Social emotional learning is a revolutionary educational practice that helps students better understand themselves and the world around them through acceptance and control of their emotions. What’s more, social-emotional learning activities have a direct impact on academic achievement because it teaches students how to make responsible decisions, as well as how to set and achieve goals.
Because of this, it almost becomes a necessity and even a responsibility for teachers to implement SEL strategies in the classroom in some form. Teaching through an SEL lens is one of the most effective ways of helping students grow into well-adjusted individuals with empathy and a strong character. But, how do you go about doing that?
If you’re interested in teaching SEL competencies to your students, read our six key strategies that will help you achieve and foster self- and social awareness.
How to Implement Social Emotional Learning?
Social emotional learning (SEL) is a methodology that aims to equip students with skills and competences regarding their emotions, their personality, and interpersonal relationships. These learned behaviors help kids realize their full potential by focusing on long-term goals, making smarter decisions, and building stronger relationships with their peers.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading source of information for SEL, identifies five core competencies through which SEL comes to life:
- Self-awareness – being aware of one’s own emotions and how they affect one’s behavior; identifying different emotional states in oneself and the reactions they provoke; acknowledging one's strengths and weaknesses and gaining confidence in oneself.
- Self-management – gaining control of one’s emotions and thoughts; having the discipline to react calmly and with reason; gaining concentration and will to set and work on long-term goals.
- Social awareness – being aware of the feelings of others in one’s environment; recognizing when someone’s upset and having the ability to empathize regardless of background or culture.
- Relationship skills – being able to form close relationships with other peers from diverse backgrounds and cultures; being comfortable around others; communicating clearly and openly; and having conflict-resolving skills.
- Responsible decision-making – using the skills learned from the other SEL competencies to evaluate one’s decisions from an ethical standpoint; considering the consequences to others and oneself when making decisions.
We can see that SEL is not designed to be taught like a subject matter, but rather it can be incorporated as a tool that defines how other subjects are being taught.
For example, teachers can make math more relatable and personal by encouraging collaboration as well as independent work with creative exercises and reflective activities at the end of the class. This can help students to develop a more positive attitude toward the subject matter, while also learning valuable SEL skills.
Here are six SEL strategies that can help you weave this methodology into the fabric of any school’s curriculum.
6 Social Emotional Learning Strategies for Teachers
Based on the five core SEL competencies, we’ve chosen six strategies that teachers can use to begin incorporating SEL into the classroom. With these strategies, children will become more self-aware, caring, responsible, and engaged students who know how to work both alone and in a team to achieve their academic and personal goals.
The backbone of most social emotional learning activities is communication. Children need to learn how to express themselves, how to communicate, and how to actively listen to others in their environment. This means that there are two aspects of communication you should prioritize: intrapersonal and interpersonal communication.
Intrapersonal communication is communication with oneself. This can occur when students are talking to themselves, reading out loud, writing, meditating, signing, or analyzing something (subjective interpretation). Therefore, the classroom should be perceived as a safe place where students can express themselves in this form.
Social Emotional Learning Activities for Intrapersonal Communication
Examples of activities that encourage intrapersonal communication include:
- Sense-making: reading maps, figuring out riddles, interpreting signs or symbols, and so on.
- Analyzing non-verbal body language: giving meaning to eye contact (or lack of thereof), different gestures, facial expressions, etc.
- Day-dreaming: having a designated time of day when day-dreaming is allowed and encouraged, as a way for students to better understand themselves and their feelings.
- Turning negative into positive attitudes: writing down personal thoughts about a subject matter (example: math, “I hate math!”), then analyzing and rewriting those thoughts into a constructive feedback for ourselves (example: from “I hate math!” to “I need to ask for help about the probability exercises because I don’t really understand them and that makes me feel frustrated.” ).
On the other hand, interpersonal communication is what we typically associate with the word communication - interacting with others. In terms of SEL strategies, working on interpersonal communication means teaching students how to share and receive constructive feedback. This involves engagement activities where students give apologies, express gratitude, applaud, or critique something that involves another person. The goal is to learn how to properly exchange information, news, or ideas without attacking or disregarding the feelings of others.
