Social emotional learning is a hot topic these days. Some states are trying to write SEL into their state standards. Truly, when many of us read about emotional intelligence many years ago, we started discussing social emotional learning. Simply put, SEL is about helping our students develop the emotional awareness, thinking, and behavior to be successful.
If a child knows everything about history but can’t walk down the hall without hitting or insulting someone, clearly we haven’t educated that child. Likewise, we see children who get along with everyone but struggle to read or do math. We need to teach both academic and personal skills.
Responding to the proliferation of conversations about social emotional learning, I’d like to offer a few simple steps to help schools put SEL into their classrooms. In my opinion, some things that are classified as SEL seem to be suspect, while other things, like metacognition and adaptability, are what we need to teach.
Exactly What Is Social Emotional Learning?
First, let’s define social emotional learning. According to the book Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say?:
“We define SEL as the process through which children enhance their ability to integrate thinking, feeling, and behaving to achieve important life tasks.
Those competent in SEL are able to recognize and manage their emotions, establish healthy relationships, set positive goals, meet personal and social needs, and make responsible and ethical decisions” (Elias et al., 1997; Payton et al., 2000).*
Wow! That sounds like a lot. However, if we think about it, growth mindset, metacognitive behaviors, and interpersonal skills are all things we’ve been using in schools for some time. Let’s break this down and look at some ideas for integrating SEL in the classroom.
1. Identify What SEL Means at Your School
Because the research talks about multi-age consistency and how SEL should be integrated across all areas of a school (including extracurricular), I’m convinced that it’s vital to understand and agree upon what SEL means at your school.
TeacherVision (this post’s sponsor) brings SEL into their lessons with the FutureFit framework. It could be a good starting point. But whatever you decide, it’s important to have conversations about which SEL topics your school will discuss and reinforce throughout your system. Whether it’s growth mindset, kindness, adaptability, or creativity, you can go many directions with this.
One word of caution, however — not everything labeled SEL is necessarily something that you may choose to tackle. While reading about the research and work on SEL, I was filled with concern at some topics that arose. For example, so many children don’t have adults in their lives to help them answer the hard questions:
- “Why am I here?”
- “How do I handle death?”
- “What about suffering?”
These are just a few of the questions that young people ask about life. And certainly, some SEL advocates argue that these are topics for teachers in schools to discuss with kids.
My struggle with asking these important questions about human existence is that such thinking can and should be greatly impacted by parents, religious affiliation, and other people of influence in children’s lives. As teachers, how successfully can we transcend the bias of our own personal belief systems? It is often the temptation of schools to prepackage “easy answers” when, in reality, some things in life have no easy answers.
So, with this caution in mind, the vital first step is understanding the traits and topics that will become part of your SEL framework. The answer for a religious school may be quite different from that of a public school, for example. I’m not sure that one size fits all. But please don’t let this deter you from talking SEL, because I believe every school needs to tackle this topic.
(In my opinion, FutureFit stays away from this sensitive area and may be a good start for some of you. I’ve included their graphic below.
2. Identify Disconnected Students in Your School
Before you can educate, you’ve got to relate. So wherever you are in your SEL conversation, here’s something you can do right now. There are kids walking halls who lack a relationship with anyone at your school. How do you find these students and help build connections with them?
Principal Nancy Blair has a genius idea. Halfway through the year, she gave her team five minutes to
“…list the names of all the students that they knew; not only ones they were currently teaching, but any students whose names they knew. And we compiled a list.
“And then we found all the children that nobody in the building, 60-some teachers, nobody mentioned. And then talked about why does this happen? How can this happen? And what do we need to put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen?
“We over time have continued that kind of practice to make sure that every child has some kind of positive contact with people, that somebody really knows them. We take the time to build relationships with children through teambuilding activities and just conversation.”
So, after you’ve given some time for teachers and students to get to know one another, take time to identify the disconnected students. Then, actively plan to connect these students to help them build healthy relationships with a teacher or staff members. Be intentional about it.
We can talk about SEL all we want to, but without a relationship with teachers, it’s difficult to help kids “establish healthy relationships.” Building these connections is an important starting point.
3. Understand That SEL Should Be a Continuous Effort
Helping students ”recognize and manage emotions” starts with helping them identify those emotions and express them privately to their teachers. Here are several examples of how teachers and administrators are helping students by making a continuous effort to incorporate SEL into their classrooms.
Mood surveys. When students walk into Jennie Magiera’s classroom, she has them complete a mood survey in Google Forms. She says that it helps her relate better to her students.
Private feedback. Teacher Kyle Schwartz asks her students, “What do you wish your teacher knew?” and sees powerful results and relationships.
