Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

7 Strategies to Activate Students’ SEL Skills

Social and emotional learning programs are most effective when students are given plenty of opportunities to practice those skills.

June 20, 2024
SDI Productions / iStock

Even as more schools adopt curriculum programs related to social and emotional learning (SEL), we don’t always see corresponding improvement in youth mental health and achievement. That’s because SEL skills are learned most deeply when activated by adults in the learning environment. Let’s look at activating strategies that anyone can use—teachers, mental-health professionals, parents, or youth workers—to exercise students’ SEL muscles, regardless of whether they are being exposed to systematic SEL instruction.

Each strategy is followed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) 5 skill to which it is most aligned.

7 SEL-Activating Strategies

1. Open-ended questions (social awareness). This strategy involves giving students multiple choices (“Do you think it might be a or b or c? Why?”) or asking an open-ended question, starting with “How/Where/When might others see the situation differently?” This helps to foster consideration of other perspectives. One especially useful question is “What is positive/helpful/new in the comment your classmate just made?”

2. Flexible thinking (ethical decision-making). We want students to think outside of the box and not be satisfied that the first idea that comes to them is the best one. Key words to use are else and other and their variants, as in “What else can you think of?” or “How many other/different ways might that happen?”

Quick brainstorming is also useful (“Think of at least two other ideas after the first one you have”), as is alternative problem-solving, where you ask students to imagine various ways that other people might see/feel about a situation, in literature, history, current events, athletics, etc.

3. Self-calming and focusing (self-management). Two key elements help activate students’ self-calming strategies. First, remind or prompt them to use previously learned procedures (such as a breathing technique or visualizing a safe, calming place) in upcoming situations. It’s also helpful to have students engage in mindfulness activities at key points during the day.

Second, ask students as needed, “What should you be focusing on right now?” and “What exactly are your classmates/group/team members saying and expressing now?” Repeated prompting in this way fosters students’ asking themselves these questions and improving their own focus on themselves and those around them.

4. Goal setting (self-management). With all the distractions our students face, we need to activate their goal-setting skills. The best way to do that is through asking questions that help them articulate key outcomes (not unrelated to focusing). For example, prompts such as these all help with goal setting:

  • “What do you/what do they/what did they want to have happen?”
  • “What was/is the problem you are trying to solve?”
  • “How would you like things to wind up at the end?”

It’s also valuable to periodically ask students to set personal and school-related goals (e.g., one or two areas in which they want to make themselves a better person, areas of character or academics they might want to improve, and/or ways they can make their class/group/team better.

5. Constructive feedback (relationship skills). Given how much work is now being done in teams and groups, constructive feedback prompts activate necessary relationship skills such as consideration for others and perspective taking.

Approaches like the “compliment sandwich” (one thing done well, one thing to improve, one thing done well) and helping students structure feedback in terms of “You said/did…; I think/feel these aspects were good/on target” and “I have some questions about… Do you think… could use some reconsideration?” tend to enable others to hear one’s feedback.

To help students pay attention to the impact of their comments and activate their improvement skills in this area, ask, “How will/did he/she take what you are saying?; What can you say to him/her that would be helpful/make his/her work better?”

6. Reflection (self-awareness). Reflection is the capacity to review one’s own actions and feedback from others, determine strengths and areas in need of improvement, and incorporate that information in a constructive spirit. It involves one’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, goals, and purpose.

We reflect on what was learned (What is one takeaway from that experience?), what feelings arose (How are you feeling at this moment? How do you think X might be feeling at this moment/after Y or Z happened?), or how one’s ideas might have been changed (What questions have been raised for you? What new goals might you set?/How might your plans be adjusted?). Many students benefit from keeping a paper or electronic reflection journal.

7. Preparation for presentations (all skills). Presentation is the process of taking the results of one’s work and organizing it and communicating it for particular audiences. Students are “presenting” all the time, including deciding what and how to respond to a teacher’s question or classmate’s comment, how to craft an essay in response to an assignment, even how to read aloud. Help students make these presentation situations explicit by problem-solving the perspective of their audience and planning how to communicate information in ways that consider audiences’ emotions, motivations, or interests and specific requirements of the presentation context (e.g., length of time available, nature of the venue).

By using activating strategies consistently, we help students exercise their SEL muscles across varied school circumstances. This will improve their social and emotional competencies and character as well as their academic achievement and their contributions to school, classes, teams, clubs, and other relevant group contexts.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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