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Social and emotional learning, or SEL, has been an important part of teaching for years now. But as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still linger in classrooms, we’ve realized just how necessary SEL strategies are. Students bring different academic skills and learning gaps into the classroom, but they also need emotional support more than ever.
Research has shown that SEL strategies help learners manage stress and negative emotions, while improving school behavior. On top of emotional support, SEL strategies also increase learners’ academic performance.
A majority of educators agree that SEL is invaluable. According to an EdWeek survey, 83 percent of the educators who responded say that it helps learners. So if SEL does make an impact, what are the best SEL strategies for teaching K-12 learners?
What are SEL strategies in education?
SEL strategies for the classroom should cover five key areas, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). These five skill areas are:
- Responsible decision making
- Relationship skills
- Social awareness
When you incorporate SEL strategies into instruction and learning, students begin to:
- Develop positive identities
- Become aware of and manage their emotions
- Make healthy decisions
- Set and achieve goals
- Establish supportive relationships
- Understand empathy
Helping children and teens practice these skills will better equip them for life after K-12. Plus, creating a safe, equitable environment for your learners will help them succeed academically and feel positive about school.
What are some signature SEL practices?
There are countless SEL classroom strategies, but the following can make an impact in any subject or grade level. Start with one or two strategies to see how they affect your learning environment.
Hold daily check-ins
One strategy to teach SEL skills in your classroom is daily check-ins. These allow learners’ voices to be heard and help normalize identifying and talking about emotions. The check-ins also emphasize that you care about your learners’ feelings, which creates trust in the classroom.
Regular check-ins also provide an opportunity for you to monitor how learners are feeling about instruction, their progress or personal challenges. You can also encourage problem-solving if any issues are brought up.
Check-ins don’t have to take up a lot of time and can happen at the beginning of class, after an activity or at the end of class. You can ask learners to write in a journal, complete a feeling sentence stem, fill out a graphic organizer or rate how they’re feeling at that moment. Learners can even complete these check-ins digitally in a Google Doc or Form.
You can also ask learners to select an emoji that reflects their current emotion, which works well for learners of any age.
Incorporate growth mindset reflection opportunities
Teaching learners about growth mindset helps them understand that mistakes are to be expected and that there aren’t failures, only opportunities for growth. Journal prompts are a great way for learners to continuously reflect and think about how they’re learning. You can provide growth mindset prompts and ask learners to write about challenges they’re working through.
If you have young learners, you can also read stories about growth mindset and ask questions that prompt discussions.
Point out positive behavior
When you identify positive behavior in the classroom on a consistent basis, you’ll encourage positive choices throughout your learning environment. Students will have clear examples of expectations and gain more self-awareness. You’ll also build trust and help learners with their decision-making skills. You can even ask learners to point out positive behavior among themselves.
Celebrate your learners’ cultures and backgrounds and those throughout the school and surrounding neighborhood. This encourages learners to consider different perspectives and show empathy for their fellow classmates and educators. It also gives them space to feel empowered about their own identities.
Consider adding diverse images to your classroom walls, your door, the hallway and your class website. Have discussions about cultures, select diverse texts and give learners the chance to share their backgrounds. You can also invite local professionals to your classroom or a video call to discuss their heritage.
Display SEL anchor charts
When discussing SEL skills with learners, create an anchor chart to keep track of ideas. Then display the chart so the class can view it throughout the school year. Add it to the wall in your classroom or embed it in a digital space that learners visit each day. As the year progresses, you can add to the anchor chart as learners build their SEL skills and brainstorm additional ideas.
Set and monitor goals
Having learners create goals and monitor their progress is another essential SEL strategy. Learners can set goals for the school year, the semester, a unit or a lesson and monitor how they’re doing along the way. This allows students to take control of their progress and have a deeper awareness of how they are learning.
Hāpara Student Dashboard makes it easy for students to take ownership of their learning and monitor their progress toward goals. This platform organizes everything they need for learning. Because all of their class work, notifications, emails and due dates are on a single dashboard, students can keep track of their accomplishments and any challenges.
