people respond to the same stimulus in different ways and that’s ok” says Neylon.


Who Would Use This Strategy?

Emotion wheel simulations can be used with learners of all ages from preschool through adulthood. In fact, using an emotion wheel simulation can provide learners with greater ability to identify specific emotions and strategies for handling those emotions in the moment. This can help educators spend more time on academics and less time mitigating problem behaviors.


When Would I Use This Strategy?

The Emotion Wheel can be used in the moment when a learner is struggling or can be used preemptively as a simulation in order to teach learners how to respond appropriately when they are faced with highly emotional scenarios. This can happen in morning meetings in the younger years, during an advisory or homeroom period for middle or high school students, or by teachers of any content who see that it would benefit their class.

Pro Tip: Try this strategy out with faculty first in your regular faculty meeting or during a team or PLC (Professional Learning Community) meeting to get the hang of it before implementing the emotion wheel simulation with learners.

Classroom snapshot

Matt Neylon uses the Emotion Wheel simulation with his Middle and Upper School students. He has experienced extremely high learner engagement when using this strategy and finds that learners are able to transfer the skills. “Naming the emotion gives you enough time to find a solution instead of making an impulsive decision; slowing down to identify the feeling, gives you time to make a good decision.”

How-to implement an Emotion Wheel simulation with your class

1. This sequence of steps can be done all at once or over several sessions depending on the age of learners and time available.

2. Consider patterns of behavior with your students and when you see highly emotional responses. Elementary students may have highly emotional responses to setbacks and frustration as they try new things and learn to be more independent. Middle schoolers often have highly emotional peer interactions as they learn to navigate their social world. In high school, we often see a pattern of emotionally charged interactions with parents as high schoolers seek to define their identity and respond to authority figures.

3. Before trying an emotion wheel simulation, it is helpful to talk to your school counselor, psychologist, or social worker about your learners to ensure that scenarios you propose are not inadvertently triggering. We do not recommend using trauma scenarios as part of a class simulation. Please discuss situations with your school support team and/or collaborate with your school counselor for the simulation if possible.

4. Brainstorm emotions with learners. What are all the emotions we can feel? How can we classify those emotions?

Choose three of these implementation strategies to try today in your classroom. Reflect on them afterwards. How did it go? What was the feedback from students? What would you do differently?

5. Introduce the Emotion Wheel or Feeling Wheel as a tool to recognize and communicate what we are feeling. The inner wheel contains the primary emotions while the outer rings have secondary emotions that are more specific.

6. Identify how you are feeling right now. Can you define a specific emotion on the outer ring? What makes you feel that way? How can we handle or manage that feeling and our subsequent actions in a responsible and considerate manner?

7. Ask learners to think about things that consistently bother them. Using a thinking stem can help scaffold learners’ feelings. For example, “Whenever _________ (person) does _________ (action) I feel _______________.” What are the patterns that exist in our feelings and our responses to our feelings?

8. Teachers may facilitate this as a journal activity, Think-Write-Share, or as a discussion depending on the class dynamics and age.

9. For the simulation, teachers will propose a scenario and ask learners to identify how they would feel and respond in that situation. For example, with high school students teachers might try “You find a note on the ground that says unkind things about you. You don’t know who wrote it. How would you feel? What would you do next?”

10. Learners will use the emotion wheel to identify their primary emotions. One student might say “I feel mad” while another student might feel “sad.”

11. Prompt students to use the emotion wheel to move towards the outer rings with more specific secondary emotions. For example, if you feel sad, is that sadness “hurt” or “upset?” Is it more “wounded” or “confused?”

12. Moving towards identifying specific emotions helps us understand the root of our feelings and how to address them appropriately. If I’m feeling “wounded” I may look for affirmation with true friendships while if I’m feeling “confused” I may want to talk to a trusted friend or advisor to understand why this happened.

13. Encourage students to identify ways to address their emotions by either talking with you, family and/or friends. Provide contact information for a school counselor or dean. Be an advocate for those students who seem to have trouble and get them the support that they need.

As we work to address the needs of the whole child, taking a few moments each day for Social-Emotional Learning will ultimately allow for deeper learning. If you are interested in learning more about incorporating SEL in your classroom, check out our webinar, Wellness for the Whole Child & SEL available on-demand through MV Ventures.

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