Social and emotional learning, abbreviated as SEL, is the new buzzword in the education space. However, it has been subconsciously present since decades, latent in classroom questions such as,“Why are we learning about kings and queens who have long been dead?” or “Where would we use algebra in our day-to-day lives?” These questions might sound piercing to many educators, but they are critical when it comes to evaluating the level of cognition or measuring student success. The fundamental aim of all learning is far beyond academic achievement, it is about acquiring knowledge, values, and skills which are transferable and which equip us to lead our lives in a positive and dignified manner. Consequently, SEL is a methodology which can easily permeate into classroom lessons in order to ensure that students are able to understand their emotions and deal with them in an optimistic and constructive way so that they become better, more productive, self-cognizant, and socially-aware citizens outside of the classroom in the years to come.
To understand the underlying principles of SEL, we must delve into the context where it generates from and thrives in, i.e., the classroom. The classroom performs the role of a levelling ground where students are put together and encouraged to compete with one another and puts all the students on an equal footing in order for them to be able to succeed in life. To account for these differences and to help students grapple with their thoughts, SEL provides students a lens with which they can see the world around them with empathy, humanity, and inclusivity in equal measure.
The five core competencies of SEL
Formally defined, SEL is the process through which people attain and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop strong identities, manage emotions effectively, and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines five core competencies for SEL that can be applied in the classroom, at home, and in students’ communities.
These five core competencies are:
Self-awareness – To be able to identify your emotions, personal goals, and value systems and comprehend how they impact your behaviour and see how they are interconnected. This includes the ability to assess your strengths and limitations to gain clarity about your future plans and abilities.
Self-management – To take control and ownership of your thoughts, emotions, and actions in various situations and to be able to regulate them in order to set and achieve personal goals.
Social awareness – The ability to maintain relationships with people from diverse backgrounds with compassion, empathy, and generosity. It also involves respecting the norms laid down by the school, the society, and the community.
Relationship skills – This competency focuses on establishing rewarding relationships with others by listening actively, peacefully resolving conflict, cooperating, knowing when to ask for or offer help, and resisting unnecessary social pressure.
Responsible decision-making – Choosing how to act or respond to a situation based on learned behaviours such as ethics, safety, acceptable behavioural norms weighing consequences and the well-being of others, as well as yourself. It also includes realistically weighing the aftermath of one’s actions and acting accordingly.
The meteoric rise of SEL instruction
In the post-pandemic world, SEL has emerged as an important focal point in reimagining education spaces across the globe. Dr Dave Paunesku from CASEL says, “If we really want all students to leave school having developed certain academic, social, personal, and cultural capacities, we need to think really carefully about whether we as educators are creating the types of experiences that we know from research will help develop those capacities.”
This is also where school leaders and other management related stakeholders can step in and contribute. School leaders play a critical role in fostering school-wide activities and policies that promote positive school environments, such as establishing a team to address psychological issues; adult modelling of social and emotional competence; and developing clear norms, values, and expectations for all students and staff members. Since SEL is not a formal subject, but an ideology, policies need to be revised and reformulated keeping in mind the need to provide structures for emotional and physical wellbeing, engage in practices that affirm diversity, create spaces for elevating student voice and agency, prioritizing the need for critical reflection, and partnering with families to practise mutually beneficial approaches to SEL. Regardless of the medium of teaching-learning – virtual or physical – the transformative power of SEL cannot be overlooked.
Implementing SEL in the classroom
One of the most prevalent SEL approaches throughout the world involves training teachers to deliver explicit lessons that teach social and emotional skills, then finding opportunities for students to reinforce their use throughout the day. A.P. Williford and C.S. Wolcott in their Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning state that, ‘Teachers can also naturally foster skills in students through their interpersonal and student-centred instructional interactions throughout the school day. Adult-student interactions support SEL when they result in positive student-teacher relationships, enable teachers to model social-emotional competencies for students, and promote student engagement.’
There are several different approaches to incorporating SEL into everyday classroom routines. Some teachers have a more formally designated portion of the school day devoted to SEL – sometimes taught in homeroom. Teachers may want to have students journal or write about their thoughts and feelings on a particular SEL lesson, or even have younger students partner with an older “buddy classroom” (or vice versa) to help students across different age levels bond or find common ground.
Other teachers work SEL-related lessons into more formal subjects, like math, history, or reading. For instance, examples of SEL-in-action can include assigning a group project where students self-delegate roles to work together for the good of the group, role playing as historical figures to understand the rationale behind a person’s actions, or for students to conduct formal interviews with one another to take a pulse-check on current events.
Inside a classroom, especially with younger kids, it is easier to build in SEL through introducing routines which are easily executable, require no preparation, and are subject-agnostic. Detailing some of these below:
- Visualization – an activity that can be sandwiched at any point in the middle of the lesson, it includes having students imagine what ‘stress’ looks like inside their body and then asking them to release it.
- Noise isolation – Have your students focus on one particular noise that they hear inside the school environment. Then they should think about the last time they interacted with it.
- Mindfulness – a powerful strategy both in childhood and in adult life; use the STOP (Stop, Take a breath to calm down, Observe the situation, Proceed with a solution).
- Name the emotion: Have each student call out the emotion they’re feeling at that moment. This helps each student know how they and other students are feeling, what different emotions look like, and how to better interact with their peers based on how they’re feeling.
- Stress throw: Let your students write down their fears, insecurities, etc., on a piece of paper, tear it, and throw it away. This is also known as an ‘emotional check-in’. By doing this activity at the start of each class, you’ll acknowledge their barriers to learning and creating a safe space for your students to overcome them.
- Share-out: Have your students share moments in the day or week when they have demonstrated a growth and fixed mindset.
- Appreciation, apology, aha: Have your students get in a circle and share an appreciation, apology, or realization with the group. This lets them take stock of their feelings and they can deal with a plethora of emotions in a better way as adults.
- Who’s who?: Pair your students up with a student they don’t know or don’t talk to that often and provide the pairs with five questions to ask each other. This will enable discussions and might facilitate new friendships.
- Meet and greet – When students arrive in the classroom – either virtually or in person – give them a list of different greeting options such as: Wave, Foot tap, High Five, Fist bump, Thumbs up, Jazz hands, Elbow bump. This is a particularly good activity for kindergartners.
- Calm-down corner – Designate a calm-down corner in class. Send students there for 3-5 minutes when they are experiencing emotional outbursts so that they can acknowledge that emotion, deal with it, and move forward to experience the learning which is happening in class.
The final word
Students of all ages are grappling with a range of emotions including anger, fear, uncertainty, optimism, and motivation. The ways in which students process their complex emotions and experiences will be influenced by whether they have at least one “secure base” to turn to.
To conclude in the words of Meena Srinivasan, the Program Manager, McGraw Hill Education, “Before I started working with SEL, sometimes I got so stressed that I lost contact with my original intention for becoming a teacher. SEL has rekindled that light inside of me. It’s the light of why I became an educator in the first place – to help students connect with their dreams and aspirations and become better people who contribute to the world in a positive way. That’s the power of the SEL lens; it fosters purpose and meaning and deep connection.”
- Williford, A.P. & Wolcott, C.S. (2015). “SEL and Student-Teacher Relationships.” In J.A. Durlak, C.E. Domitrovich, R.P. Weissberg, & T.P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning. New York: Guilford Press.
The author works as an ELT curriculum architect in the Ed-tech space. She has a Masters’ degree in English from Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi and a CELTA from the University of Cambridge. She is passionate about education and putting out meaningful and relevant content into the world through her writing. Her articles on pedagogy and learning strategies have been published in several educational magazines and blogs. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.