Topics: SEL

Addressing Social-Emotional Learning in the Science Classroom

Robby Hunter

by Robby Hunter

February 17, 2022
Addressing Social-Emotional Learning in the Science Classroom

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Posted in: Aha! Blog > PhD Science > SEL > Addressing Social-Emotional Learning in the Science Classroom

When I reflect on my science classes as a student, I think about reading a section of a textbook, answering a few questions, and moving on to the next section until I finished the chapter and took a multiple-choice test. I remember the occasional one-off lab as well. Gone are those days, thankfully. Now, activities connect to and build on the knowledge covered in class. Additionally, students may design their own investigations rather than follow step-by-step, prescribed ones. Students are encouraged to work together just like scientists and engineers do in the real world. As students collaborate and do science, solving problems and making claims, several of the competencies of social and emotional learning (SEL) are addressed.

Let’s dive deeper into the competencies of SEL.

Competencies of SEL

Self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness are the competencies that make up SEL. How are each of these addressed in science instruction?


Opportunities for scientific study are everywhere, which means phenomena can be observed in anything. It is fascinating to see and hear what students are thinking as modules begin and progress. As you move to more of a facilitator role, you will see your students’ understanding transform and allow them to formulate their thoughts and drive instruction forward with self-selected phenomena and questions. Students will build and modify anchor visuals and use a growth mindset in doing so.


Because students are so responsible for their own learning, you’ll find that they become more self-motivated and will often take initiative, especially in group discussion and investigations.

Courage may be needed to speak up in discussions. Because students may not always agree on one another’s claims, they will learn to manage their emotions and become more comfortable speaking up. In science, students often have misconceptions or false claims that need to be addressed through future investigation and better reasoning. It is important that students realize that they are all on a learning journey together and therefore to not be discouraged. There are also no silly questions, though students will become better at asking the “right” questions as they continue building and revising driving question boards. Students will begin to get a sense of the types of questions to ask and become better able to group like questions.

Self-discipline is needed to maintain a safe environment during large and small group discussions and investigations, which are often conducted in small groups, as students work toward common goals.

Responsible Decision-Making

I can think of no subject area better suited to demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness than science. Students produce their own questions and explore possible answers, and they are encouraged to listen to their peers’ ideas and questions. As students conduct investigations and uncover new content, they analyze information, data, and facts, using their critical-thinking skills to provide evidence and reason about claims.

Relationship Skills

For students to use evidence to make arguments and/or reason about claims, effective communication, which employs both speaking and listening skills, is essential. Because investigations are frequently designed and conducted in small groups, teamwork and collaborative problem-solving are necessary. For both discussion and doing science, conflicts must be resolved constructively. Students should be encouraged to try out different roles in small groups, including being the leader. As students organize questions and define Focus Questions on the driving question board, they may occasionally need to stand up for the ideas of others.

Social Awareness

As phenomena are used to drive learning forward, students may develop a broader social context. During discussion and collaboration, students will see others’ strengths with varied background knowledge. They also will seek to understand others’ points of view.

Let’s look at how SEL is addressed in PhD Science®.

How SEL is Addressed in PhD Science

Scientific Discourse

Collaboration and discussion play a key role in the science classroom and address many of the SEL competencies. In PhD Science, students participate in scientific discourse several times throughout a module as they engage in the actions of the learning cycle in the following chart below.

This chart shows the WORD-K learning cycle from PhD Science of Wonder, Organize, Reveal, Distill, and Know as students strive to answer questions and understand phenomenon.

Students will share what they notice and wonder about the phenomenon and organize their thoughts and questions around three anchor visuals—the driving question board, anchor model, and anchor chart. Several class and peer discussions will take place as investigations are conducted, with students communicating new or refined knowledge.

Instructional Routines

Regardless of the science program you use, you likely have shifted to more of a facilitator role as students have taken more ownership of their learning. Recognizing that this shift can be challenging, Great Minds® offers the PhD Science Teacher Resource Pack as an open educational resource. One resource in the pack is the PhD Science Implementation Guide, which includes instructional routines—classroom procedures that support the development of content knowledge and academic skills in an engaging and active way. Instructional routines increase student engagement and provide practices that make students’ thinking and learning visible.

Some of the instructional routines in the Implementation Guide may be familiar; others less so. A few are highlighted below with a brief description and the SEL competency it best supports.

  • A Socratic Seminar is a student-led academic conversation. This routine allows students to use their speaking and listening skills to express and deepen their science content knowledge.
  • The Question Corners routine allows students to express and support their claims. Students move to the corner of the room that best represents their opinion on a debatable statement or question and discuss the reasons for choosing their corner. Students may choose to move to another corner after listening to other reasoning, but they must explain their rationale for moving.
  • The Snowball routine allows students to predict, summarize, justify, explain, or practice critical thinking in response to a content-related question or prompt. This routine provides a low-risk engagement opportunity for students because responses are anonymous. Self-discipline is needed because the responses are anonymous and crumpled paper will be thrown to complete the routine.
  • The Outside–In routine helps students determine word meaning from context and morphology such as roots and prefixes. Students will practice self-awareness as they determine what words may be unfamiliar to them and require further analysis.
  • The Save the Last Word routine helps students clarify and deepen their thinking about a text, quote, or idea while encouraging active speaking and listening skills (adapted from “The Final Word” by Jennifer Fischer-Mueller and Gene Thompson Grove, 2017).

We hope that this information on SEL and instructional routines leaves you feeling more prepared to facilitate discussion in your classroom, as students drive the instruction forward. Note how many of the SEL competencies you can address through scientific discourse and how all SEL competencies may be incorporated into science instruction.

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Topics: SEL