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SEL Grows Up and Comes to Class

The importance of teaching social and emotional learning is now clear.

About two decades ago, social emotional learning moved into the spotlight when nine experts provided guidelines for educators about the topic, which everyone knew was important, but no one was quite sure how to apply to the classroom.

That book, Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, and the founding of the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) about that time, advanced the thinking that a young person's understanding of these skills made them not just socially adept – but better in school, the workplace and in life.

A report from the Aspen Institute about six months ago indicated that while SEL is often not considered as important as traditional academics, it should be.

"Not only do these important skills facilitate academic learning, but we know that the quality and depth of student learning is enhanced when students have opportunities to interact with others and make meaningful connections to subject material," the report said. It concluded: "Integrating social and emotional development with academic instruction is foundational to the success of our young people, and therefore to
the success of our education system and society at large."

Meanwhile, a meta-study also released late last year, reviewed more than 80 studies and found that students who were taught SEL skills retained them long afterwards and benefited from them in many ways, including  improved school and job performance

So what can a teacher do in the classroom to promote students learning these skills?

Phyllis Fagel, a school counselor who writes about SEL and other related issues for a variety of national publications, says that teachers can introduce students to social and emotional strategies in a number of ways through their lessons.

"Whether the goal is to teach kids how to resolve conflict, cope with uncomfortable emotions, or make friends, it’s easy to find natural segues in the curriculum," she says.

For example, she says in an English class, students can be asked to consider the interactions between two characters and whether it is a healthy one and who should change their behavior. They might think about how they would likely respond and whether that would be appropriate.

"You can ask them 'If you could jump into the story, would you solve the problem differently?' They can even rewrite scene to achieve a better outcome and explain why the characters were failing."

In a social studies class they might consider the conflicts at the center of historic events and more deeply consider the perspective of major characters or the average person – and in math class a teacher might have students once a day work on a problem with a different classmate and be asked to consider what role they played in the work, perhaps using a checklist where they can rate whether they were "cooperative", or a "leader" and whether they were good at "making decisions".

Outside of class work, teachers can also model good social skills and can help students handle stress by talking to them about how they feel about an upcoming project or test. They might collectively write a class contract about rules related to things like respect and honesty.

"I love when teachers fold social-emotional learning into the regular routine. It’s much more effective when it’s organic. You can’t legislate kindness, but you can set expectations for behavior," she says.

Melissa Schlinger, vice president of programs and practice for CASEL, says she, to, thinks a lot can be accomplished apart from lessons.

"Teachers often only think about lessons when they think of SEL.  There are lots of ways teachers can promote their students’ SEL. For instance, planning the class work out for the week and using cooperative structures. She says teachers can work to develop good, healthy relationships between students and with themselves.

"Create a safe and supportive classroom environment with shared expectations, norms and routines for how to interact with each other," she says. "It's a good idea of you provide opportunities for students to have a voice – to lead lessons, to direct their learning, and to contribute to problem solving for the classroom

She believes relationships are key – learning about them, developing them  and then using them to develop other skills

"Teachers can use community-building strategies to help students get to know one another, recognize and value all members of the class community, and practice using their social-emotional competencies. Once teachers have created an environment where students are comfortable speaking and sharing with their peers, they can leverage these relationships to support risk-taking and rigor."

 She says it is even more effective when teachers learn about their students through these relationships.

One resource for teachers is a report from the American Institutes for Research that clearly lays out why SEL is important in the classroom and spells out a wide range of strategies for teachers, all done in the context of how it can be included in their evaluations

In detail it helps teachers develop ways to provide SEL in 10 areas, with clear examples of how it can be accomplished:

  • Student-Centered Discipline
  • Teacher Language
  • Responsibility and Choice
  • Warmth and Support
  • Cooperative Learning
  • Classroom Discussions
  • Self-Reflection and Self-Assessment
  • Balanced Instruction
  • Academic Press and Expectations
  • Competence Building—Modeling, Practicing, Feedback, Coaching

There is a wide range of information on the CASEL web site, including descriptions of how the organization is working with districts, school and classrooms in an "SEL in Action" section and and "Partner District" page with details about how CASEL is working with 20 districts to develop SEL in schools.

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim Paterson is a writer, contributing to a variety of national publications, most recently specializing in education. During a break from writing for a period, he was the head of a school counseling department. (