STEM: Leveraging SEL Skills to Improve Science Instruction

Let’s begin with a conversation among fourth graders. These students were sitting in a group of four and discussing structural and behavioral adaptations in plants and animals.

DeVon: Hawks have sharp claws that kill their prey.

Casey: What is this? (looking at a worksheet)

Reshma: Bear?

Diamond: A artic fox has…

Reshma: Insects are shaped like a leaf so predators think they are real leaves.

DeVon: A rosebush has thorns to…where’s this go [inferring the question: is this a structural or behavioral adaptation]?

Reshma: Frogs have long strong legs to hop really far.

At first glance, this sounds like a conversation. The students are talking about the science topic and they are facing one another around the table. But, unfortunately, this isn’t a conversation at all. To qualify as a real conversation, students need to talk to one another, listen carefully to each other, and take turns in the discussion so that one idea builds upon another. This scenario falls short. Although it is terrific to see students actively engaged in a science activity, there is so much more that is possible and necessary in a science classroom so that students get the most out of the instruction. High quality science discussions require students to use social and emotional skills (Hunt, Rimm-Kaufman, Merritt, & Bowers, in press). Without those skills in use, students remain focused on their own ideas. The quality of their answers reflect individual, not collective knowledge.

Good conversations are crucial in science. Children and youth face tremendous challenges now and in the future as they address a wide variety of environmental crises. Global warming, limited availability of non-renewable resources, food shortages, climate-induced forced migrations, and increased inequality across the globe—not to mention the challenges posed by pandemics like the current COVID-19 crisis—are pressing problems. They need all the skills possible now and in the future to gather knowledge, think through trade-offs, and collaborate with others to work toward solutions (Merritt, Rimm-Kaufman & Harkins, 2020; Sanson, Van Hoorn & Burke, 2019).

The Next Generation Science Standards

The Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS; National Research Council, 2012) have set us on the path to support students’ development of collective problem-solving skills. Designed for K-12 teachers, NGSS has three elements: Disciplinary Core Ideas, Cross-cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices. The Disciplinary Core Ideas identify content needs for understanding different science disciplines. The Cross-cutting Concepts are ideas that appear across disciplines, like cause and effect and use of systems. The Science and Engineering Practices are eight behavioral expectations for students that mirror the authentic work of scientists.

The NGSS Science and Engineering Practices differ from traditional science instruction. One practice involves asking questions and defining problems. Another involves developing and using models. Yet another involves planning and carrying out investigations. When teachers use these practices, they facilitate child-centered learning experiences designed to lead to deep conceptual understanding. Students interact with and make sense of scientific phenomena, a process that typically involves teamwork, experiences of uncertainty, and respectful communication even in the face of disagreements.

NGSS-aligned instruction relies on effective social and emotional skills (Rimm-Kaufman & Merritt, 2019) and without these social and emotional skills in place, the lessons fall flat. In this post, we describe two Science and Engineering Practices and provide insight into the ways that teachers can teach social and emotional skills so students can leverage those skills during science instruction.

Developing and Using Models

Developing and using models helps students represent their ideas. This can be as simple as drawing a circuit (including a battery, wires and a lightbulb) or as complex as a computer simulation. When teachers challenge students to develop their own models for scientific concepts, students explore new ideas and make their existing knowledge visible to the people around them. Often, students’ first models are not scientifically accurate. For example, when fourth graders initially draw a circuit, it might be incomplete or have the wires going to the wrong place on the battery. But, once they’ve had the hands-on experience of creating a circuit to light a bulb, they improve their models.

Understandably, students can get upset when they get something wrong and their initial models lack accuracy. Teachers can alleviate the angst by framing errors as an opportunity to learn, not a personal failing. Students need to feel safe with other students in class; they need to feel sure that if their initial understanding has flaws and they share their model with peers, no one will make fun of them.

Teachers can prepare students to give and receive feedback so that these interactions among students turn out well. Teach simple sentence stems. For positive feedback, for instance,  “I like that you ….” or for constructive criticism, “I notice that you could change…” Then, when students are faced with giving feedback or receiving criticism for their models, they have the language and skills to do so respectfully in a way that advances their understanding.

Asking Questions and Defining Problems

In science, students learn how to create the kinds of questions that guide scientific exploration; in engineering, defining problems means students learn how to identify constraints and criteria so they can design solutions to problems. Asking questions and defining problems are essential skills as students figure out how the natural and designed world works, This process requires initiative and courage. Students need enough confidence and optimism about their own ideas and knowledge about the world to take a risk, toss in their ideas, and see where a new idea takes them.

