Students Taking Action Together: Strategies that Blend SEL with Civil Discourse for Democratic Change to Meet the NJSLS Social Studies Practices

Students Taking Action Together: Strategies that Blend SEL with Civil Discourse for Democratic Change to Meet the NJSLS Social Studies Practices

Laura Bond and Lauren Fullmer

The racial reckoning of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic, renewed focus on climate change and the Capitol insurrection have collectively revealed to youth that systematic change is needed to reduce structural inequities (Fullmer & Bond, 2021). With students back to in-person schooling, the eagerness for expression, social connection, and understanding how constructive social change is possible has never been greater than during the 2021-2022 school year.

Social Studies teachers stand in this rich moment in time, to teach civil discourse and citizenship in alignment with the new 2020 NJSLS Social Studies Standards. Students Taking Action Together (STAT), a project from Rutgers University’s Social-Emotional Character Development Lab, has developed five research-based strategies to equip teachers in grades five through twelve with the tools to integrate social-emotional competencies and academic standards with active practices to be explicitly taught and practiced in the classroom to foster citizenship skills.  In this article, we illustrate how the five strategies embed SEL competencies required to meet the challenges of civic engagement and democratic change and then examine how each strategy delivers upon the NJSLS Social Studies practices so students are equipped to lead change in their schools and communities.

The Five STAT Strategies

STAT is a set of five SEL research-based strategies –  Norms, Yes-No-Maybe, Respectful Debate, Audience Focused Communication (AFC), and PLAN, a social problem-solving framework – that scaffold the integration of active civics-based social studies practices for grades five through twelve using existing curricular content.  The strategies explicitly promote social-emotional competencies, academic skills, dispositions, and actions required for an informed and engaged citizenry (Fullmer et al., 2022).  In ready-made lesson plans, organized around the themes of race, class, and gender, students explore constructs of power, oppression, human rights, injustice, and inequality. The lessons showcase the use of a STAT strategy related to a historic event and/or relevant civic issues being addressed in national and local debates. 

Each strategy builds upon the foundational SEL skills developed by the previous strategy and therefore, the strategies are meant to be taught in the sequence in which they are presented.  By doing so, students have ample opportunity to practice explicit SEL competency skills and the academic standards to engage in civic dialogue and debate for democratic action.

Figure 1: The Five STAT Strategies

NormsEngages students in developing ethical standards that lay the groundwork for a relationship-centered classroom community.
  Yes-No-MaybeOffers students opportunities for peer opinion sharing, in which they reflect on their views on an  issue to take a stand and actively listen to the diverse perspectives of their classmates.
  Respectful DebateEncourages students to practice the skill of perspective taking by analyzing all sides of an issue, in order to gain an appreciation for diverse viewpoints and a level of comfort in modifying their original thinking.
    Audience-Focused Communication (AFC)Allows students opportunities to tailor their language and style of presentation to a specific audience with the goal of understanding the perspective and context of their audience and communication, toward optimally conveying their good ideas about changing a policy or practice for the greater good of their classroom, school, and society.
               P.L.A.N.Involves students in collaborative problem solving with action planning to make a change in policies and practices that maintain privilege and power and limit whose voices have input in key decisions.

The Norms Strategy

To engage the civil discourse skills of peer opinion sharing, perspective taking, social problem solving, norms nurture a safe, relationship-centered and open learning environment (Elias & Nayman, 2019). Unlike classroom rules, which are generally teacher constructed to establish an efficient and open environment, norms are co-created by students and the teacher.  Through a discussion facilitated by the teacher, students decide upon desirable and undesirable classroom learning commitments and behaviors. Ultimately, students develop a list of affirmatively stated norms and discuss the rationale behind each norm and its impact on their well-being. Students also collectively determine ways to handle “norm-breaking” as a shared commitment to collective responsibility.

Engaging in the Norms strategy allows students to practice the SEL skills of self-awareness, self-management, relationship-building, and social awareness to form a safe and interdependent learning environment.  Students practice how to recognize their feelings about working together within the classroom community, how to keep their impulsive behaviors in check, develop knowledge of the sensitivities and needs of their peers, and to communicate in a positive and constructive way with classmates and adults. Acting as a living class constitution, norms allow for students to rehearse the civic skills of respectful listening, peer opinion sharing, empathic debate, information gathering to shape arguments, and collaborative problem-solving required in the next four strategies. In this fashion, students build the competencies, both social-emotional and academic, to take informed action. 

