Emotions, Stress, and Coping- Social Emotional Learning in the Mathematics Classroom: Part One

SEL (Social Emotional Learning) has been adapted into the new (2020) Ontario Math Curriculum for 1-8. As this is such an important new component to math education, teachers’ instructional practices, as well as students’ mindsets around their math learning, I have decided to share my learning of the process, while adding my thoughts, ideas, connections.

This is the first of a series of three posts, in which I will focus on two of the six skills in depth each time.

The six skill categories within the SEL Mathematics strand are:

  • Identify and Manage Emotions
  • Recognize sources of stress and cope with challenges
  • Maintain positive motivation and perseverance
  • Build Relationships and communicate effectively
  • Develop Self-Awareness and Sense of Identity
  • Think critically and creativity

To begin, let’s take a second and unpack, what Social Emotional Learning is. Think back to when you failed at something and ask yourself these questions: How did that make you feel? Did you want to try again or did you give up? Did you ask for help? Were you able to share your concerns and areas of struggle with another person? Did you get angry and upset at yourself? Did you blame someone else? Did it bother you that you wanted to figure it out, or did you forget about it, pack it away, and never looked at it again? Did it stay with you, and if it came around again, would you worry or think you couldn’t do it, knowing you failed at it before?

SEL, and more specifically the “L/Learning” portion, is a practice and journey of how to build, foster, and encourage more intrinsic motivation, perseverance, confidence, problem solving, strong work ethic, and love of learning. Sounds great, right? It’s something that myself and my other colleagues are noticing a decrease in learning across the grades. As I currently work within the Middle School community, I notice and often share with parents and students themselves, that they (the students) often seek and want that instant gratification or the “right answer” right away, rather than sitting with a problem longer. For the past few years, I have tried to instill a more persevering focused approach, by claiming and using the #dontstealthestruggle model. It’s displayed some progress, and although the students will often joke and/or share with me in some seriousness, ” don’t steal my struggle, I want to figure it out,”, there is more than just that one piece that makes the SEL continuum so important. It’s not just about the students’ perspective, but throughout these blog posts in this series, you will note that it also has to do with the attitude and emotions of so many more people and questions; teachers instructional methods, attitudes toward math (at school and at home), time and positive connections between student and teacher, and being role model for excitement and meaning in math through real life concepts and social concerns.

…positive attitudes toward mathematics and learning are essential for success, not only in mathematics, but also in life beyond the classroom.

Irvine, 2020

Dr. Jeff Irvine, a math specialist with over 45 years of experience as a math educator, departmental head, vice-principal, and current author, has shared his views and highlights of the SEL implementation in the new Mathematics 1-8 curriculum, in recent Ontario Mathematics Gazette articles. He shares that SEL is focused upon students success, and there is still much work to do on the educators’ side in how we, as educators, influence both what we teach and the way in which we teach it. “Almost every child begins school with very high levels of intrinsic motivation.” (Irvine, 2020) This desire to learn is strongly correlated to how we teach and with the attitude and methods that we do. This is incredibly important when teaching math and the understanding of skills from both perspectives; how math is taught, and the feeling of learning math.

So let’s begin to dive deeper into the first two skills:

Identify and Manage Emotions

Emotions are the building blocks of attitudes

Irvine, 2020

Math Anxiety has been a term that has been coming up more and more often, and I cringe each time I hear it, with a heavy heart. This feeling comes from such a rooted memory of an event that has triggered and maintained negative emotions toward mathematics. It’s a real thing. It can hinder a students’ success, stop confidence dead in it’s tracks, and it can stem from many or even just one memory of failure or struggle. Why would anyone want to go back and suffer again the same outcome, if they can avoid it all together, or build up walls against learning and trying over? With a negative attitude toward something, a person’s desire and interest to try, persevere, and be motivated drastically goes down. In learning mathematics, those skills of perseverance and motivation are key ingredients to engage and build up students’ attitudes and emotions in math. Math is a continuous journey. It’s a natural progression, a spiral of ongoing practice, and a continuum of skills. When students’ attitudes area negative, this spiral, progression, and continuum decreases.

One hot topic over the past few years in Ontario, has been around the desire to have teachers who teach math become more aware and proficient with the skills in which they are teaching. Math teacher vs. Teacher who teaches math. Ontario rolled out a controversial “Math Proficiency Test”, in which will display the teacher’s understanding of fundamental math skills, with the premise of, if you teach it, you should be able to do it and be comfortable with it. Without getting into the bigger debate over this, right or wrong, skill levels etc., one area in which this test does not measure, but is still highly valuable and needs to be focused upon is; how teachers feel about math. Many teachers who teach math feel uncomfortable themselves with math. It would be supportive if teachers also took a role for building SEL in their math classrooms by “building their own self-efficacy in order to genuinely express positive affect…” (Irvine, 2020)

Another piece, in which hit home to me, was the attitudes around how people in our lives perceive math. Imagine a parent saying to their child; It’s ok, I wasn’t good at reading either” ok… so…what thought did you just think when you read that?…because, how often have we heard; “It’s ok, I wasn’t good at math either.” Why is one “ok,” and more mainstream than the other? Reality is they are both not ok. But with focusing in, it’s because Math is one of the most highly stressful and emotional subjects out there. It needs cognitive abilities, as well as risk taking to move further.

