George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How Teachers Can Set SEL Intentions

When teachers reflect on their own SEL needs, they can model effective communication and relationship skills in the classroom.

February 14, 2024
Milko / iStock

Supporting students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) is a high priority for schools. Ten years ago, most organizations invested in SEL focused their efforts on developing resources for students. However, teachers’ social and emotional competence matters too, as our modeling is an important source of SEL for students. This post explains why and offers one strategy that educators can use to integrate this self-work into their daily teaching practice.


Research shows that when teachers model or embody healthy social and emotional practices like self-awareness and self-management, students’ SEL outcomes improve.

What’s more, students are learning social and emotional lessons from their teachers all the time—not only when we lecture about the importance of respect or lead the class in a guided meditation, but also when we greet (or do not greet) students as they enter the room and respond patiently (or impatiently) to technological difficulties. As Theodore and Nancy Sizer write in The Students Are Watching, “The people in a school construct its values by the way they address its challenges in ordinary and extraordinary times.” 

So, how can we ensure that we’re modeling healthy social and emotional skills and mindsets for our students to learn from?


Enter intention-setting—a practice grounded in contemplative philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. When we set intentions, we attune our attention to our purpose and desired future state. Psychologist Christophe André compares intentions to “the first steps of a voyage, determining the direction in which we will head.” 

When we as educators bring awareness and intentionality to our own social and emotional behaviors, we’re more likely to respond positively and productively to challenges that arise throughout the school day, and our modeling becomes a powerful force for supporting healthy SEL.

In the Teaching and Leading SEL certificate program that I run at the Penn GSE Center for Professional Learning, I guide educators in using the WOOP framework to set intentions for their own SEL. This process entails asking ourselves the following questions. 

Wish: What is one important SEL goal that I have for my students and myself? Perhaps you wish to practice greater self-compassion, intellectual humility, or anti-racism. This is an opportunity to reflect on your values and articulate your priorities. You may have multiple SEL goals, but focus on one at a time.  

Outcome: Why is this SEL goal important? What would be the best outcome of fulfilling this wish? This step asks you to identify the “why” behind your values and priorities. For example, practicing intellectual humility may be important to you because you believe it’s essential for engaging in meaningful dialogue.

Obstacle: What is the main internal obstacle preventing me from practicing this social and emotional skill or mindset? While there may also be external barriers standing in your way, identify what’s within your locus of control. Perhaps you sometimes feel certain that there is one correct way of thinking, which can make it difficult to practice and model intellectual humility. 

Plan: What might I do to overcome this obstacle? Make a when-then plan that includes a clear situational trigger and response, such as “When I hear an opinion that I disagree with, then I will ask questions to understand where the other person is coming from before sharing my own opinion.”

For example, Abraham, an elementary school teacher in Mexico City, wished to practice greater patience so that he could be more present and receptive when his students raised concerns. However, he recognized that this was particularly difficult for him to do when he was feeling rushed to finish a lesson or activity. Therefore, his plan was “When I notice myself feeling rushed, then I will stop and take three deep breaths.”


Teachers report that this intention-setting process leads to a deeper understanding of themselves, their students, teaching, and learning. Many feel more aware of their thoughts, feelings, and actions, and more cognizant of their own strengths and areas of growth. For example, a high school humanities teacher learned, “I really need to be acknowledged for what I’m doing, which in turn taught me that I should be acknowledging kids for showing up.”

Moreover, teachers find themselves better able to manage their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively. As a result, they feel more in control, confident, and present, which can have a positive ripple effect on their relationships with students. Abraham’s intention to practice greater patience has helped him pause before responding to his students, which he feels has encouraged them to express their thoughts and feelings more freely.  


Take time to reflect and reset. SEL intentions rarely go exactly as planned. Think of this as a process of tinkering and experimenting. After setting an SEL intention and attempting to live it out, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Did the obstacles that you expected to arise actually arise?
  2. Were you able to respond with intention? If not, why not? If yes, what was the result?
  3. What did you learn from this experience? 
  4. Reset your WOOP. Feel free to adapt or adjust your wish as needed so that it best aligns with your intention and circumstances in this moment.

Create a WOOP group. Collaborating with trusted colleagues throughout the SEL intention-setting, enacting, and reflection process may be especially beneficial for teachers. Such collaboration offers us an opportunity to think out loud and collectively brainstorm plans to turn our SEL goals into action. It can provide a sense of encouragement and accountability as we work toward our SEL goals.

Remember that intention doesn’t equal impact. Activist adrienne maree brown reminds us that while it’s important to attend to what we wish to happen, it’s also important to move beyond intention and attend to what actually happens. For example, we may intend to collaborate more effectively, but that doesn’t mean we’ll automatically stop micromanaging others. We can work to better understand the impact of our intentions by asking our students and colleagues how they experience our behaviors.

Make it a habit. Learning social and emotional skills and mindsets isn’t like learning how to ride a bike; it’s a messy process that requires constant work and reflection. Just because you managed to practice patience in one situation doesn’t mean that you’ll practice patience in every situation. Abraham found encouragement in reminding himself that it’s impossible to change our behaviors immediately because “we’re not machines.” With practice, SEL intention-setting can become a way of thinking that we integrate into our daily routine. 

Thank you to Abraham Corona and all of the educators whose experiences and insights contributed to this article.

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