The Yes-No-Maybe Strategy

The Yes-No-Maybe strategy facilitates peer opinion sharing, which is the basis for genuine civic dialogue.  This simple entry-level strategy allows students to express and share their opinions on historic or current issues, given their initial impressions and then after reading a source on the issue. This strategy supports students’ social-emotional skills of self-management, in which students have to withhold judgment, refrain from reacting, and the social awareness skills through perspective-taking and respectful listening.

Students reflect on several neutral statements related to a historic or current event inspired by a teacher-selected source. They take a stance on each statement by moving to a space in the classroom marked “yes”, “no” or “maybe” that reflects their opinion. They practice respectful listening by discussing their opinions in those small informal gatherings within those spaces, and sharing them out with the full group. Next, students read a background source directly related to the issue to inform their thinking.  They are then given a second opportunity to change and/or share their opinions by moving to the appropriate location in the room on the same neutral statements provided the additional information from the source or from listening to their peers. Students reflect on if their opinions changed in the second round and if so, what inspired the shift in their opinion. The instructor facilitates these conversations, but does not seek to arrive at a consensus or other conclusion.

The Respectful Debate Strategy

Engaging in civic debate for understanding, rather than debate to win, is embodied in Respectful Debate (Civility and Society – A SmartBrief, 2019).  With the skills of perspective-taking and respectful listening in place, this strategy introduces students to the more complex skill of establishing and defending an informed position on a topic while empathically listening to opposing views. Respectful Debates provide rich opportunities for students to practice their self-awareness and emotional regulation skills (Elias & Schwab, 2006). Students engage their social awareness by realizing the impact of their emotions on themselves and others, build confidence as they recognize their limitations and potential as they speak, and collaborate in teams. They self-regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors as they dialogue with peers in preparation, present their argument and summarize the opposing side’s argument.

Students can be provided with or gather evidence for their assigned position on the debate statement or question. Students are assigned the stance of “pro” or “con” and work in small groups. Unlike traditional classroom debates, students are charged with arguing on both sides of the issue and intentionally reflecting on and accurately understanding the position of their opposition, allowing them to more objectively analyze the issue and broaden their perspectives. This poses a challenge when students strongly disagree with one side of the issue and find themselves dealing with strong emotions that they must regulate. This challenge presents opportunities for teachers to teach emotional regulation techniques, such as deep breathing, positive self-talk, and waiting before speaking.

Audience-Focused Communication (AFC)

Civic discourse is realized with Audience-Focused Communication (AFC), which is a stand-alone strategy to be implemented without the need to be taught in the sequenced order of the previous three strategies.  It’s a deliberate and strategic focus on speaking and related skills that can be harnessed to present on academic topics, such as pivotal decisions or historic debates, as well as school-based issues, such as the inclusiveness of student government, bullying, and freedom of expression.  With AFC, students are given a rich opportunity to find their stance and voice and to use media effectively in order to impact an audience to mobilize consensus-making or to excite change. AFC can also be used as a natural extension of PLAN (what we refer to as PLAN Integrative), in that it provides students with detailed guidance with regard to how to best present the solutions and action plans that they developed.  Fundamental to AFC is asking students to put themselves in the shoes of the listener/receiver, and not assume that they always are speaking to people just like themselves.  This is true for sharing work in a class, making an announcement over the loudspeaker, preparing a presentation for an assembly, or developing and delivering a petition to the Student Council.

The essence of AFC is that students exercise their social awareness and relationship skills working collaboratively to identify their audience, determine the format of their presentation, and take into consideration their audience’s background and prior knowledge to effectively craft their message and communicate it to influence the audience. Self-awareness and self-regulation skills are key to this strategy, which demands students self-assess and continually evaluate how to best present the information and craft their argument to have the maximum impact on the audience.

PLAN: A Problem-Solving Framework

The fifth and final strategy, PLAN, builds on the skills students practice in the preceding strategies and shifts the focus to social problem solving and action planning to prepare students to take civic action. PLAN stands for Problem definition, Listing options, Action plan, and Notice success and lessons learned for next time. With PLAN, students work in small groups to collaboratively examine and evaluate a historic or a current problem that has no obvious solution or perhaps revisit a past situation to better understand how different analyses or decisions might have led to different actions and outcomes.  

