SEL: An essential tool for healthy development and meaningful learning

Lorea Martínez

Students need to develop academic, social and emotional tools to be successful in a 21st century world, where technologies, access to information, and work processes are rapidly changing. They will need to develop skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, applying knowledge to new situations, and the ability to self-direct, in order to complete important tasks. At the same time, they will need to develop empathy and compassion to connect with others, cultural competence to navigate a complex and diverse world, and anti-racist tools to heal from racism and fight injustice.

Creating a classroom environment where deeper learning and meaningful relationships can take place doesn’t happen right away—teachers need to intentionally create the social and emotional conditions that support all students to grow and thrive.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL)—the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions[i] —is the vehicle than can support creating the healthy, safe and supportive classrooms that teachers want and students deserve.

SEL is not just about the kids, it is also about the adults: “The social and emotional competencies of the adults in the building matter, and they matter a lot.”[ii] In fact, a report collecting lessons learned from six years of systematic SEL implementation in some of the largest urban school districts in the US found that SEL initiatives were more successful when schools had considered teachers’ own social and emotional competencies[iii].

Educators cannot teach what they don’t understand, practice, or intentionally model. In addition, adults need support to explore their unconscious bias and develop assets-based mindsets to their work with underserved students. When we consider how to create healthy and supportive schools, we also need to consider the SEL strengths and needs of the adults supporting the children, and engage them in a continuous process of reflection about their teaching philosophy, values, assumptions and biases toward students.

Cultivating student wellbeing

Education that promotes SEL can have a positive impact on students’ academic performance, classroom behaviour, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about self, others and school[iv]. In the United States, where I live, and many other countries, there is a broad consensus among parents, educators, students, and scientists that SEL matters, is doable, and has an impact.

These are some strategies to support your students’ social and emotional needs:

  • Use SEL prompts for students to answer before they start their school day or before you start your academic instruction. If students will be using technology, ask them to share their answer on the school’s learning platform. If not, have students write it down in a notebook. For example:
    • What are you looking forward to today?
    • What is the one goal that you have for yourself?
    • What are some skills that will help you stay focused today?
    • Share something funny that recently happened.
  • Select readings that address SEL themes. Students may benefit from reading stories of other children overcoming challenges, being helpers in their communities, or showing solidarity towards others.
  • Include suggestions for students to celebrate their work. For example, you can add one last step in your instructions that explicitly ask students to celebrate the things they get done—give yourself a sticker, pat yourself on the back or strike your favourite dance pose.
  • Include key SEL handouts in your materials. If you are posting resources for students and families to use, include key SEL handouts that students have used in your classroom such as a list of calming down strategies or a wheel of emotion words.

Growing educator resilience

High levels of stress for an extended period of time can have damaging consequences for our physical and psychological health. Constant stress can cause headaches, stomach problems or tense muscles. Stress can also impact our ability to focus, work with others and even accomplish simple daily tasks.

Stress is a physical and emotional signal–it means that you are faced with very challenging and demanding circumstances. Researchers have found that the way we interpret that signal can completely transform the effect that stress has on us. If we perceive that we have the resources to cope with these difficult circumstances, we experience stress as a challenge. On the other hand, if we think that the situation exceeds our existing resources, we experience stress as a threat. This is an important distinction, because it shows that the way we interpret stress can impact our physical and emotional health. Educators can develop resources to deal with stress more effectively by developing their resilience. 

Resilience means being able to adapt well in the face of adversity, threats, or significant sources of stress. Resilient adults and children do experience difficulty, but they have resources to face them and may experience personal growth because of these challenges. Resilience is a learnable mindset that everybody can develop starting today by nurturing three key things–awareness, gratitude and connection. 

Awareness means that we notice and understand when something is happening. In our current situation, we might go from one activity to the next, without paying attention to our body sensations or the state of our minds. The thing is that mind and body are connected and influence each other—when we experience physical discomfort, we may become depressed or anxious. At the same time, if we feel depressed or hopeless, we may be less inclined to take care of our bodies. Developing awareness means that we notice our thoughts, emotions, and the decisions we make to take care of our bodies and our minds. 

  • Move and fuel your body. Eat a healthy diet as much as possible and make sure you move your body every day—dancing to a favourite song counts too! 
  • Name your feelings. Put this in a visible place as a reminder to check-in and notice your emotions. If you have children or other adults at home with you, encourage them to use it as well. 
  • Find an activity to quiet your mind. I have been running outdoors. Moving my body helps me burn stress and gets me ready to face the day. Think about an activity that is relaxing and rejuvenating for you—walking, reading, listening to music, talking to a friend, or mindful breathing—and try to do it consistently, even if it is just for a few minutes. 

Gratitude means seeing the light in our daily lives. It can be difficult to maintain a positive outlook while reading the news and seeing all the negative happenings. Although it is important to be informed, we have choices about where we focus our attention. Choose to see the positive things happening in your family and community to nurture a sense of gratitude and increase your energy levels.

  • Notice the positive things and moments around you. These can be small moments, such as cuddling with your child, a moment of laughter with a student, a funny mistake. When these moments occur, enjoy them.
  • Be kind to yourself. As you are dealing with painful emotions, comfort and soothe yourself as you would a good friend. Treat yourself with kindness by paying attention to your needs and appreciate who you are
  • Start a gratitude practice. Take time to notice and reflect on the things for which you are grateful. You can create a list when you wake up, journal before you go to bed or share with your family during a meal together. Practicing gratitude can help you nurture more positivity in your life.

Connection means creating moments to nurture our relationships. 

  • Call friends and family. Stay in touch with your loved ones through video calls, text messages or zoom reunions. Talk with your neighbours. Reach out to those who live by themselves. 
  • Give and receive emotional support. Reach out to those who may need your support, and be open to receiving help as well. Many times it is easier to offer this help than accepting it from others.
  • Ask for help. When you are feeling overwhelmed and not sure how to move forward, ask for help. We all need support now and then. 

It is important for teachers to support the social and emotional needs of students and to cultivate their own resilience. When we teach and learn SEL, we are building individuals’ capacity to integrate their thoughts, emotions and behaviours to accomplish important tasks in daily life and face challenging situations.

For more strategies to bring Social Emotional Learning into your classroom, read Teaching with the HEART in Mind, get the book discussion guide for free or enroll in this online course to support educators’ SEL skills.


[ii] Martínez Pérez, L. (2021). Teaching with the HEART in Mind: A Complete Educator’s Guide to Social Emotional Learning. San Carlos, CA: Brisca Publishing.

[iii] Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), ed. “Key Implementation Insights from the Collaborating Districts Initiative.” June 2017.

[iv] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., &Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child development, 82(1), 405-432.

The author is the award winning founder of HEART in Mind Consulting, a company dedicated to helping schools and organizations integrate Social Emotional Learning in their practices, products, and learning communities. An educator who has worked with children and adults internationally, Dr. Martínez is currently a faculty member at Columbia University Teachers College, educating aspiring principals in Emotional Intelligence. Previously, she was a special education teacher and administrator. Learn more at She can be reached at

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