Social Emotional Learning Activities for Interpersonal Communication
Examples of activities that encourage interpersonal communication include:
- Circle conversations: gather students in a circle after a group activity and encourage group communication with a simple rule - everyone must share an “apology, applause, and awareness” statement. For example: “I apologize for being impatient while we were all coming up with different ideas. I applaud ___ for figuring out how to solve the problem we were having, and I learned that this topic is not really interesting to me personally.”
- Introducing a friend exercise: group students into pairs and give them an assignment to talk about themselves (trying to get to know each other better). Then, after 10 or 15 minutes, each student has to introduce their partner to the class by summarizing what they’ve learned during the conversation. It’s a great exercise for listening, questioning, and storytelling skills.
- Responding to praise: giving and receiving compliments can be uncomfortable or even embarrassing for some people, which is why teaching kids how to kindly and professionally give and respond to peer’s compliments is a great communication exercise. Practice giving and receiving compliments in small groups.
- Responding to negative feedback: feedback is important even when it’s negative. More importantly, it’s an unavoidable part of life which is why kids need to learn how to show restraint, be appreciative, and respond calmly. You can practice this through role playing or in small groups where students improvise and try to come up with appropriate and genuine responses.
- Emotional charades: group students in two teams, then ask them to take turns when one student of each group is demonstrating an emotion, while the other group tries to guess the emotion (use an emotion chart for more complex emotional states). This is an awesome game for improving non-verbal communication skills, empathy, and EQ.
- Role-playing: you can incorporate role-playing in some of the other exercises we’ve mentioned, or use it as an independent exercise in ELA (English and Language arts) subjects when analyzing a book, text, or other content piece.
With these communication SEL strategies, students will have an increased self-awareness, gain practical tools for self-management, and better understand how to build high-quality relationships.
Practice Emotional Reflection
Social emotional learning strategies should also teach kids that all emotions are valid, which could be done through a strategy that focuses on emotional reflection.
For the youngest students, emotional reflection starts with exercises where students identify and name different emotions and emotional expressions (gestures, facial expressions, non-verbal body language, etc.).
For older students, emotional reflection involves introspection - the act of observing and analyzing one's own mental and emotional processes. For instance, at the end of the school day, kids can put anonymous letters into a box where they’ll write how they felt and why. They would need to identify the dominant emotion in themselves that sets their mood for the day and the trigger that caused it.
Additionally, teachers can make time for end-of-class or end-of-day weekly conversations about both positive and negative emotions. The goal is to allow students to perceive the classroom as a safe place where they can freely explore their emotions (without judgment). Some of the ways teachers can facilitate this includes:
- Individual reflection: students work alone (in a private and intimate setting) and write letters to themselves, write about their fears, wishes, draw their emotional states, and so on.
- Peer-to-peer exercises: students share their take on similar experiences in small groups with their peers. For instance, a situation when they were anxious at school, what’s their biggest fear, or how they feel about the upcoming exams, and so on.
- Guided exercises: students work on a specific assignment, such as writing how they feel about a specific character, answering self-awareness questions, writing gratitude letters to family or friends, and so on.
Mindfulness is a practice that teaches us how to be present, or be “awake” and focused in the present moment. It’s both a psychological and spiritual practice that’s typically used as a powerful technique for stress relief, self-awareness, and self-regulation.
Teachers can incorporate mindfulness in the classroom by starting the day with some quiet time during which students should be instructed to visualize their day and the tasks that are ahead of them. More experienced teachers can also guide them by using a guided, mini-meditation where they’ll direct students’ thoughts to a happy place, so they can start their day confident and relaxed.
Here, we should also mention breathing exercises as a stress-relief technique, especially before exams. With practice, this will give students the skills they need to manage anxiety, negative feelings, and agitation related to exams, subjects, or even peer pressure.
