George Lucas Educational Foundation

SEL, standards, academics and testing?

SEL, standards, academics and testing?

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Lots of questions came in about how SEL interfaces with academics, learning and testing. how does SEL support standards-based learning AND teaching? do the students perform better academically with SEL? --Frank KImitch

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Betty Ray's picture
Betty Ray
Senior Editor at Large

Another question from the SEL webinar, inquiring about how SEL programs are structured and the academic aspects of it.

Is this also an academic class and if so how does the circle fit in to the academic aspects of the class. What does a class period look like?

-- Mark Weiss, Operation Respect, NYC

Heather Gallant's picture
Heather Gallant
Communications & Training Coordinator, Open Circle, a nonprofit SEL program

Dear Mark,
Our program actually has a grade-differentiated curriculum for SEL. Teachers teach the Open Circle Curriculum (which covers both community-building and skills-building components of SEL) in Open Circle Meetings about twice a week for 15 minutes. These lessons are then integrated throughout the school day when teachers reinforce the skills through actions like literature lessons (using our Literature Connections, a free download at, little reminders (e.g. "We're about to take a test, and you'll need to concentrate in order to do well. What did we learn about calming down in Open Circle this morning?") and by specialists in their school. That empowers the teachers we work with to concretely teach the skills and then be very creative in their integration of SEL reinforcement into other curriculum requirements.

You can read more about Open Circle on our website at or download a fact sheet at Enjoy!

Pamela DeRossitte's picture

Heather, this is great information and I appreciate the links. I am so open to learning more about this fascinating process. Having just a bit of experience with the circle process has made me aware of the cascading of positive effects that transfer to other areas. This is a communication technique that should really underpin everything we do. ( I compare it to a team meeting in a corporate structure.) Thanks for the links. I look forward to expanding my understanding of this educational componant.

Heather Gallant's picture
Heather Gallant
Communications & Training Coordinator, Open Circle, a nonprofit SEL program

Hi Kati,

This is interesting information. It sounds like when you use circles, it's as a group work structure that is centered around an SEL topic, primarily student-run in their separate groups. Is that right?

It would make sense that this works better for the young people you work with than it would at the elementary level. Open Circle is for K-5, so it's important that the research-based SEL lessons from our Curriculum are facilitated by the teacher with the whole classroom. Then the teachers use things like our Literature Connections books to reinforce the skills taught in the Open Circle meeting in other curricular areas throughout the school day.

We don't have expertise in how to structure a high school level SEL program, but it sounds like your approach is working for you!

Grace Rubenstein's picture
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia

To answer Frank's and Mark's questions, I can speak from what I saw while reporting our coverage in the Jefferson County schools in Louisville. The morning meeting there is not academic, but teachers use it to lay the foundation for successful academic work throughout the rest of the day.

They also weave important SEL practices (like setting and reinforcing social norms, doing collaborative work, using constructive discipline strategies) throughout the whole school day, so the SEL doesn't just happen in one shot and then disappear. You can find an overview of these practices in my story, here:

And YES! These practices do appear to have an effect on academics. The impact is detailed in my story, and Superintendent Shelley Berman also highlighted some impressive data in last week's webinar. You can download his slides here:

Kati Delahanty's picture

These are great questions, and the downloads are awesome, Heather!

In my high school classes, I use a lot of articles that have to do with SEL issues. I wish we had a list like the open circles literature list (that's amazing!), but, unfortunately I haven't been able to find one. Now-a-days it is very easy to find articles on bullying (especially as it relates to social networking sites), eating disorders, hate crimes, etc. They are good jumping off points because they are narrative and easily accessible.

I do also use the circle format in my class to discuss literature, to learn new vocab words, to do quick edits, and to make connections to the content we learn in class. Typically when I do circle in my class, it takes the full 55 minutes (that's how long our periods are). I have 30 clipboards that I have the students use when we are in circle and doing academic course work (you can get them very cheap online or have them graciously donated by That way, I don't have to have them do the writing outside of circle (at a table) and then transition back into just takes too much time that way (for me).

I would say that students definitely perform better when circle is incorporated into the class. They get so much better at listening, being present, being patient, giving new ideas and concepts a chance, etc.

James Dittes's picture
James Dittes
English teacher from Gallatin, Tennessee

I really enjoyed the webinar last week. I had used circles in my high school 11th & 9th-grade English classes in past years, but I never felt I had done it effectively.

Probably the biggest problem I encountered was with discussions in which students hadn't read the material. I usually assigned a poem, historical artwork, or short reading the day before the circle, but I was disappointed when significant numbers of kids were unprepared--especially when they thought that "bluffing" might sound just as smart as incorporating the text into comments.

Is there some assessment you do beforehand to ensure quality discussion? Or are there some strategies I can use to teach the circle to students?

I'm really excited about these ideas, and I'm already planning a 9th-grade group approach. Thanks.

Kati Delahanty's picture

I really hear you, James. It's so hard (and irritating) to try to lead a discussion when the people in the discussion aren't prepared. And yes I use circle all the time for curriculum (to respond to literature, etc.). But when I use circle for SEL (at least once a week), I design all of the rounds so that they can be answered in real time. I do sometimes tell them the topic the day before (language, bullying, relationships, ethical dilemmas, social justice) or give them questions to think about ahead of time. I do also use short texts, so I'll give them time at the beginning to read the text before we start our rounds. I have clipboards that they take with them to circle when I want them to do some pre-thinking (survey style) or reading.
I'm happy to send you some sample circle scripts (sort of) if you want to send me a message with your e-mail.
I can't wait to hear how it goes with your 9th graders!

Tracy Arrowsmith's picture
Tracy Arrowsmith
Social Media Manager at Developmental Studies Center

Grace: DSC has worked closely with both Jefferson County schools in Louisville and Superintendent Shelley Berman as outlined in your story: Thank you for outlining this exceptional work by Berman. It only helps to bring to the forefront the importance of SEL support district-wide for the most dramatic results.

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