Then, they consider the options to address the problem and weigh the pros and cons of each. Students work together to develop a SMART goal and related action plan to solve the problem. They also engage in perspective-taking to consider the impact of their action plan on the various stakeholders involved and look to implement when feasible (hence, the title, Students Taking Action Together). The process culminates with a reflection, in which students notice successes with their plan and possible revisions to their thinking to be more successful the next time around.   In the spirit of John Dewey, as students apply PLAN to classroom and school-related problems, it will accelerate their ability to apply their skills to historic and civic issues.

How the STAT Strategies Align to the NJSLS Practices

The new Social Studies practices engender opportunities for students to practice civic discourse, dialogue, debate and action in the classroom.  The STAT strategies guide Social Studies teachers to strike a balance between content acquisition and active practices that maximizes students’ ability to rehearse and transfer the skills they learn (Fullmer et al., 2022).  STAT strategies are designed to accompany and supplement lesson content.  They provide guidance on how teachers can integrate the active practices for civil discourse and action into existing curricula.  In the crosswalk figure below, we’ll show how STAT coaches teachers to achieve this integration in meaningful and effective ways.

Figure 2: A Crosswalk of STAT’s Integration of the NJSLS Social Studies Practices

Developing Questions & Planning Inquiry

Each lesson features an organizing question to foster thinking & support planning.  Students are given a debate question and assigned an initial side (they will ultimately take both sides) for which they must plan an approach to gather information and present it.Students formulate inquiries to understand the context within which they will be presenting.The first step in the PLAN process involved identifying the problem/ questions that will be the focus of inquiry.
Gathering & Evaluating Sources    Students read a central article/source and share their opinions before and after reading the article.Students must review sources to prepare their positions for the debate.Students must gather information from relevant and appropriate sources to determine presentation context and constraints.PLAN works from the existing curriculum or school situations/contexts, so students must gather this information at the outset and value the information in proportion to the reliability of its sources.
Seeking Diverse PerspectivesStudents express their opinions. Articles/sources offer multiple views on the issues.Students must examine both points of view and argue both sides of the debate.Students are encouraged to consider a range of presentation modalities and to gather perspectives from individuals with experience at presenting to the intended audience(s).The second part of the PLAN process involves brainstorming a wide range of possible solutions to the problem.  Prior to that, the problem is defined from the perspective of each of the groups involved.
Developing Claims and Using Evidence  Students respond to claims before and after reading the article/sources.To be successful, students must bring forward credible sources of evidence to support their positions.Students working in groups to finalize their presentation context and message must put forward their approaches using credible evidence.Students will be expected to justify their claims based on evidence in textual and other sources.
Presenting Arguments and ExplanationsStudents read & draw on the source’s key arguments, supporting evidence to inform and express their opinions. Students must refine, present, and defend their arguments within the constraints of the debate.Students must justify their particular positions regarding how the presentation should be made to be appropriate to the audience and context.The third step in the PLAN process involves presenting solutions and detailed plans, including anticipation of obstacles.  
Engaging in Civil Discourse and Critiquing ConclusionsStudents exhibit curious compassion towards those with divergent views and seek to understand them through inquiry, rather than judge them.Students learn emotional regulation techniques to remain calm when involved in controversial discussions with their peers.When students work collaboratively to plan a presentation, the process of civil discourse – when deciding upon the content that will be presented and the method of delivery – is more important than the product (i.e. choosing the “right” content or format).The fourth step of PLAN involves critiquing the conclusions reached by those who dealt with the issue in history and the conclusions the students reached when implementing their action plan.
Taking Informed Action Students gain the confidence and competence of developing informed opinions and expressing their opinions in social settings required to take. Students consider the views of all relevant stakeholders by engaging in perspective-taking to ensure that their plan of action is inclusive.Students will take action based on their plans and will gather feedback/debrief to inform their future action in similar situations.The final step in PLAN involves reflecting on actions taken and identifying how things would be done differently in future situations; when applied to history, this includes projecting different outcomes if past decisions were different, including implications for the present and future.

Developing Questions & Planning Inquiry

Civic discourse often starts with asking questions of leaders and elected officials.  The first Social Studies practice of Developing Questions & Planning Inquiry is explicitly integrated into STAT lessons.  Each lesson features a core question to assist the teacher in organizing the lesson content and student thinking.  Relevant issues are integrated into the lesson anchor question to promote student engagement.  Students then use the question to dig deeper into exploring the issue. 

