Inspiring Social-Emotional Growth in Collaborative Learning Teams

I had huge concerns shifting my classroom from mostly direct instruction to piloting an inquiry based algebra textbook; but after researching the pros and cons, I dove in and haven’t regretted the journey.  Mathematics curriculum is typically very dense, and I have been determined groupthat any changes I make not detract from content mastery in the long-run.  What I didn’t realize at the time, was that I would also find myself efficiently integrating social-emotional learning (SEL).  As I reflect on how team roles have inspired my students’ SEL, I can see parallels with  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as well as the development of many of the soft skills employers are seeking from new hires.

Every conscientious teacher is concerned when individual students’ needs may not be met.  For example, if teams are not high-functioning it can sometimes be more challenging for the teacher to discover who is hiding from (faking?) content mastery.  Hiding may be associated with the need for shelter, safety, and security along with a lack of confidence that success and growth are within reasonable reach for all.  I continue to work on new and more efficient ways of meeting needs.

I have learned that in the beginning of the year, I need to study my students’ interactions before solidifying teams for the first unit. I now watch for natural empathizers, academic leaders, detail managers, and who is distracting or just following along.  The initial roles assigned can capitalize on natural strengths.  The students can serve as role models and/or provide ideas for how role executions can be improved.  Throughout the year students learn how to function all four roles. As in any workplace, productivity is the overarching goal.  As in real life, the threat of restructuring or reassignment is often enough to motivate workers to stay on track.  I treat my teams like mini-departments and I am the Chief Academic Officer.

There are some basic dynamics to consider when grouping students.  I try not to put very quick thinking, decisive students with those who take the longest to process new information, or they all get frustrated with each other.  When I have a pair of students who work particularly well together, I put them diagonally from each other so the flow of information between them is readily accessible to the others.


Facilitators:  These students function as department managers.  Language learners and students who struggle to communicate are often my first choice because they can control the flow of information and are responsible for ensuring all understand.  But it is crucial they receive adequate support, preferably from an empathetic teammate.  When a team is not productive, I usually speak with the facilitator first.  However, if some of the teammates are off task, we all have a conversation about fairness, goal-setting and, if necessary, what it means to experience “restructuring” in real life.

Task Managers:  Human beings are prone to wander, and task managers are primarily responsible for catching that and redirecting wayward teammates.  They can be a huge support for facilitators trying to manage a very socially-inclined team.

Resource Managers:  This role relates to logistics managers in the workplace.  These are the only teammates that can summon the teacher, and they only do so when the team agrees there is a need.  While the teacher systematically visits and coaches all the teams, the expectation is that the written lesson is clear enough and within reach for the teams or that adequate scaffolding is in place.  Resource managers are also in charge of the team’s logistical supplies. They collect the homework each day, and make sure the names are written on them.  As the teacher passes by to collect the work, resource managers explain to the teacher the reasoning behind any missing work because productivity is a team issue.

Recorders:  Recorders are documentation specialists, which are in high demand in our contemporary workforce.  Most team activities require every member to be writing at some point.  Recorders initiate systematic checks to make sure everyone is involved in writing. They may suggest a switch-and-critique whereby teammates offer each other ways to improve their notes.

Role playing*

On the days that roles are set up or changed, I have my students act out appropriate responses.  For example, I may have each facilitator pretend to start their group’s activity.  What will they say?  Task managers explain or demonstrate how they redirect wayward teammates.  (This is typically hilarious, but it builds courage to do that.) Resource managers might explain how they care for resources or inspire the rest of the team to help pick up.  They explain how they motivate students who are slow to locate their homework or forget to do their homework.  Recorders might explain what they look for in good notes and how to tactfully encourage some improvements.

Beyond content-related exchanges, roles can easily be expanded for social-emotional development in tandem with other soft skills.  I have had versions of most of these conversations with my students:

Can you help me understand why your team only got through the first four questions today?  I noticed your facilitator and task manager were having difficulty keeping the conversation on task today; were you doing anything to help with that?   Is it fair to not do your homework, forget key concepts, and then expect your teammates to re-explain to you on a regular basis?** Do all your teammates feel as though you are including them in the discussions, and is there more you could do to encourage that (Maslow’s social needs)?  What do you need from your team to get you to contribute to productivity?  What do you need from your group to give you the courage to reach for understanding instead of hiding (college readiness or life-long learning skill)?

When students are trauma informed, working in collaborative teams provide natural opportunities to practice empathy and support as all work toward productivity within a calm classroom.  Students learn to distinguish between healthy socializing, brain breaks, and distraction.  When a student inspires another to do the right thing, some research seems to show that the inspirational student tends to also, at the same time, inspire themselves.

Even more important than having conversations that address particular problems are strategic moves to encourage and empower.  I routinely send home emails that mention particular things a student does that contribute to the functionality of a team. I may say, “You have a particularly challenging team this time, but I want you to know I think you are having an amazing impact.  If you need a recommendation for a leadership position somewhere, please let me write one for you.”  Or, “I heard you say ____.  That had to be hugely encouraging to your teammate.”  These meet Maslow’s need for nurturing “Ego.”  Since each of the team roles relates to contemporary positions in the job market, I encourage students to refer to team experiences as parallels when they apply for jobs.  When they learn to work effectively in teams in class, they are gaining experiences that transfer into “real” jobs. These meet Maslow’s need for self-actualization.

Managing the teams means that I do not get to sit down at my desk much.  Given human nature, my proximity in the room has the strongest effect on team focus.  But by the end of the year, my students were willing to tackle activities with a higher cognitive demand (Depth of Knowledge 3-4).  The most rewarding part was hearing from parents who didn’t think their students could learn in a team environment in the beginning of the year, but found themselves convinced of the value by the end of the year.

When students are socially and emotionally healthy, I would argue they are very unlikely to commit acts of violence, so I see my successes in SEL as also helping to secure students’ physical safety.  The more I improve in coaching my teams into productivity, the less I see of the predicted hurdles.  Because I see the assigned roles as opportunities to teach the whole child without sacrificing content, I can’t imagine ever turning back.

* These roles are basically what is described in CPM textbooks (
**This past year, when four different students were doing that, I put them all together on a team. Most of them realized they were on a “slow boat to no where” and requested another chance to be on a well-functioning team, agreeing to do their homework.  I encourage slower processors to include a quick preview of the next day’s lesson in their homework routine so they can have an early start processing the words.  That practice can be transformative for them.


12 thoughts on “Inspiring Social-Emotional Growth in Collaborative Learning Teams

  1. Hi Mrs. Walker!
    Thanks for taking the time to write this! Did you use CPM as your textbook/curriculum? OR did you only use the idea of assigning roles to students? I’m trying to figure out a way to implement this role playing idea, PBL, PrBL & student Agency & voice as a whole. I’m determined to figure out an effective curriculum to implement in my geometry classes in August. Please respond or DM me. Thanks!


    1. Hi Catherine. My district has adopted CPM and I follow it quite closely. Even when I’m supplementing, the roles stay the same for an entire unit. Sometimes students work in pairs or individually, but that sense of togetherness and mutual accountability remains. As I relate the teams to mini-departments, I think the expectations for how we interact and take care of each other needs to be consistent enough to form relationship bonds. I hope that answers your question; but if not, please let me know.


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