A few years ago, while researching math attitudes for a Master’s course, I held and conducted a focus group on the parental attitudes of parents within the school I was currently teaching. The overall idea was how and if our attitudes toward mathematics affect our children and/or students. If you are curious or interested in reading the condensed brief, please do. Over all in short, most women, in particular often admitted that they were not good at math growing up, share this often with their children, and also never reached out or sought after any career in the STEM sector. Not focusing on sex, but there are many other studies that focus on male vs female engagement and success in mathematics. We can save that one for another day, but circling back, attitudes are created by our emotions and feelings toward and experience or topic. Math being the focus on these SEL strands.

So what can we do to support this expectation and foster this growth?

First and foremost, knowing and understanding that as an educator; teachers’ attitudes have direct effect on both student attitude and achievement.

Here are some ways in which you can begin to promote, build up, and sustain positive math attitudes in the classroom:

  • finding a balance between skill content and challenge (this builds and creates inquiry and allows for open-ended and more abstract thinking, away from right and wrong answers)
  • Open-Ended Questions. (Marian Small has been creating and working with this concept for years.)
  • Parallel Tasks (having access to practice skills at various levels)
  • Asking and listening to student feedback as “check-in’s” (How did you feel about today’s class? How useful to you think the skill taught today is to you? Are you looking forward to tomorrow’s math class?)
  • Make connections to skills to the real world. (Find meaning in the learning to gain interest)
  • Be a role model for love of mathematics (show and display enthusiasm about the topic, skills, and content)
  • Provide constant feedback of growth (not just empty positives. ie. I am proud of you, but rather; I’m proud of you because you worked hard and achieved your goal. )This provides a feeling of accomplishment that may be recreated again, and is now a desired outcome.
  • be transparent with your understanding and needs, and if you don’t know, model and share : “I’m going to check that out and get back to you.”

With those few, as examples, and there are so many more, it’s important to have students reflect on how math makes them feel, and how a teacher can influence/alter/change a perceived or real emotion about math, the biggest impact you can make is to be that role model in how you act, what you say, and how you react (do); the students are watching, and through watching they are learning how math makes you feel.

Recognize Sources of Stress and Cope with Challenges

We all want our students to face challenges, persevere in addressing them, and celebrate and seek them out.

Liljedahl, 2018

I don’t get it. I don’t know what to do. I forget everything we’ve learned, so I’m going to fail.

…all comments that any math teacher has heard at least once in their classrooms, and these may be the gentler of the bunch…

As a teacher, you want the student to succeed, and sometimes, I, myself am at fault in giving too much information, too fast, and too early. When students squirm, that is where they learn. Stepping back and creating a welcoming and supportive environment for multiple failed attempts, promoting trying again, and also sharing in the success celebration to share in the joy when a student “figures it out” on their own. The natural feeling of accomplishment is one, that has to be worked for. Fostering the process and not only the final product, and how to feel during that middle portion before success.

Students should begin to feel more comfortable, with the “uncomfortableness” of not knowing what to do right away.

Supporting and building this skill within the mathematics classroom could include:

  • Open-routed questions (one correct answers, with various paths to get the same result)
  • Encourage math talk and collaboration around what worked, what didn’t
  • Gallery walks that promote and highlight efforts and peer critiques
  • Student choice (offering parallel tasks or choice boards to examine and practice similar skills)
  • Clear goals and expectations (by the end of this unit, this is your goal, how will we get there?)
  • Rephrasing negative talk, with the power of yet.
  • Cause-effect discussions (if I add these together, then this will…)
  • Building in movement and stress reducers into the classroom to acknowledge body tension, feeling and emotion to overcome. (physical body break, Headspace, yoga etc.)
  • Listen and listen, and listen some more…(make time to listen to the students and their fears. Acknowledge, listen again, and circle back with a shared discussion on next steps.)

Giving time, space, and positive modelling, students can build their coping strategies and begin to embrace, rather than worry over a hurdle. Math is all about making mistakes, practice, and getting back up and trying again. Knowing what to do, when you don’t know what do, is a phrase I’ve picked up from a past colleague years ago, and still remains relative to this day. When you find some comfort in knowing that it will be okay to be a little uncomfortable along the way, that’s where the risk taking happens, that’s where the learning occurs, and that’s where the hard work through perseverance will be celebrated.

Next post, I will dive into two more Social-Emotional Learning Skills;

  • Maintaining Positive Motivation and Perseverance
  • Building Relationships and Communicating Effectively.


Irvine, J. (2020)The New Social Emotional Learning Strand in Elementary Mathematics: Part 1., Ontario Mathematics Gazette, Ontario Association for Mathematics Education

Liljedahl, P. (2018) Building thinking classrooms. I A. Kajander, J. Holm, & E.J. Chernoff (Eds.)


  1. This is so great, Chelsea! Thank you so much for getting the conversation started. You have already touched on so much of what we all experience, it just goes to show how important it is to talk about it and share…that’s how we’ll make a difference!

    Your point about not letting kids struggle for long enough is one that resonates with me specifically. I totally agree! I’ve been trying to work on this more by setting a specific amount of time at the beginning of work period where students are not allowed to ask questions. They can read the problem over and over, they can jump to what they do know, they can try, or they can write down specific questions they want to ask once that quiet period is done. The goal is that if they try, that sense of accomplishment is unbeatable! And if not, at least they’ve had time to gather their thoughts and ask pointed questions rather than defaulting to the standard, quick, easy, “I don’t know what to do.”

    Can’t wait to hear what others have to say.


  2. Thanks so much Chelsea. This post covered it all. I have a student right now who is extremely uptight, agitated and has a negative mindset. We have been working on this and she has improved, is calmer and is starting to listen. She is now learning the math she was so afraid of and starting to change her mindset. At the end of our sessions I point out how she came into the room snd how she is leaving. She leaves with a smile on her face!
    Thanks again!


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