Students in the K-12 setting experience immense developmental changes, socially, emotionally, and academically. All the while, they go through dreaded awkward stages—braces, bad haircuts, first crushes—and experience greater demands from parents, teachers, and community members.
Children make friends, learn about their own emotional capacity, and attempt to build self-esteem and confidence, but technology, social media, and cultural divides can become roadblocks that make it difficult for students connect with each other, build healthy habits, and feel confident in their own abilities. Now, more than ever, social media serves as a constant reminder of the societal pressure students face to succeed socially and academically. Social and emotional learning (SEL) methods are proven to be an opportunistic equalizer for students to develop emotional intelligence, self-awareness of themselves and others, and practice positive behavior.
What Is Social and Emotional Learning?
SEL has been a trending topic in education for years. This learning initiative is the process through which children acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions. Often curriculum centered around SEL helps students set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. It seeks to build student confidence and focus on mental health, so students can build skills needed to become emotionally and academically resilient.
Kids need social-emotional skills to be successful at school, home, and for the rest of their lives. Without a doubt, these are critical skills for all learners. The following diagram outlines the five groups of inter-related core social and emotional competencies that SEL programs should address and seek to build in students:
Source: Princeton Public Schools
The need for SEL in schools
Modern schools are socioeconomically and culturally diverse places, where students have varied abilities and motivations for learning. As students progress in school, many become less engaged and achieve poorly on standardized tests and do not meet curriculum benchmarks. An estimated 40 to 60 percent of all high school public school students become chronically disengaged, and approximately 30 percent participate in high-risk behaviors (ex. substance abuse, gangs, violence, anxiety and depression, attempted suicide, etc.) (Payton, 2008). Foster youth, low-income students, and English learners are twice as likely to become at-risk than their peers.
Additionally, bullying inside schools and cyberbullying outside the school environment continue to be a pervasive problem for students. With the rise of technology and social media, students are more likely than ever to engage in harmful comparison behaviors and fall pray to bullying over the internet and in-person. Even with comprehensive prevention measures from states and districts nationwide, it remains prevalent among all age groups (CASEL, 2007).
Necessitating SEL curriculum in schools is two-fold. Not only do socioemotional initiatives show promising academic and behavioral benefits for students at every grade level, but multi-tiered SEL supports are proven to enhance equity measures and aide in bulling prevention (CASEL, 2007). Development of these socioemotional skills are proven effective for all students with and without behavioral and emotional problems. Perhaps the most important skill that SEL promotes is improved understanding and attitudes about self and others. Students with enhanced emotional intelligence can empathize with students from ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds different from their own and problem-solve based on mutual respect, ethics, and an understanding of possible consequences. SEL encourages communication and asks students to assess their own feelings prior to making rash decisions or resorting to violence.
Utilizing SEL This Upcoming School Year
Post quarantine, adjusting students to the classroom will likely be challenging, both from the social-emotional angle and from an academic standpoint. Since schools closed in spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, an economic crisis and civil unrest have also occurred. How students were affected will determine the type of support they need as they re-enter school.
Students, particularly those with disabilities, may exhibit anxiety when schools reopen. New changes in routines, a new founded fear of germs, and trauma that students may have experienced during school closures are among factors that must be considered come fall ("Covid-19," 2020).
Source: istock.com/Татьяна Джемилев
Integrate SEL in Your Classroom
Incorporating a comprehensive school-wide SEL framework is ideal for students, but even small additions to the average curriculum can help develop these necessary skills. There are many resources out there that discuss SEL strategies, both as a school-wide initiative and inside the classroom, but below are some of my favorite evidence-based practices:
1. Talk about emotions - Children and young adults of all ages need practice managing and talking about their emotions. This is a skill that can be weaved into history or literature lessons as you talk about perspective-taking and a character’s feelings and needs.
2. Celebrate diversity - Social studies and history classrooms give the perfect opportunity to learn about people from diverse cultures, backgrounds, and ability levels. Kids need to hear, see, discuss, and understand that we are part of a larger community within our countries and world. Early exposure to books and resources highlighting diverse populations can help promote tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion as students grow.
3. Outline clear behavior expectations and classroom rules - Every classroom should create a positive learning environment to engage and motivate students. To promote positive behavior, teachers can create a consistent seating arrangements with predictable routines and have clearly stated rules for effective classroom learning. Creating a memory-friendly classroom, with assignments and due dates clearly visible is also recommended.
4. Teamwork initiatives to build community - For long-term projects and assignments, have students work in larger teams. Teach students to assign a leader and allocate different jobs to work together. This will build a community within the team and ensure that each student has important responsibilities.
5. Incorporate hands-on learning - Students love hands-on activities and teachers can use these materials to dually promote critical thinking and socio-emotional skills. If your students need a craft break or activity before a holiday, use that time to promote social and emotional skills. Kids can create their own positive self-talk crafts and then keep it to help remind them how to use this helpful strategy.
6. Discuss empathy - Empathy is one of the most critical skills for humans to develop. It is the foundation of perspective-taking and understanding how others think and feel so that we can respond in socially appropriate and compassionate ways. Practice empathy via group discussion or through role-play simulations like Storypath or Interact.
7. Teach stress-management skills - Educators should be open with students about how to manage their emotions and give stress-management strategies in the classroom, especially around exams or other projects that may cause students anxiety. These techniques are great to teach in the moment so students can effectively use the skills when they are struggling with emotions.
8. Encourage civil discourse through discussion - Students in a school setting often come from all walks of life and will have a spectrum of experience. It's inevitable that disagreements will occur, so learning how to discuss topics and engage in civil discourse is a critical skill (especially in our digital world!). Have students discuss and debate topics, making sure to employ active listening skills and respectfully respond to differing opinions. (For a structured debate, try Storypath: Elections!)
9. Group learning initiatives - Group work is an important part of learning social skills in the classroom, but it is not a strength for all learners. Allow your class to set “guidelines” for what is important when working in a group. Some examples could include, contributing your fair share and give everyone a chance to speak up. Remind your students of these rules before breaking off into groups.
10. Journal activities that check-in and reflect - Teachers can use daily journal prompts in almost any subject to help kids reflect on their own growth and emotions. For example, you might ask kids, “When was a time you used self-control? What was the outcome?” to discuss their own self-management skills. After writing, it’s helpful to have students share their responses with a partner or as part of a whole-class discussion.
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CASEL. “Social and Emotional Learning and Bullying Prevention.” Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 2007, www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/3_SEL_and_Bullying_Prevention_2009.pdf.
“Covid- 19 SEL Resources.” CASEL, 2020, casel.org/resources-covid/.
Payton, John, et. al. “ The Positive Impact of Social and Emotional Learning for Kindergarten to Eighth-Grade Students.” CASEL, Dec. 2008, www.casel.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/PDF-4-the-positive-impact-of-social-and-emotional-learning-for-kindergarten-to-eighth-grade-students-executive-summary.pdf.
Monet Hendricks is the blog editor and social media/meme connoisseur for Social Studies School Service. Passionate about the field of education, she earned her BA from the University of Southern California before deciding to go back to get her master's degree in educational psychology. She currently attends the graduate program at Azusa Pacific University pursuing advanced degrees in school psychology and Applied Behavior Analysis. Her favorite activities include watching documentaries on mental health and cooking adventurous vegetarian recipes.