Instructional Coaching

How Instructional Coaches Can Help Teachers Foster Students’ SEL Skills

Leveraging the teacher-coach relationship can build support systems that make SEL instruction more effective.

February 8, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

Recently, I had the opportunity to coach a group of elementary school teachers through the process of lesson study. This team of teachers wanted to explore how a gallery walk would impact student engagement in math. 

By observing students during the activity and asking them for feedback on the process, we found that gallery walks increased student-to-student engagement. However, learners struggled with moving from station to station and argued over who was to do what. Teachers agreed that, despite these challenges, the activity increased student agency and collaboration. To smooth the process, they started modeling collaborative learning processes, had students define group roles, and worked with students to develop performance-based rubrics for cooperation. 

Student transitions and relationships have both improved as a result.

This experience highlighted key social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. When coaching K–12 teachers, I often ask them to consider their desired legacy. Math teachers may or may not make mathematicians out of their students; science teachers may or may not have the next Einstein in their class. Yet all teachers can help students develop self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills—SEL competencies that will aid them throughout life. 

When I think back on my experiences in school and my teachers’ legacies, I most remember those who helped me develop as a person, regardless of the content they taught. But how, you may wonder, can instructional coaches assist teachers’ developing these skills in students? 

Prioritize Students’ Self and Peer Evaluations 

You can help teachers promote student agency by observing and providing feedback on lessons, modeling and co-planning, and co-delivering lessons that foster self-awareness, identity development, responsibility, and empowerment. 

I ask teachers to query students at the end of each lesson about whether they feel they’ve met stated learning objectives. The teacher asks students to provide evidence that supports their assertions and to suggest next steps for mastering content. 

Young students can do this using sad and happy face icons. I’ve worked with middle and high schools that have opted to use diagnostic testing data with students in quarterly goal-setting sessions, such as that produced by i-Ready and/or NWEA MAP Growth.  

You might demonstrate how students can peer-review work and/or serve as active audience members (evaluators) during group presentations, then reflect on whether to make changes to their work based on peer feedback. 

Increase Student Collaboration and Cultivate Empathy 

Teachers with whom I work occasionally hesitate when releasing responsibility to students and having them struggle productively. I understand the desire to ensure that students understand content before they’re set free. However, this can lead to teacher-dominated instruction. 

Students need time to practice skills, problem-solve, and make sense of information through peer discussion. Coaches might remind concerned educators that they can model expected behaviors, provide students with individual roles/jobs, and discuss desired learning outcomes. Teachers can also provide students with exemplars of quality work, alert them to upcoming transitions, and observe student performance during peer activities. Gallery walks, inside/outside circles, and jigsaws are interactive strategies that I recommend. There are many options for getting students to talk.

Learning collaboratively aids students’ retention of information and helps them recognize and build empathy for the feelings and perspectives of others. It also creates a sense of belonging. Coaches might provide teachers with training and/or resources for embedding diverse perspectives within academic content. In history and social studies, Facing History and Ourselves and A People’s History of the United States are great places to start. 

Support and Reframe Negative Student Emotions

Stress and anxiety can debilitate adults and children alike. Think about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. You might suggest that teachers bring mindfulness practices into their pedagogy to further support social and emotional wellness. 

I’ve seen educators use meditation as a centering activity as students settle into class. I’ve also observed teachers asking even the youngest of students to identify their current emotional states using pictures. They’ve used anchor charts to portray and discuss physical feelings of emotions (what nervousness, sadness, fear, etc., feel like in the body); what actions students might take to alleviate them; and/or thinking routines in which they might engage to reframe negative thoughts and feelings.  

Provide Professional Development

Coaches can help teachers recognize and address implicit biases and consider strategies for improving relationships with both students and families—critical to SEL. You can use tools like the Harvard Project Implicit, or other implicit association tests (IATs), to help teachers craft assessments free of bias. Allow them grace and time to get to know students—and their inherent strengths—before prioritizing student learning deficits within instruction. 

Training on restorative justice practices can also boost SEL. In addition to conferencing with students involved in conflict and helping them determine ways to improve peer relationships, I’ve coached teachers to have students reflect on potential impacts of their actions—alone and with others—through writing. Including family and community members in restorative justice conversations provides an opportunity to promote community involvement at school. 

Coaches can encourage teachers to discuss the impact of SEL initiatives on students’ personal and academic growth within their professional learning communities. 

Additional Resources

PBL Works has developed collaboration rubrics for grades kindergarten through two, three through five, and six through 12, which are available online. For specific examples of what SEL can look like in elementary, middle, and high school, I have found these New York Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks to be particularly useful in my coaching work, along with the SEL lesson-planning template developed by Meena Srinivasan for her book SEL Every Day.  

Educators help mold self-actualizing and unique human beings; to that end, SEL is vital to all teaching and learning. Coaches can help teachers embed SEL in what they’re already teaching, as opposed to adding something new to a teacher’s plate. By assisting them in the development of lessons and activities that allow students to self-reflect and exhibit agency and that foster student engagement and collaboration, you can help them model to students how to regulate positive and negative emotions associated with challenge, growth, and achievement—while simultaneously providing mentorship on best practices for content instruction.

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  • Professional Learning
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

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