Practice peer-to-peer learning
Partner and group work is crucial for helping students build social awareness, develop positive relationships and make responsible decisions. It’s important to set expectations and create them alongside learners before you start any cooperative learning. These expectations should cover how to talk to teammates, actively listen, ask questions and give positive feedback.
When needed, visit the shared expectations again so that learners feel safe and can discuss SEL skill areas.
Hāpara Workspace is a platform that allows you to create online lessons, projects or units with differentiated and collaborative group activities. Learners are able to explore digital resources together and work as a team in shared Google files. They can also directly email their group members from Workspace, which helps them practice positive communication and relationship-building skills.
Asking learners to share what they are grateful for strengthens social awareness and self-esteem and builds relationships in the classroom. Often kids focus on what is wrong, but practicing gratitude helps them focus on the positive. Learners can build an alphabetical list of things they are thankful for, add sticky notes to a “Gratitude” wall, write a letter thanking someone, design a collage or write in a gratitude journal.
Engage in mindfulness exercises
Setting aside even a short amount of time for learners to concentrate on mindfulness helps them practice self-awareness. Allowing them to take a minute or two for deep breaths after lunch, recess, P.E. or an assembly can help them prepare their brains for a class activity. Asking learners to close their eyes and think about what they hear, what they smell and what they’re feeling helps them focus.
You can also help calm nerves by asking learners to think about a time or place that has made them happy. You can do this anytime learners are expressing anxiety and need a moment to regulate their emotions.
Rotate classroom responsibilities
Consider assigning learners roles in the classroom, such as helping to pass out supplies, organize the classroom library or assist previously absent learners. These responsibilities can give them pride and strengthen the classroom community. Be sure to rotate the classroom roles so that each learner has a chance to take on a different responsibility.
Integrate art activities
Visual arts and performing arts are great ways for learners to connect to their emotions and relieve stress. Art can also help them better understand their classmates and new perspectives. Try giving learners opportunities to draw, paint, sculpt, create digital art in a Google Drawing, build a model or design an online simulation. You can also give learners the choice to create a song, play an instrument, dance or perform in a video.
How do you implement SEL strategies in the classroom?
There are several SEL best practices that can help ensure that your learners are getting the most out of your strategies. Start with these best practices at any point and revisit them throughout the school year.
The first best practice is to incorporate SEL strategies into your own life as a teacher and model them for learners. For example, if you ask learners to think about their emotions, identify your own emotions to start. Or reflect out loud about how you felt as a teacher after an activity or event. You can also discuss growth mindset by recognizing your mistakes and talking through how you’ll rise above a challenge. This helps learners practice how to communicate about their own feelings and creates a safe environment for discussing SEL topics.
Add SEL to your class mission statement
If you have a class mission statement or goal statement, include SEL concepts. This makes it clear to students from the beginning that SEL is a meaningful part of teaching and learning. You can also create your class mission statement with students’ input. This mission statement exercise takes you through the process of aligning it with SEL.
Teach SEL in multiple ways
Another best practice is to teach SEL in a variety of ways so every learner is able to grasp and practice these skills. Consider teaching it through direct instruction with lessons about SEL. In addition, weave SEL strategies into academic lessons, projects or units. Hāpara Workspace is another great way to easily include SEL in an engaging online lesson.
Collaborate with colleagues
If you want to try several new SEL strategies in your classroom, partner with a colleague. Each of you can try one or two strategies, and then at the end of the grading period, you can report back to each other. Of course every class is different and learners have changing needs, but it’s a great way to see how a strategy works in the classroom environment.
Implementing strategies of SEL in the classroom is invaluable. It will help your students understand and regulate their emotions, create a safe learning environment and boost academic progress. You don’t have to become an SEL expert in order to start using these strategies in your instruction. Simply start with one or two that are easy for you to integrate, reflect on the results and continue to add more strategies over time. Which strategy will you try first?