I am asked a version of this question at almost every school visit I make: How do I know if I am doing effective social and emotional learning (SEL) instruction?
SEL should not be a mystery. In a classroom in which students’ SEL growth is being actively encouraged, you should see nine instructional strategies being applied regularly, regardless of the subject matter. These are general strategies that activate students’ SEL competencies.
If you are using any SEL- or character-related lesson materials, there is a pedagogy that represents best practices across any particular evidence-based curriculum. This pedagogy reinforces SEL-related competencies that students are learning.
4 Strategies to Create SEL-Rich Classrooms
Let’s start with four general strategies, and then discuss what a classroom looks like when you use them often:
1. Be positive and encouraging.
2. Generate as much student participation/leadership as possible.
3. Build positive relationships with the students and among the students.
4. Promote the thinking skills essential for school success.
Someone walking into your classroom will hear affirming statements of your belief that all students can learn, grow, overcome challenges, and be resources to others. They will see you using pair-shares, small-group work, and buddying, and creating opportunities for students—even young children—to help one another and bring absentees and newcomers up to speed.
They will notice that you give children realistic praise and appreciation and guide your students in doing so for one another. Particularly as they enter upper elementary grades and beyond, students will be giving, accepting, and defending clear and specific feedback to one another. Because you ask them to, students will often explain their reasoning for how they arrive at answers and create their products.
Perhaps most important, at every age, someone will see that your students have a specific strategy for defining and solving problems that is used not only for SEL, but also in all classroom contexts.
5 Instructional Strategies for Optimal SEL-Related Lessons
Again, let’s start with the strategies, and then see what they look like in practice:
1. Explicitly welcome students to the SEL activity.
2. Use open-ended questioning.
3. Use the two-question rule (i.e., follow up a question with another question).
4. Model the skills you are teaching.
5. Prompt and cue concepts and skills learned previously.
Please do not underestimate the importance of how we start SEL-related activities. Just as any of us appreciates being greeted when we go to a friend’s or relative’s house, students like to be greeted, recognized personally, and ushered into what is going to happen next. That’s why the school day and/or SEL lessons often begin with a circle-type activity to greet one another. Part of that preparation involves orienting the students by explaining what’s going to happen next and how this and upcoming SEL activities relate to their lives.
Instruction should include frequent open-ended questioning because it requires students to make connections that help etch SEL competencies into their neural structure. Even if students decide not to respond, open-ended questions require them to cognitively reason for their answers and not give a rote response. Note that “why” questions, while open-ended, often promote defensiveness and lead students to say what they think adults want to hear. Better to use, “How did you decide to do/say/etc.?” or “What happened?”
Suggesting multiple possibilities can be an alternative to open-ended questions for students who are immature, have cognitive limitations, or have trouble answering open-ended questions. For example: “Did you hit him because he was teasing you, because of something that happened earlier, or because of something else?” or “In the story example, was Paolo fair to Iman, did Paolo insult Iman, or did Paolo ignore Iman?”
Another valuable strategy is following up your question (regardless of its structure) with another question that helps students clarify their own thoughts, feelings, goals, and plans and think more deeply about initial answers. After a while, their answers are more thoughtful because they anticipate that follow-up question.
For example, you could ask students, “What are you going to say when you go up to the lunch aide?” and follow that up with “How exactly are you going to say it?” Or “What are the ways that the body regulates temperature?” and then ask, “How do you know that’s true?”
If we want students to take SEL-related lessons and apply them to their lives, we must show them how we use the ideas in our lives. For example, when introducing a theme, discuss when it is important in your own life (at least your professional life). Ask students to discuss how they can apply the ideas in their own lives.
Intentionally make the lessons become part of a student’s character and life. Because students’ lives are so hectic, often filled with stress, trauma, and competing priorities, it’s unreasonable to think they will easily bring the lessons of each SEL-related activity into their minds and hearts. That’s why we cannot expect students to develop social and emotional competencies and character unless we prompt and cue the concepts, values, and skills consistently.
Before every lesson, review prior activities for students who were present, absent, or present but not fully attentive. Don’t expect students to quickly internalize the skills and values you are teaching. Remind them in advance about upcoming opportunities to use new skills. Use your circles to have students share examples of times they have used skills or acted in accordance with core values (or could have used them to good advantage if they had remembered to do so).
At every age, use verbal and nonverbal prompts to remind students to use skills. That includes making explicit connections to prior lessons and activities. For example, ask, “How does what we spoke about in October’s leadership theme help us handle this situation?"
Finally, be sure to give students regular opportunities for reflection (discussion, journaling) on SEL and character, to build habits of thoughtfulness about the value of SEL skills and striving to improve them.