George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL Audits Reveal Hidden Dimensions of Teaching and Learning

This strategy helps teachers more mindfully integrate qualities like empathy and compassion into their communication with students and colleagues.

September 9, 2022
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Dan Page Collection / The iSpot

Social and emotional skills and mindsets shape how we think about, feel toward, and engage with ourselves, each other, and the world. These can include antiracism, collaboration, and resilience, to list just a few examples. Some educators may think that teaching social and emotional skills and mindsets is a choice: Either we do it or we don’t. But actually, social and emotional learning (SEL) is happening everywhere and all the time.

According to psychologist Albert Bandura, humans are constantly internalizing social  and emotional cues from their interactions and relationships with others, their physical environment, and the prevailing social norms and routines. And, because we can also learn unhealthy social and emotional skills and mindsets—like racism, aggression, and helplessness—from our surroundings, it’s especially important for educators to bring awareness and intentionality to the hidden SEL curriculum. 

This post provides a technique for examining the way that SEL shows up in teaching and leading. I facilitate this activity as part of the Social-Emotional Teaching and Learning Institute I run at the Penn GSE Center for Professional LearningEach time, participants have expressed that this particular activity was one of the most useful in transforming their social and emotional teaching and learning practice. (Indeed, all of the examples cited in this proposal come from former institute participants).

Social and Emotional Audits

Using Ronald Heifetz and colleagues’ observe-interpret-intervene framework to conduct a social and emotional audit can help you identify some of the social and emotional lessons that you (or your colleagues) may be reinforcing without even realizing it. Such audits can be applied to teaching and leadership situations.

  • First, observe yourself or a colleague in action, either in person or via video. As you watch, ask yourself: What do I notice about the actions, interactions, classroom setup, norms and routines, activities, and assignments?
  • Next, interpret these observations through a social and emotional lens by asking yourself: What social and emotional skills and mindsets are these choices explicitly or implicitly cultivating? Are these the SEL lessons that we want to be teaching?
  • Based on these insights, decide how you will intervene and apply these interventions with a spirit of experimentation.

Of course, analyzing our professional practice in this way requires a lot of vulnerability, so make sure to take the time to build a strong sense of belonging, safety, and trust before engaging in this process with others.

SEL Audits in Action

Here are some examples of SEL audits conducted by workshop participants:

  • A high school English teacher observed that her co-teacher regularly begins class by thanking their students for being there, thereby reinforcing the social and emotional mindset of gratitude. The English teacher decided that she too wanted to reinforce this mindset and committed to telling her students more often that she appreciates them.
  • A high school history teacher examined her classroom and noticed that, while she regularly displays student work on her walls, she tended to select student work that had received higher grades. In reflecting on the SEL implications of this choice, she felt it might be conveying a narrow vision of success, rather than an inclusive one that celebrated progress as well. She resolved to display a wider range of student work that represents different forms of success and rotate the displays more frequently.
  • When a middle school social studies teacher filmed and observed a portion of their class, they noticed that they were the one asking all of the questions and providing most of the explanations. Moving forward, they decided to incorporate more student-driven questions and talking points as a way of cultivating students’ curiosity instead of encouraging apathy.
  • A middle school math teacher noticed that his reactions to correct answers were notably different than his reactions to incorrect answers. In this way, he felt that he may be implicitly reinforcing the idea that only correct responses have value, rather than teaching students that “even incorrect answers usually have good ideas behind them.” He decided to begin asking the class, “What is one thing this student did well?” before critiquing an incorrect response.

SEL Goal-Based Audits

Alternatively, you can conduct a social and emotional audit by first identifying a specific SEL goal and then asking: How is this specific skill or mindset showing up (or not) in my actions, interactions, classroom setup, norms and routines, activities, and assignments? For example, a French teacher identified empathy as an important SEL goal for himself and his students and then performed an empathy audit of the emails that he had sent to his colleagues and students over the course of a week. He did this by rereading every message he sent and asking himself the following questions:

  • Do I help this person feel valued as my colleague or student?
  • Does this message encourage the recipient to reach out to me again if they need help?
  • Does the content of this message in some way encourage the recipient to meet with me one-on-one to check in, so that I can hear more about their experience?

As you engage in this social and emotional auditing process, remember to observe with curiosity rather than judgment. Nonjudgmental observation is the first step to understanding what’s really going on and is itself a skill that we can develop. In addition to observing your own practice through a social and emotional lens, you can also observe team meetings, or any social interaction or environment, and look for the social and emotional behaviors and mindsets that are present but not necessarily named.

The more you practice conducting social and emotional audits, the more hidden SEL lessons you will come to see over time. What we notice and how we make sense of our observations is shaped by our own identities and experiences, so engaging with diverse perspectives can make this auditing process a rich learning experience. And finally, in addition to acknowledging areas of growth, remember to celebrate all of the important and healthy SEL lessons that you’re already teaching along the way.

Thank you to all of the insightful and generous educators who helped me create the examples in this article: Adrienne S., Alaya B., Meghan L., Megan B., Michael M., and Kevin Medansky.

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