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Fostering Social-Emotional Learning

Positive Skills, Purposeful Instruction, and Powerful Results

By Lia D. Falco, Ph.D,

Learning: It’s About Relationships

Relationships are central to the human experience, and this truth is especially evident throughout children’s formative years and their time spent in school. If you ask an adult to recall what they remember about school, you’ll almost invariably hear about the people in their life: friends, teachers, and how those experiences with others helped shape their own identity. Research tells us that a student's beliefs about their identity, competence, and odds of being successful influence their interest in, and aptitude for, certain academic subjects. While academic achievement is important for later successes, so are the positive emotions and skills that support all areas of student development. This brings us to the concept of social-emotional learning (SEL).

What is SEL?

SEL can be understood as a developmental process through which individuals learn to recognize and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Educators can facilitate this process by focusing on any or all of the following five SEL competencies in their content instruction: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Considerable evidence shows that people with strong social-emotional skills benefit academically, socially, and professionally, and are better at coping with challenges. SEL can provide the foundation for positive long-term effects on students, caregivers, teachers, schools, and communities.

How do you teach SEL?

If you are a classroom teacher, you might wholeheartedly agree that SEL competencies are necessary for your students’ success, but you might also be wondering how to teach students to become more self-aware or to more effectively manage their emotions. In general, certain instructional practices can elicit and engage students in SEL by focusing class discussions, activities, and assignments on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, while situating such discussions in context.

Help students develop social-emotional competence by providing them with frequent opportunities to reflect on both the content (e.g., What went well? What was challenging? How does it apply outside the classroom?) and the experience of learning something new (e.g., What did they like and dislike? How did they feel?). This can be done in a variety of ways, including class discussion, journaling, or quick check-ins.

Provide frequent supportive, authentic feedback that focuses on their skill and effort (e.g., “You did a nice job sounding that out,” or “I’m glad that you asked that clarifying question”) instead of personal attributes helps students develop SEL, along with modeling ways for them to provide supportive feedback to their peers.

You can help students set small and large goals for themselves and check in with them regularly to assess progress. Teach them strategies for decision-making (e.g., identifying choices, understanding options, anticipating consequences, taking a course of action, assessing the outcome) and self-management (e.g., positive self-talk, count to ten, etc.). Integrating SEL goals and competencies can be done across the academic curriculum in a range of content areas. The ways in which SEL competencies can be enacted will depend on your preferences and the needs of your students.

The Takeaway

The key to fostering social-emotional learning is first helping students understand why these competencies are important and then continuously showing students how SEL can effectively promote better relationships and improved academic achievement. Create ample opportunities for students to practice these skills, and provide feedback and time for reflection. Fostering a sense of safety, trust, and caring in the classroom can help nurture and sustain lifelong learning for each and every one of your students.