George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Using Backward Design for SEL

Consider these strategies to foster students’ social and emotional learning and help support their mental health.

February 15, 2024
JohnnyGreig / iStock

Research supports the fact that we are in a student mental health crisis, and one strategy that I believe is one of our best in supporting other areas of instruction—backward design—can also help us give them systematic and intentional social-emotional instruction.

Our students are struggling, and they need our best work in all aspects of their learning, including SEL. With that in mind, here’s how I use backward design to teach the soft skills our students need as badly as they need to read and write.

Teaching SEL

First, I think about what skills I want my students to have at the end of the year—this can be based on both essential social and emotional skills and the needs of current students. All kids need to learn kindness, cooperation, collaboration, etc., but maybe some require more help with time management or self-advocacy. Make a list of all the skills they need—these are your essential questions or enduring understandings. 

Next, turn them into KUDs (students who Know, Understand, Do), so that you can identify how you will be teaching and assessing these skills. Identify exactly what you want them to know (such as being able to define empathy), understand (such as recognizing another’s perspective), and do (like solving a social conflict independently). 

Now you’re ready to create lessons that target these skills. You’ll want to utilize explicit instruction, such as a Y chart (looks like, feels like, sounds like) for each skill. I like to teach skills on a weekly basis. Just as you would in your lessons, create authentic opportunities to engage with the skill, provide feedback to students on their progress with the skill, and make time to directly connect lessons and activities to the skill you’re working on. Maybe even make it your objective. 

Finally, decide how and when you’ll assess your students on the skill. Let them know what success looks like and how and when you’ll be monitoring it. “Hey, this week we’re practicing self-advocacy. During our math lesson, I’m looking for raised hands when something feels confusing or hard,” for example.

Maybe you want to use a clipboard to track students’ use of the skill. However you decide, make sure there’s a formal component to it for your own sake. Just like you would with content, stick with a skill until the students are consistently showing mastery, and provide extra support to the students who aren’t there yet. 

Informing student-teacher interactions

Another way I use backward design to support my students’ mental health is thinking about the relationship I hope to have with my students come summer. What do I want them to say about the year we had? What do I want them to remember about me? Because like it or not, they will remember you… for years to come. How you treat them throughout the year is how they will remember you, and we can use backward design to be intentional about our relationships with our students.

For me, backward design shapes my behavior management practices. I want my students to remember me as kind, patient, and supportive. Why? Because we are models—ever on a stage. I care how I am remembered, not because I want to be cool or be “liked,” but because I believe that creating and modeling healthy relationships is the most important thing we can do as educators. How we treat our students models not just how they should treat others, but how they should treat themselves. If I want my students to be less anxious, be more confident, have a growth mindset, and be kind, it starts with me, and every interaction matters. It’s my job to model these behaviors. 

By identifying the qualities I want my students to remember me by, I’m using backward design to create my own KUDs—the things I must know, understand, and do in order to achieve these outcomes. It guides how I redirect students, how I handle mistake making, and what consequences students receive.

Learning From Mistakes 

All of this is not to say that I have to be perfect—not even close. Instead, because I’ve been intentional in my planning, backward design guides my self-assessment—specifically, how have I modeled and/or accepted mistake making, and when do I need to apologize to my students? When I look back on an interaction with a student, I ask myself, “Does this interaction contribute to or hurt my goals of our end-of-year relationship?” If the answer isn’t that the interaction contributes, I need to apologize and repair. Yes, I apologize to my students, and you should, too. This can look like “Hey, Kyle, I just wanted to apologize. I was feeling frustrated when you were calling out yesterday and I yelled at you. I should have stayed calm, and you didn’t deserve that. Today, I’m going to try hard to do better.”

When we acknowledge our own mistakes, when we apologize to our students when we make mistakes, we normalize mistake making. We humanize ourselves and our students by identifying that we both have things to work on. We show our students that we think about how we treat them, that we care about our relationship with them. If we want them to show love, support, and kindness to each other, they need to receive it consistently and authentically from “authority figures.”

By utilizing backward design to teach soft skills, I’m regularly giving my students explicit instruction and authentic practice with the skills that our students so badly need. We can leverage backward design and other best practices in pedagogy to provide our students with rich learning experiences that support all of their needs. 

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Filed Under

  • Mental Health
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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