It seems the term Social Emotional Learning or SEL is everywhere these days. For many educators, this is met with a collective sigh of relief. At long last, we are talking about more than just academics and standardized testing when it comes to providing students with a quality education. To others, however, the buzz about SEL may be cause for concern. Is SEL merely a trend? Is it just the flavor of the month that will soon fade away only to be replaced by the next big idea in education?
Here’s why I believe SEL is here to stay:
The Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as: The process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.
By that definition, I challenge you to name a single critical issue in education today that is not directly linked to some aspect of Social and Emotional Learning. From school climate and safety, to chronic absenteeism, the opportunity and achievement gaps, bullying and behavior issues, suspensions and expulsions, parent and family engagement, access and equity, 21st Century and global competency skill development, college and career readiness, dropout prevention and graduation rates, teacher effectiveness and burnout. And the list goes on and on.
And I’m not alone is this belief. “Teachers across the country explained that SEL increases student interest in learning, improves student behavior, prevents and reduces bullying, and improves school climate. In all, more than three quarters of teachers believe a larger focus on SEL will be a major benefit to students. K–12 educators across the nation largely agree SEL skills would positively impact workforce readiness (87 percent), school attendance and graduation (80 percent), life success (87 percent), college preparation (78 percent), and academic success (75 percent)” (Bridgeland, Bruce, and Hariharan 2013, 17).
This sentiment was heard by policy makers as evidenced by the 2015 replacement of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) which saw a shift in focus from standardized academic testing as the sole indicator of student success to a broader definition of what students need to be successful in school and beyond. With the implementation of “non-academic” indicators of student success, as reflected in ESSA’s verbiage, policy makers are acknowledging what most teachers have always known: kids need more than academics alone to become well-rounded, happy, and healthy (in every sense) students and adults.
Maslow Before Bloom
Any time an educator wants to try something new in the classroom, one of the first things that comes to mind is when? When am I going to fit this into my class, program, curriculum, or day? The best response I have heard to this argument came from an Illinois school district leader, Gene Olsen. He said, “SEL is not one more thing on the plate. It is the plate!” (CASEL 2018, 20).
In other words, as we know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we must first have our basic needs met before we can aspire to higher-level goals. Along with food, shelter, and safety, social and emotional needs are essential to a healthy environment for all human beings. Maslow’s model stresses the importance of individuals, children, and adults alike having a sense of belonging, love, and self-esteem. Students need a solid social and emotional foundation before they can effectively learn and achieve. In fact, educators are starting to use the phrase “Maslow before Bloom,” referring to Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, which most educators are familiar with.
Where Do We Begin?
With the adults! Creating a healthy and effective learning environment begins with the adults working in that environment. School settings and the education process itself are often riddled with stress. Implementing ways to mitigate stress in both adults and students is paramount to creating effective learning environments. Emerging SEL research supports the importance of starting with adult practice. This means that we must first take stock of our own understanding and self-regulation of emotions before we can attempt to work with students on developing these types of skills. In her article “10 Ways We Made Our School Happier,” Principal Tracey Smith writes:
As educators, one of the biggest challenges we face is learning how to put our health and happiness first. My first thought was that I needed to put the students’ well being first, but I discovered that I needed to start with my staff instead (2018, para. 2).
5 Ways to Implement SEL at Your School
Start with your own self-care.
This may include implementing meditation or mindfulness practices, yoga, and journaling. Let’s face it, teaching is stressful and studies show that we pass our stress on to our students. Furthermore, stress affects both student behavior and academic performance. An easy way to introduce yourself to meditation and mindfulness practices is through the Headspace app. Headspace is currently working to develop content specifically for educators, and eventually for students. www.Headspace.com.
Encourage school leadership to incorporate mindfulness practices into staff meetings.
This might start with a “check-in” process whereby before the meeting gets underway, a brief once-around-the-room check-in with colleagues creates an opportunity to connect on a personal level to see how your peers are doing (and feeling) mentally and emotionally before jumping right into the business of the day. For additional ideas, see 10 Ways We Made Our School Happier.
Implement mindfulness activities into your classroom routines with your students.
Once the adults have these practices down, introduce them to your students. Start each day or class with a brief check-in process with students and their peers. Ensure that a trusting and supportive environment has been established before having students share-out their check-ins. This might start by journaling their check-ins and sharing-out on a voluntary basis. This process provides students an opportunity to examine the emotions they are experiencing on a given day, which may impact their academic performance or behavior, as well as their interactions with peers. An excellent resource for explaining to kids the effect stress has on their brains, and ways to counteract stress, is the Just Breathe video. Another practice you can adopt, and which can be a more confidential one for students, is the I wish my teacher knew exercise, based on the book of the same name by teacher Kyle Schwartz.
Incorporate mindfulness practices school-wide.
Eventually, these types of fundamental SEL practices should be shared by all adults in the school environment—teaching and non-teaching staff alike. Some schools have adopted morning mindfulness routines before starting each day. In some cases, schools have implemented a practice of doing nothing but getting to know each other the entire first week of the school year—no assignments, no baseline testing, nothing but building personal relationships between teachers and students and peer to peer. This strategy is found to have a profound and enduring impact on student behavior and overall school climate.
Advocate for student-driven school wide SEL practices.
Some schools have seen the adoption of school wide SEL practices implemented by the students themselves. Examples of this include the Buddy Bench, and No One Dines Alone. Another excellent opportunity for students to develop SEL skills is through community service learning projects, particularly those initiated by the students themselves. A great free resource for this is WE Schools.
Join the Revolution!
According to Marc Brackett, Ph.D., Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence: “The time has come for an Emotion Revolution in our nation’s education system. Research shows that emotions drive learning, decision-making, relationships, and mental health. Evidence-based approaches to social and emotional learning lead to higher academic performance, greater teacher effectiveness, and enhanced school climate.”
Creating effective SEL environments extends beyond the classroom walls, from establishing safe home environments for students to expanding their horizons through extracurricular activities, field trips, work experience and internships, service learning projects, and after school programs. In addition to implementing some of the suggestions you’ve read about here, learn to recognize opportunities for SEL skill development in activities your students are already engaging in every day. The revolution in education has begun – and it’s here to stay!
If you’d like to get more involved in SEL education in your state, visit https://sel4us.org/.
FREE SEL On-Demand Webinar
By building SEL into instruction, schools and districts can help students be the best that they can be. Check out this On-Demand webinar to learn three key considerations and actions for implementing SEL throughout a district or school.
Bridgeland, John, Mary Bruce, and Arya Hariharan. 2013. The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). “What Is SEL?” Accessed June 15, 2018. casel.org/what-is-sel/.
Smith, Tracey. 2018. “10 Ways We Made Our School Happier,” eSchool News, June 7, 2018. www.eschoolnews.com/2018/06/07/10-ways -we-made-our-school-happier/.