George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Using Explicit Instruction to Foster SEL

Many students struggle to master crucial skills like resiliency and problem-solving. Here’s a four-step plan for teaching these skills.

March 22, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy

I’ve worked as a teacher in three different schools across two states since the Covid-19 pandemic started. From what I’ve seen, social and emotional learning (SEL) should be highlighted as one of several key areas of emphasis in the coming years. Many educators see this every day inside their classrooms: Some of the biggest hurdles that students face nowadays are SEL-related, from behavioral challenges to anxiety and depression, and beyond.

Committing to making SEL an integral part of our instruction—by being intentional and methodical about the way we teach it—can significantly improve the quality of our students’ lives and learning. Explicit instruction—or the explicit teaching of a concept or skill—is one way we can help students acquire the crucial behavioral and interpersonal skills they need to be successful. The goal is that everything we want students to know and be able to do is introduced to them directly and explicitly through the use of step-by-step processes and clear connections.

There are a few skills I find crucial to student success: self-advocacy, active listening, problem-solving, resiliency, etc. Each year, I modify or emphasize some skills more than others—depending on the students, their needs, and what they’re experiencing. Just as I would with my academic curriculum, my SEL curriculum responds and adapts as needed. Here’s how I utilize explicit instruction to teach SEL, with examples culled directly from my class this week.

Step 1: Identify the skill to emphasize 

I start each week by identifying a “Skill of the Week,” which I determine based on what challenges I’m observing within the classroom. When I see students struggling with content, I see a need for resiliency. Students not asking for help? Let’s tackle self-advocacy.

If you’re not sure where to start, that’s OK. Try this: When you see the class continuing to struggle with something you’ve thoroughly covered a number of times—for example, responsible decision-making—instead of giving your students a stern talking to, write down what you’re feeling. Reflect on the root of it… that’s your skill of the week. That thing you’ve said to your kids a million times could be exactly what they need explicit instruction on.

Give your students the benefit of the doubt. Kids often aren’t ignoring us. They don’t enjoy being lectured to any more than we enjoy lecturing them, and they genuinely don’t want to let us or themselves down. It’s highly likely that you’ve had to repeat yourself frequently because they don’t understand what is being asked of them.

Terms like self-advocacy and problem-solving often mean something very different to us than to our students; in fact, they may mean nothing at all to our students. Set them up for success by choosing skills they need the most support with and providing that support. This week marks the mid-quarter at my school, so my students are working on time management. Because we’ve been engaged in this process all year long, they’re now able to identify skills they’d like to work on as a class. Currently, they want support and space to plan their week based on catching up on missing assignments and improving work.

Step 2: Teach the skill 

Take five to 10 minutes each Monday to teach the chosen skill. Have the kids cocreate a definition; then make a Y-chart (with one section labeled “looks like,” the next labeled “sounds like,” and the last “feels like”). Ensure that all of your students are extremely clear on what the skill means by providing examples and non-examples.

This week, the kids came up with a definition of time management: using class and homework time appropriately, being on task, not being a time waster or distracter. Our Y-chart included sentences like time management “looks like using timers and checklists,” “sounds like on-topic conversations,” and “feels organized because you know what you need to do and have a plan to get it done.” 

Our examples included being focused, using a checklist, and asking for help, while our non-examples included things like playing games during class, avoiding work, wasting time in the bathroom, and leaving homework until the last minute. 

I always try to make the skill part of the exit ticket or ending activity, so I have formative feedback on what the students walked away with. 

Step 3: Revisit it daily 

Designate time daily to review the skill. Hang the cocreated Y-chart in your room and reference it regularly, as needed. When you see a student demonstrating the skill, acknowledge it in the same way you would shout out a student who wrote an impressive sentence or arrived at the right answer: “Alexis is using a checklist to keep track of her work for today. That’s great time management.” This is a great way to not just provide positive reinforcement but also encourage the skill you want to see. 

Reflect privately with struggling students. If you’re thinking of your SEL skills as part of your curriculum, treat them as such. If you saw a student struggling with their math work, you’d offer help, first figuring out what’s inhibiting their success and then reteaching the skill. This is no different. Be clear and concise with students as you tell them explicitly how to improve. 

Last week we focused on resiliency, and I had a student shutting down over the content. I pulled him aside and said, “I know this work feels hard and frustrating. Here’s a great chance to be resilient. Can you identify something you can do to be resilient, or would you like me to tell you one idea?” 

The goal is to provide your students with pathways to success on the skills. You’ll need to give feedback just like you would on their assignments, including vigorous positive reinforcement and swift supportive redirection where necessary.

Step 4: Reflect and recognize 

This will look different for everyone. In my classroom, it’s an award. 

Every Friday, I recognize a “Student of the Week” who made the most progress or best demonstrated the skill we’ve been working on. They receive a simple certificate and have their picture taken, which I then display in the classroom. I like to share the picture with their caregivers to show how awesome they did and further reinforce the positive behavior.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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