You might be able to master advanced math, speak three languages fluently, and maintain a 4.0 grade point average, but if you can’t manage your emotions, practice conflict resolution, or handle stress, none of the other stuff is really going to matter.
That statement is one I enthusiastically introduce to my high school students on the first day of school. When students—fresh off of summer break—are settled in their seats, I contemplatively ask, “What does this mean?"
After some heads turn, eyes squint, and pondering faces gaze at this statement on the board, it clicks for many students, and I receive responses such as these:
- “It means you have to take care of yourself—mentally and emotionally.”
- “You must have skills in order to be successful.”
- “All the content we learn in school does not mean anything unless we can handle our actions and behaviors in a productive way.”
All of these responses are correct. However, I always feel the need to go one step further.
I ask students to think again about the above statement. To be intentional, self-reflective, and thoughtful about what the statement really means to them. Next, I ask students to share their thoughts with a partner. Last, I invite all students to raise their hand according to this prompt: “On a scale of one to five, one being not important at all and five meaning extremely important, where would you rank the truth of this statement?” Almost all fours and fives go up with alacrity. Amazing!
SEL and Academics
Gauging student understanding and perspectives of social and emotional learning (SEL) is essential. We must embrace opportunities to get to know our students as human beings and not just students. Sure, we want them to be astute learners; however, without some SEL strategies, many students will underperform. Research has shown again and again that SEL plays a significant role in student performance, well-being, and attitudes and beliefs about themselves.
In an article in Measuring SEL, George Mason University emeritus professor Suzanne A. Denham defines social and emotional learning as “a process through which children develop their ability to integrate thinking, feeling, and behaving to succeed at important developmental tasks.”
While some children need and benefit from SEL strategies more than others, it’s a component that can make a significant difference for all learners—from students with learning disabilities to students who struggle with focus and impulsivity. A 2017 meta-analysis from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning shows that investment in SEL has led to improved classroom behavior, better stress management, and 13 percent gains in academics.
As teachers, before diving into curriculum and content, we must find out how our students feel and then create welcoming and favorable conditions for their learning to happen. Students must see that we care about the preliminary must-haves in order for learning to take place—the handling of stress, managing emotions, and practicing conflict resolution—in and outside of the classroom. SEL should be a monumental piece to the puzzle of learning, integrating within the classroom from bell to bell.
Having a repertoire of SEL strategies to utilize and calm your students at any moment in the classroom can lead to more productivity, calmer minds, and healthier learning environments.
5 Ways to Promote SEL
1. Incorporate energy check-ins. Have you ever noticed how someone else’s energy—positive or negative—can impact a class? As teachers, being aware of your students’ energy levels could be an important indicator of their daily success or lack thereof. This strategy is best designed to identify students in need of support, motivation, and focus.
Start by greeting students at the door and asking them, “What percentage of energy do you have to give today in class?” Have students share their percentages with you, and make a mental note of the lower percentages. Once you have a consensus of who might need some motivation, positivity, or a quick pick-me-up, visit and provide them with some energy.
2. Delegate SEL ambassadors. Have students become leaders by brainstorming and creating ideas, activities, and strategies for a well-balanced SEL environment. The ambassadors can be selected weekly, biweekly, or monthly. Offering everyone a chance to be a leader in the classroom can increase interpersonal skills, awareness, and empathy for their peers.
One major role of an ambassador could be to serve as a support system. If a student is feeling anxious or stressed, they could seek out an ambassador to speak with. However, if a student needs more support than an ambassador can provide, it’s important to have an alternative support system in place. This could be a staff member, guidance counselor, or administrator.
3. Try the 4-7-8 breathing method. At the beginning, middle, or end of class, take a few minutes to practice the 4-7-8 breathing method. Have students inhale through the nose for a count of four, hold their breath for a count of seven, and exhale through the mouth for a count of eight. This technique is most effective before an assessment, presentation, or group activity. It’s a great way to break from content, calm the mind, and take some time for yourself.
4. Present a question of the day. We want students to feel safe, supported, heard, and seen. Moreover, we want to promote engagement, encourage participation, and ignite social skills. One way to lighten the mood and ease students into learning is by asking questions. The questions do not have to be content related. Instead, they could be engaging conversation-starter questions that offer everyone an opportunity to share, be heard, and add to the wealth of a classroom.
5. Dice it out! Have students roll the dice and respond to a prompt based on the number they rolled. Offer prompts that allow students to build discussion, hear others’ thoughts, and make connections.
Setting students up for success starts with their overall well-being and making a conscious effort toward understanding their emotions and behaviors.