As teachers, we spend a fair amount of time and energy urging louder and bolder students to settle in and give other students a chance to talk. But, we seldom give much thought to the difficulty that some students have talking about their ideas and asserting themselves. If students have a hard time talking about what’s on their mind in low stakes situations, they are unlikely to speak up in situations where they are exploring new ideas, testing the parameters of a problem and questioning others about their ideas.

We recommend giving students a chance to practice talking aloud about their ideas in small group. This type of practice (combined, of course, with a supportive and kind classroom environment) can set the stage for future risk taking and sharing of new ideas. Start having students talk about their ideas in situations where any answer is correct until even the shyest students seem comfortable talking and thinking aloud. If it is still too difficult for some students, perhaps have them say what they are thinking in writing or whisper their ideas in your ear and then you say it aloud. The goal here is to work up to a point where students are willing to wonder aloud and assert their ideas about a phenomenon, even if they are incorrect.

Four Key Principles for Teaching Social and Emotional Skills

We offer four principles to keep in mind as you teach social and emotional skills with the goal of improving your science instruction.

First, learning social and emotional skills is a gradual process. We recommend that you model, teach, and practice each skill before helping students apply these skills in content-based lessons. Asking students to talk about simple topics that do not take a lot of thinking can help them perfect the communication skill before asking them to apply them in science class.

Second, even students with incredibly advanced social skills will not necessarily use them as planned unless they are in classrooms where teachers have worked hard to create and sustain a positive classroom culture. (Good social skills can help students be very effective bullies!) Take time to create a supportive yet rigorous classroom atmosphere where students feel safe taking academic risks and making mistakes.

Third, the relationships you have with your students are foundational to your success, even in science class (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2015). You can spend hours on SEL instruction, but if kids do not think that you have their best interest in mind, all your efforts will be a waste. Knowing your students’ interests, empathizing with their experiences, and understanding why they respond to people in certain ways is essential as you support their development of social and emotional skills.

Fourth, students watch what you do more than they listen to what you say. Demonstrate how you manage your own frustration when your model does not work. This helps your students understand acceptable ways to respond when science is challenging. Give an example of how you changed your mind about an idea in the face of new evidence that you received from a friend or book. This helps your students understand what to do when they receive new information that questions their assumptions.

Explicit teaching of social and emotional skills and then encouraging students to apply those social skills to their academic work will elevate science instruction. Let’s revisit the example in the beginning of this post. Here’s an invented conversation — one that we expect to hear in a classroom where students have learned and practiced key social and emotional skills.

DeVon: Hawks have sharp claws that kill their prey.

Casey: Would that be structural or behavioral? Let’s look at the worksheet..

Reshma: A behavioral adaptation is something they do. They kill their prey, so I think it’s  behavioral.

Diamond: I disagree, Reshma. The claws are part of their body…

Reshma: Oh, a structural adaptation is part of the body! I see now.

DeVon: Just like how a rosebush has thorns.

Reshma: And frogs have long strong legs to hop really far!


A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (2019). Core SEL Competencies. Retrieved from

Hunt A., Rimm-Kaufman, S. E., Merritt, E.G., & Bowers, N. (in press). “Because the sun is really not that big”: An exploration of fourth graders tasked with arguing from evidence. The Elementary School Journal.

Merritt. E.G., Harkins, T., & Rimm-Kaufman, S. (in press). Empowering elementary students through environmental service-learning. Clearing Magazine.National Research Council (2012).

Rimm-Kaufman, S. E. & Merritt, E. G. (2019). Let’s power our future: Integrating science and social and emotional learning to improve collaborative discourse and science understanding. Science and Children, 57(1),52-60.

Rimm-Kaufman, S.E. & Sandilos, L. (2015). Improving Students’ Relationships with Teachers to Provide Essential Support for Learning. Published on-line at:

Sanson, A. V., Van Hoorn, J. & Burke, S. E. L. (2019). Responding to the impacts of the climate crisis on children and youth. Child Development Perspectives, 13(4), 201-207.

Sara Rimm-Kaufman is a professor of education at the Curry School of Education & Human Development. She has been studying social and emotional learning in schools for the past two decades. Her forthcoming book for teachers, SEL from the Start, will be published by Norton in November, 2020.

Ashley Hunt is a doctoral student and IES Pre-doctoral Fellow in the Virginia Education Science Training Program at the University of Virginia, Curry School of Education. Her research focuses on the intersection of equity, social, and academic issues in elementary STEM.

Rimm-Kaufman and Hunt were two members of the development team of Connect Science, a curriculum and professional development program that integrates social and emotional learning, service-learning and science. See for more information.

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