An English Exercise in Social and Emotional Learning

Sept. 8, 2017, 10:01 a.m.

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This blog is an example of an English exercise for tutors to incorporate into tutoring sessions. It has been adapted from a blog originally published on

The beginning of the school year is a good time to ask pupils to reflect on what gives them guiding direction in their lives. Writing out their guiding principles for life is a perfect task for doing so. The following blog explains how to structure a tutoring session based around writing a reflective essay on guiding principles for life.

1. Getting Started

To begin with, ask your pupils to describe the laws by which they want to live their life. To help them get the idea, discuss any biographies they have read or watched and then discuss or list together a summary of the rules by which these individuals seemed to live their lives. It is also good to ask pupils the same question about characters in novels, adults in their lives, or historical figures.

Question prompts will help pupils start thinking more deeply about their own values or principles:

  • Whom do you admire? List three of that person’s admirable qualities.
  • Describe an incident or event from which you learned a lesson “the hard way”.
  • What could you change about yourself to become a better person?
  • What three qualities do you value in a friend? A teacher? A parent?
  • Who has been most important in your life in helping you establish your values? Please explain.
  • What are the three most important values you think will be important to encourage young people in the future to take on?
  • What is the one rule which you believe is important to live your life by?
  • If we lived in a perfect world, how would people behave differently compared to how they do now?


Next, ask your pupils to write their own answers to some or all of the prompts. Follow up their statements with questions to help them think more deeply about their answers. For example, what makes these qualities worth admiring and worth following? How did you choose that particular incident or example or person? Why are these qualities or values so important to you? Remember, your pupils’ answers may be very personal and sensitivity is therefore required when discussing their work.


2. Crafting a Reflective Essay

After pupils have had a chance to think about and discuss the prompts, they will be ready to start writing. Instruct them to reflect on the past year, both in and out of school, and write about what they consider to be the values or principles by which they want to live their lives, and why. This can give you an insight into what motivates your pupils – something you can use throughout your time together to help instil confidence in them and guide your tutoring sessions, while also developing good patterns of thought and behaviour which will long outlast their knowledge of the GCSE curriculum.

The resulting essays are often moving, revealing, and inspiring. Pupils have told stories about family members and important events in their lives. They have addressed such themes as love, responsibility, respect, relationships, perseverance, self-discipline, courage, honesty, and kindness—and often in combination.

One pupil, writing about how he and his siblings were about to be removed from their home by child protective services following the arrest of their mother, described how their mother’s friend, whom they had never met, fought for legal custody of them when no other family member appeared. His law of life was the importance of giving love even to people he does not know. Another pupil wrote, “I think loving others is the most important. A person must have love in his or her life. Love makes a person feel important.”


Here is an extract from an essay about perseverance written by a thirteen-year-old:

The key to success in my life is perseverance. My purpose is to continue to reach my goals, despite difficulties that I may face. My great grandmother was a person who struggled to make sure her family would be successful. Born in 1902, she was a maid who worked extremely hard just to make ends meet. She walked miles to get to work because she didn’t have money for transportation; after working in someone’s kitchen all day, she came home to take in laundry. Her driving desire to make life better for her children and theirs motivated her to persevere in a time when being black meant you were considered less than nothing. (Excerpted from Urban Dreams: Stories of Hope, Resilience, and Character.)


3. Moving from Reflection to Application

Finally, ask pupils to commit themselves to living by their principles or laws for the remainder of the year. You can then ask them to reflect on what they wrote and committed to at various points throughout the year and help them revise their laws if necessary.

This task does not necessarily have to come at the very start of the year; the exercise can be adapted to suit your tutoring circumstances. You can use the questions each week to get to know the pupils or spend 5-10 minutes writing an answer to each question before using them to help the pupils write a reflective essay near the end of the year. Alternatively, it could be a task used near the end of term when concentration starts to dwindle.

Why not print this off now and save it as a tutoring resource?

Adapted from:


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