For example, in a Yes-No-Maybe lesson, the statement, “The coronavirus has not fueled anti-Asian racism?” is presented to students to frame the development of neutral statements, shaping students’ thinking and questioning as they engage in dialogue with their peers.  At the end of the lesson, students revisit the question and respond to the essential question.  In this vein, students learn how the power of relevant questions can drive collective discussion and learning around the issue.  The Yes-No-Maybe strategy demonstrates to students that civic discourse starts with asking questions.  The table below indicates exactly how students engage the skill of planning for inquiry and developing questions across the STAT strategies, once Norms have been established.  The practice necessary to spark civic discourse is scaffolded and spirals up through the strategies to PLAN.

Gathering & Evaluating Sources

The second practice, Gathering & Evaluating Sources, facilitates students’ inquiry by having them gather credible sources, given the framing statement or essential question to enhance their background knowledge and to consider all perspectives on the issue.  With the STAT lessons, students are exposed to a wide range of primary and secondary sources, including podcasts, political cartoons, and newspaper articles and are equipped with the critical literacy skills needed for civic life, as well as to promote informed citizenship.  Through repeated practice, students learn that words are a form of power and that no source is entirely neutral in nature. 

In the Respectful Debate strategy, after the students are presented with a controversial statement that frames the debate, they are tasked with critically evaluating background sources on the topic to identify evidence in support of their position.  For example, in a Respectful Debate lesson on racial equality, framed around the statement “In order to achieve racial equality, Blacks should separate from Whites”, students are provided with a blog post from the New York City Urban Debate League and an audio recording of the 1961 debate between Malcolm X and James Baldwin.  Through the processes of deliberation, peer discussion, and reflection, students analyze the information from all angles and form new understandings by synthesizing it with their prior knowledge.

Seeking Diverse Perspectives

When building the muscle of evaluating background sources, students develop an understanding of their perspective on an issue, as well as an appreciation for the perspectives of others.  Seeking Diverse Perspectives is a practice that allows students to see and connect with the authentic and genuine emotional reactions and thoughts of their peers.  This allows them to develop empathy for individuals and groups of people of different backgrounds and experiences.  The Yes-No-Maybe strategy teaches students to exercise compassionate curiosity over biased assumptions to better understand the other’s perspectives.  Through respectful and empathic listening and peer opinion sharing, students become more open-minded and accepting of the notion that beliefs and opinions can change over time.

During a Yes-No-Maybe lesson on foot binding in China, students are invited to reflect on their views related to the statements: “Women, not men, perpetuate a society’s concept of what is beautiful” and “Expressions of beauty are typically crafted by the elite”.  Students then engage in peer opinion sharing and a review of background sources to consider how what people think is beautiful has changed over the years and differs around the world.  Through these experiences, students widen their perspectives and reevaluate their views about the meaning of beauty.

Developing Claims and Using Evidence

The fourth practice, Developing Claims and Using Evidence, equips students with the skills to engage in constructive and meaningful dialogue about important issues.  Students consider an issue from all perspectives and take account of any biases they may have to formulate their own viewpoint on the issue and develop a logical argument supported with the best possible evidence.  While all of the STAT strategies task students with exercising the skill of eliciting evidence from their analysis of background sources and engaging dialogue with peers (Fullmer et al., 2022), Respectful Debate really hones in on this practice.  Provided with background sources on a controversial issue, students not only identify the most compelling evidence to support their “pro” or “con” argument, but also, reflect on any gaps in the reasoning and evidence presented by their opponent.

For example, in a Respectful Debate lesson, students must identify evidence and construct arguments to support the “pro” and “con” sides of “Is it possible for sports to be inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community?”.  Provided with a video, timeline, and two articles, students identify the authors’ respective claims and compare it to their own and pull out the best pieces of evidence to not only support their claim, but to challenge that of their opponents.  By actively listening to both sides of the argument, students develop a collective understanding, as well as historical empathy for members of the LGBTQIA+ community.

Presenting Arguments and Explanations

While students are frequently asked to Present Arguments and Explanations in front of an audience, whether sharing the results of a science lab, describing why an invented algorithm works in math, or justifying the theme of a novel, they are rarely provided with the skills to do so with competence and confidence.  Yet, being able to tailor their presentations to a specific audience and regulate their tone of voice, eye contact, and nonverbal communication accordingly are essential elements of the fifth practice.  The Audience-Focused Communication (AFC) strategy equips students with the presentation literacy skills necessary to determine the appropriate format of a presentation (e.g., slideshow, song, video, speech) and the prior knowledge and views of their audience to most effectively present their argument in a way that makes sense and resonates with their audience.

