Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Implicit SEL Strategies That Support Academics

Viewing students holistically makes it possible for teachers to seamlessly merge social and emotional learning with academic growth.

June 21, 2024
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When I started teaching, I was frustrated with the emphasis on social and emotional learning (SEL) and insisted on drawing distinct differences between academics and SEL. I realized how my misunderstanding SEL negatively impacted my students. SEL and Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) competencies are simple: They’re what make us human. SEL fosters students’ motivation and investment in their education, which promotes success and enhances academic integrity.

Many techniques that you already use in your classroom may inherently promote SEL, when applied effectively. Below are some implicit SEL strategies for your classroom.

Create A Classroom Focused on Relationships and Social Awareness

As a new teacher, I ruled my classroom with an iron fist. My imposter syndrome forced false bravado upon my students. They thought I was unapproachable and uncaring; thus, they rebelled against my instruction and lacked motivation.

My authoritarian attitude made my class miserable. Something had to change. 

I had to shift from being authoritarian to authoritative. Authoritarian teachers leave little room for personalization and cause students to feel discomfort with contributing to the classroom. Authoritative teachers promote collaboration and foster relationships through authenticity. Supporting students in developing SEL skills begins by creating an authentic classroom environment.

To create authentic classrooms, allow your personality to shine naturally through collaborative learning. One way is to weave personal examples throughout your instruction to help students relate to you. For example, in my French class, my students had to build a family tree and label it with their family members’ names and relationships to them in French. Then, they had to write out a memory with that relative.

When I provided an example of my relationships with my kids and funny memories, they felt more inclined to work with me and ask questions, thus increasing our collaborative space between teacher and student. They especially loved when I made mistakes while writing about my memories—they felt more vulnerable and willing to work together to learn. Through authentic dialogue and vulnerability, students feel more comfortable being themselves, which enhances their relationship skills and social awareness. 

Amplify Responsible Decision-Making Through Student Choice

Students want more autonomy in the classroom, but teachers fear losing academic integrity. You can have both.

I felt that equitable teaching meant students receive the same assessment styles to ensure valid testing. Now, I see that the assignment style matters less than testing the same skills. When we offer assignment choices, we motivate students to lead their learning, which enhances their responsible decision-making skills. 

Start by clarifying the skills that students should master. Then, consider differentiated assignments that test those skills. Each assignment option should incorporate the same skills. Provide students with a list of assignment choices (essay topic, project, or collaboration) with clear expectations. 

When we studied The Great Gatsby, for example, requirements included analyzing setting, characterization, and symbolism. Some students chose a literary analysis, while others performed monologues using various characters’ perspectives. The rubrics were similar, but the assessment approach was unique.

Students demonstrate responsible decision-making and self-management when they choose assignments themselves. Their initiative to learn and their enthusiasm about the content boost their motivation to plan and organize their work more effectively.

Use Reflections to Promote Self-Awareness

I once had a high-achieving student in my French class whom I assumed was happy and confident. However, a short reflection on a unit assessment revealed that she had little confidence in her speaking, pronunciation, and grammar. To her, the extrinsic motivation of an A didn’t equate to her need for intrinsic motivation. Her response inspired me to adjust my lessons, which inspired her to take French through level 5.

At the end of a test, ask students: “Write two things you did well and found interesting during this unit, along with two topics that remain unclear.” 

Reflections on strengths and areas of confusion enhance students’ self-awareness. Their perspectives may differ from our observations, so reflections help students identify where they lack confidence or knowledge, which develops their metacognition. Use reflections to indicate knowledge gaps to inform instruction. Also, the small gesture of responding to their answers with positive feedback and examples of their strengths makes them feel seen and heard.

Promote Self-Management Through KWLs

KWLs ask students what they Know, Want to know, and have Learned. Many of us have used KWL sheets, but did you know that these are fabulous SEL tools?

First, K supports a growth mindset and self-efficacy. Say the topic is the Civil War. If a student leaves the Know section blank, that might indicate that their confidence needs a boost or there are gaps in their prior knowledge. As the unit progresses, provide positive reinforcement with specific examples when students demonstrate understanding. These examples support their academic goals and enhance their self-awareness.

I’ll be honest—when I used KWLs, I focused on sections K and L. The W, I thought, was mostly for students’ edification. The W, however, is super-important. You can use it to integrate student interests into lessons to inspire motivation and enhance self-management throughout the unit. For example, when I taught the French Revolution, I had a struggling student who was fascinated with Marie Antoinette. Although the French queen easily fit into most lessons, I included a brief one on the Affair of the Diamond Necklace. My student was so engaged that she increased her studies of the period and improved her test score, compared with previous assessments.

If curriculum or pacing prevents you from incorporating student interests into the lesson, you can recommend additional articles or videos to students. This will boost their critical thinking skills and demonstrate that you care about their interests.

Open-Note Tests Increase Student Resourcefulness

I know—this sounds terrifying. How do students learn if they use notes?

Students should learn skills more than rote memorization. When students apply skills to new problems, you accurately assess their learning.

When my students have used their notes during tests, I have noticed an extraordinary increase in responsible decision-making and self-management. They not only ensure that they have their notes but also work hard to take good ones. They see the results of their hard work in real time.

Open-note assessments allow students to demonstrate resourcefulness, planning, organization, and consequences (e.g., not having their notebooks). Thus, they have heightened responsible decision-making and self-management skills.

There are many ways to integrate implicit SEL instruction into your classroom. Remember, the key to an SEL-driven classroom is to view students holistically and naturally integrate SEL and academics.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • 9-12 High School

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