Catch students doing great things and amplify it. Great teachers and administrators notice what is happening and build on those experiences. For example, at Will Parker’s school, the teachers noticed that girls were posting positive Post-it notes in the girls’ bathroom. So they nurtured the kindness, and it grew. When they shared what was happening on the school Facebook page, the story went viral. Kindness became part of their culture, because teachers noticed what was happening and administrators amplified the experience.
Create teachable moments. But perhaps the greatest example of noticing comes from Principal Tim Hadley. A young man came to school with his head shaved in honor of his grandfather who was fighting cancer. After students began making fun of the young man, Tim decided to act. In a public assembly with the whole school watching, Principal Hadley shaved his head. He says,
“I think I walked away really truly understanding for the first time how deep and how connected we really are and how much we really need each other — from students all the way to staff. We all have a battle that we’re all facing, and we all need support in that. And in the end, we only have each other.”
As teachers and administrators relate and look for teachable moments, we can make social emotional learning part of everything we do. Often, problems are the canvas upon which we paint the most powerful life-learning lessons.
We can talk all day, but seeing adults live their lives well creates unforgettable memories that students will recall until they are in a rocking chair at old age.
4. Integrate SEL Into Core Curriculum
This recommendation is one of the more difficult for some teachers who use books and activities that focus on content without incorporating SEL.
For example, Carol McLaughlin, a second grade teacher in Alabama, initiated a project with the Birmingham zoo. Her students researched animals who they didn’t see at the zoo and worked with zoo officials to recommend animals that kids would like. As part of the process, they had to discuss habitat and why some animals would not thrive in Alabama’s hot environment.
Helping kids understand that the needs of animals should be considered is a step toward building empathy, even though they were studying habitats. As teachers, we must work to integrate social and emotional learning into our core subjects.
5. Teach SEL When Using Technology
Recently Dr. Michelle Zimmerman gave four examples of how SEL can be used in relation to technology.
Interestingly, she has been finding that face-to-face social skills do not translate to social skills while using technology. She says,
“But there are studies that have been showing up that [indicate that] even if you’ve gotten kids to be able to dialogue and converse in person and work through some of those differences, that same dialogue doesn’t work the same when it’s over a technological device.
“So, one of the most important things that I noticed is – teachers [need to] really intentionally use those as positive examples and find those students who are effectively using technology to build others up and then model it themselves.”
So remember that if students in your school are able to give peer feedback, you’ll also have to teach and reteach effective social and emotional skills when empowering peer feedback online. For example, your third graders might do a great job giving face-to-face feedback on essays. However, when they start giving feedback online in Seesaw (an online portfolio tool), you’ll have to model and teach how to interact effectively.
Teachers are often surprised that, although they’ve taught kindness in the face-to-face classroom, students forget it when online. That’s because they need to see and understand what kindness looks like in online spaces. This takes modeling. In both our face-to-face classrooms (the bricks) and online classrooms (the clicks), we must intentionally show what each SEL category looks like.
6. Enable Hands-On Learning and Service Projects
Some schools make time for “intercessory” projects or “minimesters.” They’ll set aside a week twice a year for special interdisciplinary projects. This is an excellent time to incorporate social emotional learning into the mix.
For example, at my school, we have done something that we call the Flint River Project. For one week, we split into teams and study the local Flint River. Literature teams write about the river. History teams research, document, and write about the history. My team of student filmmakers bring together comprehensive films about each of the projects. This hands-on project helps our students appreciate the local river while also helping us teach conservation and healthy relationships between students in multi-age teams.
7. Partner With Families and Communities
In the end, SEL is a team effort. All of the adults in a child’s life help shape that child’s ability to cope with emotions, behave in ways that help him or her succeed, and interact with others. The more closely we can work together to help children learn these skills, the more successful children will become. Creating partnerships is one way to do this.
For example, teacher Pauline Roberts created the sciracy project for her fifth graders. They merged science and literacy to become community consultants on sustainability practices. Students went into the community and worked with a variety of businesses.
Angela Maiers promotes the Choose2Matter movement, which helps kids do work that matters in the community and around the world.
And we cannot deny that students will have questions about things like death, suffering, and tragedy (especially when disaster strikes). When this happens, we must be in close communication with parents, youth workers, religious leaders, and those who can help children cope. When we partner and have healthy relationships around children, we show children that it can be done.
Social Emotional Learning Is Important
But in the end, education is not just about facts and content. We want children to be successful, and success isn’t built upon knowledge alone. It also grows from life skills, emotional and physical health, and our ability to interrelate successfully. We are a world full of people who need knowledge about how to work together for a brighter future — and only some of that knowledge can be found in books.
Better social emotional learning in schools will take all of us. Hopefully, discussing these seven areas will give you a start.
* Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning: What Does the Research Say? (The Series on Social Emotional Learning) (Kindle Locations 250-253). Teachers College Press. Kindle Edition
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