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When Talking Behind Your Back Is A Good Thing

The Importance of Social Emotional Learning

Have you ever thought talking behind someone’s back could be a good thing? After participating in the Greater Good Science Center’s Program for Social Emotional Learning (SEL), I did. And so did the third grade teachers who attended the program with me this past June. After five intense days together, we engaged in a closing activity for the program. In small “family” groups, participants shared compliments and other positive words about each other. The person being talked about had her back to her family until every other person shared something about her.

When I experienced this in the program, having my back turned allowed me to fully listen without a need to attend to the needs of others. As a speaker, this also gave me a chance to share openly without changing my comments based on the person’s nonverbal reactions. It was a powerful experience—one that I will remember for a long time.

In early October, third grade teacher Laura Howell, also a Greater Good Science Center program participant, invited me to join her and her co-teacher, Anthony Belber, as they facilitated this same activity with their students. It was time to change seating in their classroom, and this activity was introduced to bring positive closure to one grouping before moving students to another.

At the start of and throughout the year, Laura and Anthony assign their students to desks in new clusters of 4-5 students—an arrangement they also call “families.” This time, before switching families, Laura and Anthony directed their students to share positive observations of their peers just as we had at the Greater Good program. One student at a time stood in front of the family group with her back turned. As this student listened, family members freely shared compliments and other positive things:

“I appreciated that you always remembered to help us take care of the plant.”

“I liked the way you helped me when I couldn’t find my pencil.”

“I think you are really nice, and I’ve liked being in a family with you.”

I feel privileged to have observed such compassion and care from the students when they did the “behind the back” activity in early October. They gave genuine compliments and talked about what each person contributed before group hugs and family pictures.

The chance to engage students in this way throughout the year truly builds a sense of community within the class. Students get to know each other more personally and build skills in working together. These intentional practices nurture positive relationships and are a wonderful way of promoting compassion, respect, responsibility, and gratitude.

This third grade practice is just one example of many used throughout our school to develop students’ social and emotional skills in intentional ways. Practices such as this not only contribute to a positive classroom environment, but also to our school-wide community. As we continue to support students in becoming constructive citizens and change makers, I will look forward to more opportunities like this one!

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