Consider an AFC lesson at the end of a content-based unit, in which students are tasked with presenting on a topic or book that they recently learned about.  Students learn how to focus their message, given a specific audience, and consider how it will be received through perspective-taking.  Through deliberate planning and practice, students develop a step-by-step run-down of the flow of the presentation and rehearse SEL skills such as positive self-talk and deep breathing to be prepared to regulate their emotions.  With AFC, students are furnished with the presentation literacy skills to be active members in a participatory democracy.

Engaging in Civil Discourse and Critiquing Conclusions

Building off the previous two practices, the skill of Engaging in Civil Discourse and Critiquing Conclusions excites opportunities for collective listening and assessing the reasoning which is central to sensemaking. In a Yes-No-Maybe lesson students present their opinions and listen to their peers express their opinion on statements related to a topic, prior to reading a source.  After reading the source students move to a location in the room that reflects their opinion, even if it changed and discuss in small groups what argument shaped their opinions.  At the end of the lesson the class reflects on whether their thinking changed or not and discusses what reasons may have caused them to change their original opinion on the topic.  Thus, students learn the value of listening and reading diverse views on the topic and can refine their original thinking on the topic. 

Respectful Debate lessons ask students to summarize the opposing sides argument and question if the summary was accurate.  The process of summarizing the presented argument  provides students real practice for active listening in debate to expand their thinking on the topic. When students switch sides to argue the opposing argument it exposes them to analyze  the reasoning of a point of view they may not agree with. In this process they begin to organically critique the argument(s) by questioning their assumption and preconceptions on the topic.  At the end of the lesson students reflect about whether summarizing what the other side said and/or switching sides changed their opinion, and what about the summary was helpful.  The reflection is a potent opportunity to learn the value of listening to and standing in to argue for a contrary view can refine their own and the group’s concluding thinking as they strive towards collective understanding.

Taking Informed Action

The previous practices lay the groundwork for the final practice of Taking Informed Action, which is the very essence of democracy.  With the PLAN problem-solving framework, students examine a problem of the present or the past and consider the options to solve it by engaging in inquiry and background research.  Next, they consider the views and needs of all relevant stakeholders to develop an action plan.  In the final step, they engage in a collaborative discussion in which they reflect on the successes of their plan and identify areas for growth moving forward.  This encourages students to acknowledge that the problem-solving process is iterative in nature and requires constant revisions to be more inclusive and effective.

A PLAN exemplar lesson on Women’s Rights invites students to analyze how Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the women at the Seneca Falls Convention organized to address the issue of unequal social, civil, and religious rights.  Students then engage in perspective-taking to put themselves in the position of disenfranchised women during the mid-19th century to generate alternative solutions and action plans.  The hope is that students walk away from this lesson with a greater awareness of the social injustices in their communities and the skills to organize to take collective action.


The New Jersey Social Studies Standards are visionary.  They seek to educate students in history and civics and prepare them for active citizenship in a global and interdependent society.   Students Taking Action Together is a set of teaching strategies that are ideally matched to the NJSLS and the guiding practices articulated for attaining them.  These strategies embolden students with the necessary skills that nurtures a sense of hope and optimism that they can lead the change they wish to see in the world. 


Civility and Society: How to Boost Civil Discourse in K-12 Classrooms. (2019). Smartbrief.

Elias, M. J., & Nayman, S. (2019, October 28). Students taking action together (STAT). New Jersey Education Association.

Elias, M. J. & Schwab, Y. (2006). From compliance to responsibility: Social and emotional learning and classroom management. In C. M. Evertson & C. S. Weinsten (Eds.), Handbook of classroom management (pp. 94-115). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Fullmer, L. M., Bond, L. F., Molyneaux, C. M., Nayman, S. J., & Elias, M. J. (2022). Students Taking Action Together: 5 teaching techniques to cultivate SEL, civic engagement, and a healthy democracy. ASCD.

Fullmer, L., & Bond, L. (2021, March 29). Three strategies for helping students discuss controversial issues. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from

National Council for the Social Studies (n.d). Guide to civil discourse for students. Retrieved from 

National Council for the Social Studies. (n.d.) National curriculum standards for social studies. Retrieved from

State of New Jersey, Department of Education (2020). New Jersey student learning standards – social studies. Retrieved from

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