George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Breaking SEL Down Into Manageable Practices

Adaptable and accessible ‘kernels’ make teaching skills like self-management, focus, and emotional regulation easier.

November 12, 2019
kali9 / iStock

Most teachers agree that social emotional learning is important, but teaching those skills in already crowded school day can be a daunting task. The cost—in both funding and time—can hinder schools from integrating social emotional learning (SEL) into their daily activities, writes Arianna Prothero in EdWeek

The development of easy, quick practices that reinforce SEL allows for integration into a classroom’s curriculum and schedule, says Stephanie Jones, director of the Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning—or EASEL at Harvard University. 

"Sometimes what can happen with SEL is that it gets relegated to a special space," Jones told EdWeek. "Like … the school counselor comes in and teaches it on Friday afternoon, and that separates the work into one spot. But SEL is in every setting and interaction. It's part of being human. If things get separated into one space, the work is not happening as effectively as it should."

To help teachers, EASEL took common SEL strategies and distilled them down into kernels: “a cost-effective method to teach social-emotional skills in flexible, bite-sized lesson.” The activities are designed to be flexible, succinct, and versatile—and require little preparation by teachers. 

At one elementary school in Sacramento with disciplinary issues resulting in a high number of suspensions, students struggled to transition from recess back to the classroom. "Students would really hang onto whatever issue they had with another student, or if they had been reprimanded by one of the [staff on recess duty], they would just bring that into the classroom,” Principal Gina Pasquini told Prothero. Pasquini introduced a kernel activity where students discussed what happened on the playground and resolved any lingering conflicts before returning to their academic work. She saw an improvement in behavior and the number of suspensions declined. 

At another school in Connecticut, teachers use a “‘feeling circle’ during which students are encouraged to explore their emotions in-depth as teachers prompt them with questions like, ‘What do feelings feel like in your body?’” Creating self-awareness in an easy, accessible way provides a pathway to social emotional growth without putting a heavy burden on educators to create or initiate big changes to their curricula or routine.

Not every kernel involves communication. Students learn emotional regulation and self-awareness through another kernel called belly breathing. “Teachers have students breathe deeply through their noses and notice their bellies expand, and then exhale through their mouths and notice as their bellies collapse. Teachers then ask students if they felt a difference before and after the breaths,” Prothero writes. “They ask students to think of times during the day—at school and at home—to use belly breathing to calm their emotions.” The reflective part of the practice helps students think about when they might use their newly developed skills independently.

A kernel called “zip zap zop” helps students develop the ability to focus through a game. “A student will clap their hands toward a peer of their choice and say 'zip.' The receiving student will then clap their hands at another peer and say 'zap,' and so on. If a student breaks the chain by saying zip, zap, or zop out of order, they're out of the game,” Prothero writes. Students reflect on the importance of focus and brainstorm about ways to implement focus in other parts of their school day. 

One of the main benefits of kernels is that they can be modified by teachers to suit different ages and needs. For example, belly breathing can become “Darth Vader breathing” for students with an interest in Star Wars, or ‘sphere breathing’—where students use their breath to follow the movement of an expandable sphere-shaped tool—"for a class that’s studying three-dimensional shapes.” Adapting the kernels for an individual class or student allows educators to customize their practices while preserving the intended outcomes. 

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  • Student Wellness
  • Pre-K
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