George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Adding SEL to Your School Without Adding to Teachers’ Workload

Schools can incorporate social and emotional learning without asking teachers to learn a whole new curriculum.

June 22, 2023
SDI Productions / iStock

We all know that the disruptions of the last few years have led many children to need some refreshment of their social and emotional skills. But we also know that trying to bring a full social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum into schools now is difficult because of all the stress and pressures teachers are under.

As we’re planning for the next school year, we must think of how to bring SEL “in” to everyday instruction and classroom climate, rather than making it one more thing to add “on” to an already huge workload.

SEL research and practice gives us six ways to add SEL in and not on. Picking any one, two, or three that work for you will make a tangible difference in your classroom—and students—if you do them consistently.

6 Ways to Add SEL In and Not On

1. We need more and tangible prompts, cues, and strategies and lots of reminders, please. Under stress and high emotionality, we don’t always retrieve what we know, and we won’t always access our best skills. It’s natural to assume that an assignment given is an assignment received, whether to students or to staff. In times of heightened emotionality, that is an unwise assumption.

When giving an assignment or task to students or staff, ask them to repeat it in their own words. Discuss the timeline more than once. Ask them how they will remind themselves about their work plan and deadlines. Ask if you, as a teacher or administrator/supervisor, can help with reminders. This may seem like a waste of good time, but it’s actually a key to improving performance and avoiding the negative consequences of not meeting expectations.

2. We need to be engaged and have energies and talents focused to create tangible things we can show and touch. There is something special about holding something that we have created or that those we care about deeply have created. Parents know how wonderful it is to see what their children have done or produced. Teachers know how gratifying it is to be able to share what their students or entire classes have created. Students have the same good feelings. A verbal pat on the back is great, and it’s even better combined with an appreciated show-and-tell.

3. We need fairness in existing patterns of caring, kindness, and helping. Within classrooms and among staff, pay particular attention to discussing how people can help one another and seek out help from others in the school. Make it clear that caring and kindness are the norm, not the exception, and that no students or staff are excluded from receiving and providing these attributes to everyone. This provides a key tenet of equity, that everyone is deserving of being cared for, being helped, and being a source of caring or help to all others.

4. We need to provide all staff and students with equitable opportunities. The data on how girls and women often have fewer opportunities to speak, participate, and lead are well known. Less well known is that this happens in classrooms and staff and faculty contexts every day. Additionally, there often are differential opportunities to join groups, teams, or clubs, and to be recognized and appreciated, not only as a function of gender but often based on race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Typically, these participation biases are not intentional. However, their impact is keenly felt, regardless. Awareness and self-monitoring are keys to helping those experiencing anxiousness and self-doubt from feeling excluded. Barriers that perpetuate unequal access or participation should be eliminated to enable access and opportunity for all students and staff.

5. We need to ask empathetic questions to our students and staff. In times of distress, our uncertainties lead to our not asking the clarifying questions one might expect. That’s because we are afraid we will be belittled for asking or unable to deal with the answer. Even when others have provided a seemingly open door, these hesitations persist and are understandable. We can alleviate these feelings among students at any age, as well as staff, by having conversations about appropriate versions of these questions:

What do I want you to do when…

  • you are feeling anxious about an exam, assignment, or project;
  • you have been given an assignment or task and just don’t know how to proceed in it;
  • you are feeling distracted, saddened, or angered by losses in your life, either past losses or those you are anticipating; or
  • something is bothering you that you find yourself thinking about a lot but is hard to put into words?

6. We need to provide sources of inspiration and hope. Sometimes, when things are seeming bleak, all of us have a tendency to see the road ahead as full of potholes and unwanted detours and dead ends. That’s why it’s periodically a good idea, in classroom meetings or staff meetings, to give people a chance to share some positive, inspiring people in their lives and why they feel that way. This can be extended into written and arts-related projects, as well as brought into science, technology, engineering, and math classes; language arts; and physical education. I have been deeply moved when I have heard students or adults speak about questions like these:

  • Who do you find inspiring, either now or in the past? Why?
  • Who are the people you look up to most, in your family, in the community, in history, in various walks of life (sports, the arts, government, science, writing, etc.)? Why?
  • What are examples of hope and heroism in your life right now? Who or what provides this for you, and what strengths can you draw from them that you can apply to your everyday life?

Fostering social and emotional development is about more than just teaching skills. It starts with recognizing the emotional state of students and staff and providing the supports needed to create comfort, hope, and openness to learning of all kinds—including about other people. The six strategies shared here will start you down that road.

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