Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

A Framework for Updating SEL Plans

This five-step guide provides a simple roadmap for incorporating social and emotional learning across the curriculum with equity in mind.

January 19, 2023
Fly View Productions / iStock

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is for all kids. Still, we often hear, “SEL isn’t one-size-fits-all,” but what exactly does that mean? That’s the question I set out to answer when devising the Equity and SEL Integration Framework with my partners at Hertford County Public Schools (HCPS). We wanted to develop a collaborative framework for equitably activating SEL across the curriculum.

It was developed using data collected from HCPS educators dedicated to uniting adults and improving social and academic outcomes for children. Our data discussions provided insights for recommending appropriate SEL tools and practices for empowering teachers wherever they are in their SEL journey.

Part of the initial work engaged leadership and teachers in learning walks to glean what was happening in classrooms before investing time and resources to design professional development for SEL. Our discussions were very telling and helpful in informing us about what was needed for both teachers and students to thrive socially and academically.

5 Steps to Updating Your SEL Plans

Step 1: Learn the basics of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) 5 and emotional intelligence. Understanding the CASEL 5, or the five competencies boosted in SEL, is the first step because CASEL offers rigorous research that supports its integrated framework, which consists of the following:

  1. Social Awareness
  2. Self-Management
  3. Self-Awareness
  4. Relationship Skills
  5. Responsible Decision-Making

The five competencies can help raise educational equity through coordinated efforts and intentional partnerships among schools, families, and the community.

Most educators understand the importance of assisting students in developing emotional intelligence (EQ) skills. EQ is the ability to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions while also being able to handle others’ emotions judiciously and empathetically. But some are concerned that too much time on SEL or EQ will take away from their teaching of content.

Others feel they need more EQ themselves to learn how to support SEL skills in daily lessons. I tell them to treat much of what’s presented as information to understand what we aim to have students accomplish with SEL and EQ. Instead, meet yourself where you and your kids are, and adjust as needed by focusing on relevant foundational skills.

Psychological research shows that to coach others through their emotions effectively, we must first fill three critical knowledge gaps: (1) understanding emotions and our triggers, (2) labeling emotions, and (3) regulating (self-managing) our emotions. Teachers can begin by using a handy emotions planner to journal and map their emotions with the CASEL 5 and raise EQ.

Step 2: Assess your unconscious biases and beliefs about students. We all have biases, whether or not we’re aware of them. Having biases doesn’t make us terrible people, but we must recognize and change the ones that lead to unintended and destructive student outcomes.

Three practical strategies for assessing biases in yourself that are influential in the classroom are (1) asking what are my knowledge gaps that are preventing me from connecting with this child, (2) exploring digital resources for learning about the backgrounds and cultures of your students, and (3) developing inclusive classrooms by establishing learning partnerships and better relationships.

Step 3: Improve your knowledge of your students. In the framework context, increasing our knowledge of students has two critical dimensions for teachers to consider: (1) to know them as individuals and (2) to know them as learners. We want to focus on their interests, assets, and cultural identities as individuals, as this helps us better understand their needs, motivations, and overall personalities.

Understanding students as individuals also requires building rapport and forming relationships to better connect with them. Our knowledge of them as learners meshes with what we know about them as individuals. There are two primary benefits to learning about students as learners after knowing their individual qualities:

  • What we know about students as individuals lets us make academic and SEL content as personalized as possible.
  • Knowing students’ academic and SEL needs helps us make better instructional decisions for helping them achieve.

The empathy mapping process is a tool we can use to get started.

Step 4: Help students develop emotional intelligence skills. Teachers can help students improve their EQ by having them do some of the same self-work available to educators in step 1. EQ develops when kids understand emotions and learn how to label and regulate them to improve their personal and social competence.

Giving students an awareness of their emotions and the tools to manage them will help them better accept themselves and be less self-judgmental when experiencing unpleasant feelings like envy, anger, and annoyance.

We can help students learn to notice how they feel instead of penalizing themselves for not feeling or acting better, which will serve them well beyond their school years. In doing so, and with practice, students will understand themselves and others better, which will result in their making better decisions. Tools for managing emotions and making good decisions are a wonderful place to start.

Step 5: Activate SEL in your lessons. When it comes to confidently delivering instruction embedded with SEL, it’s always important to pay close attention to sound practices for purposefully planning and teaching lessons. This means intentionally combining education research and personal experiences with actionable instructional strategies.

In this context, embedding SEL into our daily teaching means that we understand the value of helping our students with their social and emotional needs as they  come up—not stopping to do SEL. Using an alignment tool for integrating SEL into instruction can help us pivot expertly.

Although there is value in having established wellness days in schools, I prefer to activate most SEL lessons in my teaching as needed and in ways that align with academic content. This prevents SEL from being overdone and possibly viewed negatively by students and parents. For example, a student who needs help with anxiety before a test may benefit from doing quick breathing exercises and learning positive self-talk. We can also intentionally teach SEL skills along with academic skills.

You can learn more about the Equity and SEL Integration Framework in my book Raising Equity Through SEL.

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