Social and emotional learning (SEL) skills are about as broad as your choices for class novels. Their pacing and depth can also vary widely. You could spend a whole year teaching responsible decision-making, for example. This is especially true for developmental points, such as entering Kindergarten, or at a transition, like moving from elementary to middle school. There’s no doubt that SEL support will be necessary as classrooms physically fill with students again in Fall 2021.
How do we know which skills to teach, which to plan to support and how to streamline the process? And with pressure to close academic gaps, how do we support SEL without adding to our already-long to-do lists?
Begin with a quick truth: you won’t and can’t “do it all.” Springing back from any adversity takes time. Coming back to pre-pandemic levels of academic and SEL skills involves a collaboration between schools, families and the communities. You’ll be in catch-up mode as well. So allow yourself some humor and grace during what will be an exciting and most likely bumpy school year.
However bumpy, this school year can be full of amazing moments. Planning to embrace the new challenges is a great way to maximize the positive times this fall. Your “SEL Come Back Plan” can include these four tips:
- strategies to increase student self-awareness
- methods to prioritize what to teach
- collaboration with others
- routines for daily SEL
The idea is to plan ahead so the increased SEL supports are mindfully embedded this year.
SEL tip 1: Increase student self-awareness
Our academic standards provide guideposts for content, but SEL does not currently have that level of navigation. There’s no lack of SEL resources. Rather there is sometimes a paralyzing vastness of choices, leaving us to wonder where to start or go next.
The good news is we don’t have to guess! We can ask the experts: the learners themselves! Allowing learners to reflect on their own needs can drive your SEL lessons. And, as a bonus, it increases their self-awareness, which is one of CASEL’s identified SEL Core Components.
When our students can self-identify needs, teachers can deliver the most effective support. But what about learners who are so strongly impacted by their SEL needs they are not yet able to articulate them?
A great place to start is to empower learners with the language to identify their feelings. Happiness, sadness, fear/surprise and anger/disgust are largely believed to be innate. This leaves the other emotions to be learned and processed through experience, reflection and cognition. Learners may need explicit lessons on how to recognize what emotion they are experiencing, beyond the four basics. Just helping a learner name an emotion or talk through a need can put them into an empowered, problem-solving space. As is often said, “If you can name it, you can tame it.”
SEL tip 2: Prioritize what to teach
There’s no doubt your students will emerge from pandemic learning with a spectrum of SEL needs. Some will be more disruptive than others. So how do you prioritize your lessons? Just like with academic skills, SEL skills can be informed by data. This could be observations of student behaviors or student reflections in journals. It could also be patterns in referrals to the office or counseling.
Another perspective frame to use is developmental or calendar need. Upcoming breaks, for example, could cause anxiety for learners with poor home lives. Teaching self-calming or even self-advocacy skills could be incredibly helpful for kids who are anticipating the challenges of time away from school. Or if you have a group project on the horizon, collaboration and communication skills could be a great emphasis.
There’s no wrong way to sequence your lessons and no way to “fail” when choosing a lesson. If you’re genuinely meeting the demonstrated or anticipated needs of your learners, you are right on track.
SEL tip 3: Collaborate with others
Of course, learners may present needs that are beyond your scope of practice. Knowing what needs are appropriate to address and what requires outside support can be difficult, But a good rule of thumb is “when in doubt, ask for help.”
Certain behavior struggles, like interrupting during a lesson or tattling on others, are typical of certain age groups. You’ll know what’s within expected boundaries because most of your learners will struggle with similar needs throughout the year. However, when a learner’s needs appear to be increasing, outside the range of his/her age group, or connected to a specific trauma, it’s best to reach out for help. Your school counselors, SST team or administrators are great initial resources.
For less specific collaborations, reach out to the speech therapist. They will likely have resources for social skills and may offer to present or co-teach some lessons with you. Also reach out to community liaisons, school psychologists or local college students enrolled in teaching- or counseling-prep programs. You’re not alone, and inviting others to speak shows your learners just how valuable they are to the community.
SEL tip 4: Streamline the process
Teachers everywhere face the challenge of balancing SEL support and academic needs within the limited hours of the school day. A great way to do this is to blend the two. Create lessons with SEL content and academic skills combined. One example is writing a persuasive piece that addresses an issue related to social awareness. Or tackle SEL skills with academic content in lessons that require learners to use relationship skills. The key is to be mindful about the SEL and academic components. Plan to implicitly teach both before requiring learners to demonstrate competency.
Another way to streamline SEL support into your teaching is to make it part of the class routine. You may open with an SEL reflection or have transitions that allow learners to practice one of the 5 components. In English, for example, your quick writes could have SEL themes a few times a week.
In math, your transitions between activities could involve your learners practicing self-awareness (“notice how your body feels when you take three deep breaths”) or relationship skills (“take a quick brain break to talk with someone new”). The additional SEL supports don’t necessarily have to be separate from what you did pre-pandemic. Instead, they can be enhancements of the vetted lessons and routines you know.
The post-pandemic classroom will be different from the ones we rapidly left in March 2020. Things we took for granted, even former annoyances, may take on new significance as we are reunited on our campuses. The potential growth of SEL programs at schools is enormous and encouraging. Just think where we will be in a few years. The bumpy roads in the rearview will give way to smoother, more supportive paths ahead.