Social-Emotional Learning: You’re Probably Already Doing It! (And if you’re not, here are 5 ways to start.)

By Melissa Ragan

If you work in education, you can’t throw a stick these days without hearing about social-emotional learning (SEL). Reactions from educators range from yeah, of course social-emotional learning is important to those that acknowledge that social-emotional learning is important, but should be taught at home, to the nonbelievers who think it’s just the latest buzzword in education.

But social-emotional learning isn’t new. 

In fact, organizations and researchers have been developing and studying social-emotional learning since the late 60s. In 1994, the Collaborative to Advance Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) was formed. In 2001, the organization changed their name to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. 

The goal of CASEL is to “advance social and emotional learning in equitable learning environments so all students can thrive.”  And there’s research to support why SEL should be explicitly taught in the classroom. Studies show that students with explicit SEL instruction get higher test scores, have lower discipline rates, and that for every dollar spent on SEL, you get an $11 return on your investment. Long-term studies also show that the impact of SEL lasts long after the instruction is given. 

While it’s easy to buy into why SEL should be taught in the classroom, the idea of implementing SEL instruction in your classroom may seem daunting. Chances are that you are already doing some social-emotional learning instructional strategies in your classroom now. If you aren’t, here are five examples (aligned with each of the five SEL competencies as identified by CASEL) of easy ways to integrate SEL into your classroom. 

Relationship Skills

Having students work in groups or teams is one way to build relationship skills. Building relationships with students is probably one of my favorite ways to develop SEL skills. 

When I first started teaching, our principal expected us to stand at the door and greet each student at the start of every class. I taught high school English, so this seemed like quite a task. As a new teacher, I really wanted to use those few minutes between classes to get ready for the next class, or run to grab some water, or to use the restroom.  However, I quickly began to really value and appreciate that time. So did my students. It was a great way to build relationships with them and perform a quick emotions check in. As my students and I got to know each other better, it was easy to see when something was wrong, or when they were having a great day. It even permitted me the opportunity to get to know students that weren’t in my class. My 9th graders would come by to say hi after they had advanced to other grades. Sometimes they’d ask for advice. Sometimes they didn’t want it. Sometimes they wanted to share their joys. Sometimes they didn’t want to talk about what was bothering them. Regardless, this was SEL in action. These five minutes at the beginning of each class building relationship skills were far more effective instruction than any Do Now that I ever used to start a class.

CASEL defines this competency as, “The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.” 

Social Awareness

This competency, according to CASEL is identifiable by “the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.”

Having social awareness isn’t always easy when you’re a young adult. It’s hard to imagine that anything exists outside your personal bubble. So, one of the ways I worked on this skill was by choosing works to read that were culturally diverse. 

For example, my students, who were mostly English learners from Hispanic countries presently living in the northeast, had very limited knowledge about Native Americans. Reading Sherman Alexie was eye-opening (and hilarious). Even Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, which is a historical fiction based on life in the Dominican Republic, forced students to think about what life might have been like for their relatives under the Trujillo administration. It also gave them a topic to engage with their parents and other relatives. Some students wrote very moving interviews they conducted with relatives about those times. One family member told me that although she initially never wanted to think about it, she was glad to share the stories with her nephew so he could understand how good he has it now. That’s something you just can’t teach in a classroom. In addition to picking culturally diverse works, we set up discussion norms and protocols to make sure everyone felt heard and respected – even if they didn’t agree on a subject (which was almost always). This, my fellow educators, is another example of social-emotional learning.

Self-Management

Do you use any strategies in your classroom to help students calm down or allow them to take a personal time out if they’re feeling frustrated, anxious, or otherwise unable to cooperate or participate in your classroom? Guess what? This is another example of SEL in action! 

According to CASEL, self-management is the ability to “successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations — effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself. The ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals.”

In addition to working with students to outline acceptable self-regulation strategies at the beginning of the year, we also set personal academic goals. At the beginning of the year, after looking at their placement and other assessment data, I’d conference with each student. We’d set three achievable goals for the year. Those goals might be to improve their Lexile score, or to read 10 books, or something related to a writing goal. We’d meet quarterly to see where they were on reaching their goals, and add new ones or strategize different ways to meet the goals that hadn’t been attained yet. Not only was this helpful in getting students invested and motivated in their own learning, it also helped build their social-emotional learning skills in the self-management domain.

Decision-Making

CASEL defines this competency as, “The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. The realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.” As with social-awareness, decision-making was one of the more challenging SEL competencies to integrate into the classroom.

We know from research that the teen brain isn’t formed until age 25 or so. Until then, it can be hard to get young adults to really think about the decisions they’re making. However, teenagers seem to be able to easily identify when others make bad decisions. Luckily for me, literature (and history) provide a lot of examples of people who made bad decisions, and this provided me with the opportunity and context to introduce students to a 7-step decision-making process, which I modified slightly for my high school students. While I can’t point to any examples of where students applied this methodology in their personal decision-making, I can attest to the fact that it made for some lively discussions and debates in the classroom. I’m still hopeful that this SEL practice made its way into their personal lives when they got a little bit older.

Self-Awareness

Of all the CASEL competencies, self-awareness is probably my favorite. Nurturing self-awareness in students is one of the most rewarding SEL practices you can do – for yourself and your students! It’s defined by CASEL as, “The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.” 

One of the ways I worked on this with my students was by finishing each week with a journal entry routine called “Glow and Grow.” During this exercise, students had to identify one thing they did well during the week, and one thing they still needed to develop. It could be school related or personal. I noticed, quite early on, that students had no problem listing all the things they were “bad” at. But finding things they were good at was much harder, or the things they identified were pretty minor things that didn’t really capture all the strengths the student exemplified. I thought hard about how to get students to think about things they were good at, but they still had a difficult time finding nice things to say about themselves. 

Finally, we had an a-ha! moment in the classroom while we were discussing the idea of giving and receiving compliments. One student was struggling with something nice to say about himself. Another student, Ana, chimed in, “Marcos helped me when my car wouldn’t start. He’s really good with cars.” Then, Marcos responded to the compliment with a compliment of his own: “Well, you helped me with math. You’re really smart at math.” Then another student added, “Genesis is good at math, too! And biology! She’s going to be a doctor.” Before I knew it, this whole crazy compliment circle was happening. Every student left class that day feeling good about themselves. It was like the happy ending of a feel-good movie. I just stood back in awe as the students taught this SEL “lesson.”  

In addition to their own glows, we did a compliment jar activity once a week. We’d draw a name, and everyone (including the teacher) gave one compliment for the person on a sticky note. Once all the anonymous compliments were compiled on one piece of paper, the students would get to keep it. That way the next time they need an idea for a glow, they have an entire list of about 30 to pick from. 

Now that I’ve shared some of my ideas for teaching SEL, what strategies have you used to implement SEL in your classroom?

Melissa Ragan is the Chief Academic Officer at ONEder, which offers a blended SEL curriculum for high school students. For more information, visit: ONEder Academy.

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