When you’re walking down a school hallway, what do you notice? Does the environment seem inviting and accepting, or does it seem dull and neglected? Are the walls overpowered with color or bare and gray? My point is, bulletin boards are the billboards of classroom halls—they can capture a school’s mission, display what students are learning, and be interactive for bystanders.

I’d like to share some strategies to use bulletin boards to promote social and emotional learning. The pandemic brought a wave of anxiety to teachers and to the students and families we care for. Consequently, social and emotional learning is even more important now.

Over the past six years, I have taught in environments with a high number of military children. I can recall growing up as one of these kids and experiencing a lot of anxiety and fear of the unknown, and with the pandemic we’ve seen even more anxiety, stress, and fear. The ability to recognize feelings and manage them is vital—prior to learning and teaching, our students and staff must first feel emotionally supported.

With the idea of supporting students, when I create bulletin boards I think about how to make them inclusive and helpful. They don’t have to be extravagant, over the top with decorations, or overstimulating. If we are displaying student work, I want the work to be varied and not just focused on the “best.” This helps every student feel seen and included.

I enjoy creating boards that catch students’ attention and make them want to invest a few minutes into looking at what we are sharing. I believe bulletin boards are something that can get easily overlooked, and the right displays can be a helpful tool for students. Below are a few examples of bulletin boards to support students’ social and emotional learning and inclusivity.

Supporting SEL and Inclusivity With Bulletin Boards

Breathing exercises: In social and emotional learning lessons, I always incorporate breathing exercises to promote self-regulation, and I believe these exercises make one of the best types of bulletin boards. Combining a visual that introduces students and adults to a calming exercise can be beneficial for all. When you teach breathing exercises, students will start to incorporate these strategies when they need to, like when they are taking a test or feeling anxious. I have used bulletin boards to share images that show students how to do “triangle breathing” and “mountain breathing,” for example.

Student check-ins: Checking in with students is a great way to encourage them to express themselves, especially those who may be hesitant to speak up if they feel dysregulated. Connecting students to something like different characters in the Avengers movies is a great motivational tool to get students to recognize how they are currently feeling—are they feeling like the Hulk or Groot today, for example? So I have put up a bulletin board with “Which Avengers character do you feel the most like?” as a prompt above images of five or six characters with different facial expressions.

While students can be hesitant to share how they are feeling, it’s important to know how they are feeling because it will affect their learning. You can construct this kind of board as a virtual board using Jamboard, or as a physical interactive board using sticky notes.

Self-reflection: I believe that as educators, we are constantly reflecting on ourselves and our work. A reflection can be a wonderful tool to recognize our accomplishments and a great way to celebrate them. To support this with students, I created a bulletin board—with a laminated background and dry erase markers handy—with the prompt “What have you done today to make you feel proud?” When my class showcased something they were proud of, more classes joined, and eventually students from all grade levels participated.

This board helps create a positive atmosphere and promotes empathy. One student wrote, “I felt proud when I helped someone up when they fell during recess.” Having students be reflective is a great way to have them create goals and recognize that we all do something every day we can be proud of, whether it be big or small.

Building empathy: Empathy can be a difficult skill to teach and learn. It takes time to understand how others are feeling and requires being present and listening intently. It gives a sense of hope to see a student being empathetic toward another student, and it builds up the community. For these boards I love using emojis because kids can easily connect to them and they’re gender neutral. They’re a simple way to have students connect how someone’s body might look or feel with specific feelings, and they can promote ways to self-regulate.

For example, a board I call Emoji Emotional Awareness has an angry emoji on the left and a relieved emoji on the right, with this prompt: “If you notice your body feeling like the emoji on the left, what is something that helps you to feel like the emoji on the right? Add a sticky note and give your suggestions.”

Then if students are curious they can view the notes and suggestions that fellow classmates have given to help support each other.

Activities: When we engage students in activities, we can challenge them to work toward a goal. With a bulletin board similar to the game tic-tac-toe, students can choose what challenges they want to do.

To set this up, I make a big tic-tac-toe board and fill the spots with the following prompts:

  • Row 1: List 3 things you like about yourself; What is something you’re thankful for?; Stretch up like a tree
  • Row 2: Write a positive note to someone you care about; Complete a breathing exercise; What is something you do well?
  • Row 3: Write a goal you have for the week; What is something you hope for?; What was the last thing that made you laugh?

Students can pick three activities in a row—across, down, or diagonally. When students have choice, we know it increases engagement and helps provide motivation to complete a task. This board is a great tool with a variety of tasks to complete that include physical movement, breathing exercises, and reflection.

Situations: When students are tasked to respond to a situation, they need to synthesize it and figure out if it’s something positive or dangerous. For example, consider asking students to choose two of the situations below and talk to a partner about what they would do:

  • There’s a new classmate and it’s their first day at school.
  • During recess, a classmate called another student unkind names and shoved another peer.
  • You see two classmates arguing at recess about who gets to go first in a game.

These scenarios give students a chance to reflect on their own actions and start to recognize situations where they could bring something positive.

Billboards can be more than a tool to hang student work. When used effectively, they can help students embrace social and emotional learning and teach them tools to help reflect and build empathy and kindness toward themselves and others. Making social and emotional learning the first priority for students creates a positive and inviting culture that brings one classroom community together with everyone else in the school.

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