Brain breaks (active break where kids chat, move, etc. to reset and refocus) between long and intense lectures is another good SEL strategy that promotes mindfulness and relieves stress.
It might not seem like an academic activity, but mindfulness exercises are some of the most powerful techniques that can help students overcome their performance anxiety and emotional turmoil, which results in a more positive attitude toward school and with that better academic achievements.
Useful Tip: For quiet time to be really effective, teachers should give explicit instructions, provide examples, and monitor the classroom carefully - no phones allowed. Without these precautions, students will most likely spend their time talking to their peers or using their phones, especially in the beginning, which is counter-productive.
Practice Self-Management Through Permission Slips
Quit time is not the only way to start the day. One of the most interesting SEL strategies for self-regulation and stress relief is to practice permission slips.
Brene Brown is an American researcher, lecturer, and author known for her contributions in the field of shame, vulnerability, and leadership. Following her widely popular technique called permission to feel (giving ourselves permission to be vulnerable and experience intense emotions), we recommend practicing self-permission slips with students before a new lecture, exam, or class.
Here’s how it works.
Tell students to write “I give myself permission…” on a separate piece of paper and then instruct them to write something that they’ll permit themselves to do, something that usually puts them in a vulnerable position, but since they’ll permit themselves to do it, it will be okay. Also, give them an example, such as:
- “I give myself permission to not know where to start…”
- “I give myself permission to make mistakes and try again.”
- “I give myself permission to not understand everything right away and ask questions.”
Focus on Collaboration Activities
Introducing group activities as part of the lectures is a great way to encourage and promote collaboration. However, keep in mind that large groups might be counterproductive because a few students who are naturally more outspoken might take over the whole activity. This is why it's important to focus on small groups, such as pairs (two students) or groups of up to four to five students.
Another important thing is to try and make diverse groups where students don’t know each other well or come from different backgrounds. This will take them out of their comfort zone and encourage them to be more patient, use active listening, work harder, and develop skills that benefit them in almost every work environment later in the future.
Group activities that promote collaboration are also great for developing interpersonal communication skills, which is an important element of any SEL strategy.
Have Regular Class Meetings
Finally, you can start incorporating SEL into the curriculum by organizing regular class meetings where you would teach greetings, gratefulness, and kindness.
The idea behind regular class meetings, whether once a week, every day, or something else that works well within your schedule, is that it allows teachers to meet face-to-face with students. They can discuss current challenges, events, tasks, seasonal topics, and other news from students’ lives. It’s an opportunity for teachers to promote a safer environment, foster responsibility, and encourage thoughtfulness.
All meetings should be interactive where the students have an active role and share their own views, thoughts, or worries. Depending on their age (meetings are appropriate for kids as young as 3-4 years old), students can play games, follow the teacher’s instructions, or participate in more elaborate debates and morally challenging discussions. For example, “Is it ethical to hire someone to do your assignments and why?”
Meetings also serve another purpose. They give teachers an opportunity to gather feedback and measure the effectiveness of their SEL strategies. They can listen to students’ opinions and everyday challenges, ask questions, or post surveys. Analyzing this data and sharing it with other teachers will help the development of an inclusive and collaborative culture. Not only will students gain new skills, but teachers will have better tools to adapt their teaching methods to the students’ needs.
Finally, measuring the effectiveness of your implemented SEL strategies is the key to establishing a personalized SEL methodology that benefits the students as well as the school.
In recent years, the implementation of SEL strategies within formal education allowed students to change their attitude toward school, achieve better academic performance, and develop a strong character that is more resilient to stress and peer pressure. Because of this, teachers have a responsibility to adjust and familiarize themselves with the methodology of social emotional learning.
Hopefully, we were able to help in that regard. With our 6 SEL strategies, teachers can gradually start to introduce students to SEL. Start slowly and work your way up. Choose the activities that work well with your current schedule and allow students to adjust before adding more novelty. The key to success is to try different things, carefully observe how the students react, and measure the outcomes.
To learn more about SEL and other valuable teaching strategies, check out our blog.