George Lucas Educational Foundation

The first weeks... setting up a SEL classroom

The first weeks... setting up a SEL classroom

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The new year is fast approaching! I thought we could share effective ways we start the year (curriculum, rules, activities, routines). How do you set up a SEL classroom? What rules and procedures/expectations/routines do you start setting up? I'm a high school social studies teacher in an urban school (and pretty new at it), so I'm also wondering what engages and inspires older students. Here are the rules I'm thinking of (they're NOT finalized). I want no more than 3-4. I want to start with rules that set students up to collaborate, communicate, create, and reflect. And then spend time doing activities and projects that help us define what they look like/sound like/feel like. I welcome your critique and wisdom. - Think from different perspectives - Speak your mind and listen to others - Do the right thing even when no one is looking - Communicate constructively - Take risks This discussion can become a resource for SEL classroom structure...

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Julia Mason Wasson's picture

At my school, we use a speaking and listening protocol called the Way of Council - older students love this way of connecting to their own lives and interests and learning more about you and their classmates. Check out the website and lesson plans written for both elementary and secondary students: I hope you have an exciting and rewarding time with your students.

Andy's picture
Cross Categorical Special Education Teacher from Wisconsin

Hi Katy....I was hoping you could tell me which clips you use from Ferris Bueller and The Wire? The Wire is a GREAT show....but there are so many clips which are not school appropriate I think it would take me forever to find the clip you speak of!

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

Thank you so much for posting your many suggestions. I will add them to our edutopia wiki for SEL.

Mary Kate

kristin russk's picture


I'm new on this site and was hoping that someone could direct me to the SEL wiki.


Hubert V. Yee's picture
Hubert V. Yee
social media and marketing manager of startup

Hi Kristin,

We're in the midst of setting up the wikis. We'll have it up soon! Mary Kate is a fountain of knowledge on SEL. Check out her blog!

Rebecca Alber's picture
Rebecca Alber
Edutopia Consulting Editor

Hi all,

Here's a blog that I wrote discussing the difference between rules and routines in the classroom. I think it's so important to establish day one that rules come with consequences and routines with reminders.
Back to School: Rules and Routines in the Classroom.

Hope you find it helpful. Feel free to comment!


David Cowan's picture
David Cowan
Author of SEL materials and consultant

I just became aware of this group. A close friend sent me the link because of the work I've done in SEL over the years.

I don't know if what I'm providing is still relevant to this discussion, but here's a great site for those of you looking for SEL resources for the classroom or for use in counseling:

Dr. Fay Kelle's picture

I conduct this lesson in all of my courses at the beginning of the semester; and then we review their constitution in the middle of it to see if they would like to ammend it. I HIGHLY recommend it, especially in social studies classrooms (K-college).

Excerpts from: Parker, Walter C. (2005). Social Studies in Elementary Education. (12th Ed.) Columbus, Ohio: Pearson/Merrill Prentice Hall, pp. 71-72.

"Deliberation is probably the most important foundation of democratic citizenship...When children learn to talk through their disagreements on the playground and in the classroom, and later at work and on committees, by explaining, listening, negotiating, compromising, and forgiving, they are making significant progress toward democratic citizenship...Discussion is not merely better than fighting; discussion leads to wise action."

Parker provides this example of a Seattle area Elementary teacher, Tarry Lindquist:

I often start out in September by asking the class to brainstorm all the things we could do to make our classroom a terrible place, a place where no one would want to come, a place where we could guarantee no learning would occur.

As we list the surefire ways to kill a classroom, each suggestion more outrageous than the last, we begin to build a community. Eventually, when we have exhausted our efforts, most sincere and many hilarious, I ask the class to picture a room like the one we've just described. I ask them, "What would you know if you stayed in a classroom like that one all year? What would you be able to do? How would you feel?" After that discussion, it doesn't take long to reverse the list, identifying what needs to happen to make our classroom a place of joy where all students want to be and where all students can learn.

"Ms. Lindquist goes on to create with her students a sort of mini-constitution--a social contract, an action plan for a peaceful classroom. After much discussion and decision making, the plan is finalized. Each child signs it, as does Ms. Lindquist. She sends a copy home...Ms. Lindquist can now describe the behavior problem by referring to specific agreements written in the plan, such as 'we are respectful of others' and 'we listen and pay attention.'" (p. 72)

Parker (p. 72) also provides a list of suggested "Discussion Skills" that can be posted as a reminder:

Discussion Skills

Listen as well as talk.
Encourage others to participate.
Criticize ideas but not people.
Support opinions with reasons.
Weigh alternatives.

"Discussion is a civic practice that introduces children to ways of behaving that are imperative if we are to have, as the Constitution calls it, 'domestic tranquility.'" (p. 73)

I wish everyone a rewarding and productive semester/school year!
Fay, Idaho State University College of Education

Mary Kate Land's picture
Mary Kate Land
Montessori 4-6th grade teacher

I agree with Laura, it's so important to recognize that SEL work is not complete until the last child leaves on the last day of school! We use the first six weeks to establish SEL friendly practices which keep the importance of the Social emotional climate in the forefront of our daily work. Talking about feeling is part of every problem solving session, and "checking in" is formally scheduled as well as completed as the need arises.

I have found that if the SEL piece is properly handled, much of the "work" of classroom management becomes just another opportunity for growth and connection.


Nini White's picture
Nini White
Educator, Author, Consultant, Founder-Developer of Kids' Own Wisdom

Please check out

Even very young kids actually WANT to take personal responsibility, exercise their capacity to empathize, treat others fairly, have friendships that work for everyone. What they DON'T need is to be told (again) (and again and again) what to do or how to think. What they DO need is to be encouraged think together about solutions that make sense to everyone. And what TEACHERS need is a clean and simple way to facilitate such interactions ... KIDS' OWN WISDOM to the rescue. It works (see the endorsements page), it's easy, and it's actually enjoyable.

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