Integrating SEL into the Kindergarten Social Studies Classroom

Integrating SEL into the Kindergarten Social Studies Classroom

Woman with brown, curly, shoulder-length hair holding a dog with a red collarEvery year, questions and comments arise in my kindergarten classroom that make me pause. Not because I don’t know the answers, but because the explanations behind them are complicated and potentially sensitive, surrounding the ideas of community and identity, power, or culture. And as anyone who works with young children knows, no question is off limits for those with underdeveloped boundaries and little impulse control. A few from the past year:

  • Why am I Black and Ishaan* isn’t? We have the same color skin!
  • I had to come back from the beach because my mom ran out of money.
  • I’m going to visit my grandparents in India. I like seeing them, but there’s a lot of trash on the street there.
  • My dad says that Mr. Trump is a really, really bad guy.
  • Where is Texas? That’s where my family is moving next because my dad’s in the military.
  • Luis* sounds different because he speaks Spanish. How do you know how to talk to him?

*Names have been changed.

These questions and comments, and those like them, happen every day in primary classrooms and provide opportunities for teaching content and skills that help students develop a sense of who they are in a community and how they relate and differ from other people. If taught sensitively, addressing questions students have about themselves and others can help them develop conflict management skills, empathy, and a deep-seated appreciation for diversity. In other words, the social-emotional skills that they carry with them throughout their education and into their lives outside of school.

Although primary students seem to have no trouble coming up with their own questions, essential topics in the kindergarten social studies curriculum provide a path to instruction for ideas like different narratives and perspectives, culture, balance of power, patterns of ideas, and identity that align with the social emotional skills mentioned above. By integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into social studies, students develop the “tools and strategies they need to learn with empathy rather than jumping to conclusions or making assumptions” (Ziemke & Muhtaris, 2020, p. 92). The Maryland State Department of Education (2020) divides social studies standards into six areas for kindergarten. I’ll focus on five today and how they might connect to areas of SEL in the primary classroom.

1. Civics – “Students shall inquire about the historical development of the fundamental concepts and processes of authority, power, and influence with particular emphasis on civic reasoning in order to become informed, responsible citizens, engage in the political process, and contribute to society .” Some of these ideas may seem a little advanced for five and six year olds, but their foundations are the interactions we, as teachers, see every day. The dynamics between students and adults and between students and their peers can be complicated, especially for young learners for whom kindergarten might be their first experience interacting with people besides their families. We can take these ideas about civics and apply them to the primary classroom when we teach SEL skills such as how to address conflict, how to apologize, how to share, and how to act kindly and respectfully towards others. Whenever we teach how to get along in a community, we are teaching civics.

2. Peoples of the Nations and World – “Students shall inquire about the people of the United States and the world using a historically grounded, multidisciplinary approach in order to recognize multiple narratives and acknowledge the diversity and commonality of the human experience.” The key words in this standard are “diversity” and “commonality.” How are we the same and different from others? Identity is a strong factor in the kindergarten classroom. Kids develop friendships based on who has the same color shirt or the same favorite animal. We, as humans, naturally find those who are similar to us. What we, as teachers, must do is develop a sense of excitement and respect in our students for those who are different. Teaching a strong foundation for the importance of diversity is crucial for students to learn as they interact with different peers and learn their stories. We practice this when we teach about people and their experiences in a social studies lesson.

3. Geography – “Students shall inquire about the role of culture, technology, and the environment in the location, distribution, and impact of human activities using geographic tools and spatial thinking in order to demonstrate a significance of place.” Students nowadays have families all over the world and many students know where their families came from. Just pulling out a globe or a world map sparks interest in who each of us are and where we come from. Returning to the ideas of the same and different, addressing identity through a lens of culture helps students learn about themselves and each other and learn to respect both. Just as in the previous standard, Peoples of the Nation and World, we demonstrate these skills in the way we introduce the topic in the context of a lesson as well as with our own students.

4. Economics – “Students shall inquire about decisions made by individuals and groups using economic reasoning in order to understand the historical development and current status of economic principles, institutions, and processes needed to be effective citizens, consumers, and workers participating in local communities , the nation, and the world.” Young students are no strangers to what money is and what it can do. Sometimes, like in my student’s comment about leaving the beach at the beginning of this post, they might be exposed to it a little too much. Several times in the past year, my students have chatted casually about family members who have a lot of money and others who have little, who got what expensive toys for Christmas, and how much the Tooth Fairy brings to each child. While some of this conversation is harmless, it brings up sensitive topics that can develop feelings of unease in children, especially those from lower-income backgrounds. Even if it cannot solve families’ economic struggles, discussing money through the lens of choices and decisions can help students understand why they wear their sibling’s old shoes instead of the new ones that light up or why the school doesn’t just buy cameras for each room to monitor behavior (an actual suggestion made by a student last school year). Developing the skill of asking “why” can help students understand and manage emotions or confusion that may arise around the topic of money.

5. History – “Students shall inquire about significant events, ideas, beliefs, and themes to identify patterns and trends and to analyze how individuals and societies have changed over time to make connections to the present in their communities, Maryland, the United States, and the world.” History is an interesting topic for students who have only been alive for less than a decade. Regardless of their age, children are fascinated by how things “used to be,” and sharing with them how ideas can change opens their eyes to how their own beliefs are malleable. Identifying patterns and trends of the past and how they have improved helps them to understand the connection between feelings and choices, even their own. So, how do you start to integrate these ideas into your own social studies classroom? A few starting points:

  • Read-alouds

  • Classroom libraries

  • Primary Sources (photos, videos, maps, etc.)

  • Live interviews with adults or peers

  • Videos

  • Interactions with students and other adults

  • Casual conversations with students

But, before you start choosing resources, check out some essential questions brought up by Kristin Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris in Read the World: Rethinking Literacy for Empathy and Action in a Digital Age (2020). With each text or lesson elements, ask yourself, or discuss with your students:

  • How will this text be accessible to my students?

  • Whose stories and perspectives are being represented? Who are missing?

  • Does this text show a wide range of identities?

  • Are people represented in multiple ways, or are stereotypes present?

  • Is this text reputable?

  • Is there present bias in this text? Was it chosen with equity in mind?

When teachers take the time to address questions within the context of a lesson or outside of it, students develop skills both for social-emotional learning and in the discipline of social studies, both of which will support them throughout their lives and lead them to achieve the goal of both: to grow up to positively contribute to society.

More to Explore


  • Maryland State Department of Education (2020, September). Social studies framework: Kindergarten. Maryland State Department of Education.
  • Ziemke, M. & Muhtaris K. (2020) Critical reading: Developing an empathetic stance through connected literacy. Read the world: Rethinking literacy for empathy and action in a digital age. Heinemann.

Author’s note

Emily Ancona is a kindergarten teacher at Clemens Crossing Elementary in Howard County and is currently working towards a master’s degree in Literacy at Loyola University Maryland. Click to find out more information about the Literacy Program at Loyola University Maryland.

Posted: December 15, 2022