Some people may think of implementing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) as solely teaching an off-the-shelf curriculum, such as Second Step, PATHS, Positive Action or others. While the explicit instruction of social and emotional competencies is a key component of a robust SEL intervention, there are two more strategies that will increase the impact of this work on your students: using teaching practices that enhance the use of social and emotional competencies by students, and infusing SEL with the academic content you teach.
It is worth taking some time to think about how your teaching strategies provide students with opportunities to practice their social and emotional skills. Do you use cooperative learning? Do you often have classroom discussions? Do you balance direct instruction with guided practice? Those are all instructional practices that support positive learning environments, and students’ learning. You might be already using some of these strategies, and if you do, you are already supporting your students’ development of their social and emotional competencies!
Let’s look at the 3 strategies to address SEL in more detail.
Explicit instruction. This strategy refers to teaching the specific skills and vocabulary that you want your students to use and master. For example, if you want them to use a specific protocol to solve conflicts, you will have to teach each one of the steps and the strategies/sentence starters that you want students to follow when solving problems. Explicit instruction is very powerful when starting to teach SEL, because it will provide students with a common language to communicate about daily issues in and outside the classroom. Schools might use an off-the-shelf curriculum to teach explicit instruction, or they might develop their own lessons and activities.
Using teaching practices that enhance students’ social and emotional competencies. This strategy is directly tied to how you organize and manage your classroom. Instructional practices that require students to work and learn together, discuss a topic and collect different points of view, solve a math or science problem in a small group or make choices about their own learning are all activities that ask students to use social and emotional skills in one way or another. To make sure you are consistent with your explicit instruction, you should share with students which competencies they are practicing and developing when they participate in these activities. A few examples of teaching practices that enhance students’ competencies are cooperative learning, classroom discussions, project-based learning, workshops, feedback loops or student self-assessment.
Integrating SEL with academic content. This third strategy connects the content and vocabulary of your SEL instruction with your English, math, science, or PE lesson. For example, in language arts it is possible to connect lessons and activities around the study of characters or the development of themes with emotional literacy and self and social management skills. In order to maximize instructional time while addressing students’ character, KIPP uses what they call Dual Purpose Instruction. Teachers include both an academic and a character objective in their lessons plans, and are explicit with their students about the character trait that students are developing when they work on a particular assignment. You can also find SEL programs, like the Ruler Approach, that provide a curriculum already aligned to the academic content: the Feeling Words Curriculum is a language-based emotional literacy program for students that is mapped directly onto the core curriculum and align with the ELA Common Core State Standards.
Providing students with explicit instruction, plenty of opportunities to practice their social and emotional skills in a safe learning environment, and connecting these competencies with their academic learning will build a solid foundation to address students’ social and emotional needs in your classroom.