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Creating an SEL Mindset

Two weeks ago, I visited a high school in Los Angeles (California) to gather data for a case study that I am conducting with the Learning Policy Institute. Serving around 500 mostly low-income students, the school has raised its graduation rates from 83 percent in its first year to 99 percent last year. A school that is built on teacher leadership, the educational program prioritizes a whole child approach with a relentless focus on providing students with the social, emotional and academic supports they need to ensure they are ready to lead successful and productive lives in college and beyond.

Although the school has had many successes, they have also faced difficulties. As I have discussed in the past, a whole-school approach to SEL is a process that takes time and a committed, planned effort. Through my consulting, I have been privileged to observe teachers overcoming challenges and finding ways to support students’ social and emotional growth, many times despite budget constraints and minimal support from administration.

In Teaching with the Heart in Mind, my forthcoming SEL book, I discuss some of these challenges and how teachers solve them. In many cases, educators “jump in” and improve their craft as they teach and infuse SEL in their classrooms. In this snippet from the book, I share some of the findings in my doctoral dissertation. If you are interested in reading more about this research, send me a message. And if you want to receive these excerpts directly in your email, sign up  for updates.

In a 2013 report, 90% of participating teachers expressed strong support for focusing on SEL in schools. However, the challenges of implementing SEL in the classroom cannot be ignored. During my doctoral research, I interviewed teachers who were implementing SEL as a schoolwide initiative[i]. One of the educators shared with me:

We have so many pressures, and we feel the need to push our kids and have them grow. There are a lot of extrinsic forces at play. (SEL) it is a great reminder that first and foremost we need to be nurturing our kids and making sure they are growing emotionally.”

Most educators believe that it is important to teach these essential skills, and realize how students cannot focus academically if they experience strong emotions or are constantly stressed.  Yet many educators struggle to find ways to incorporate this work in their teaching, given time constraints and academic pressure. Several teachers during my research expressed feeling guilty about stopping their academic instruction to deal with social and emotional issues. They were concerned about falling behind in their scope and sequence, and then not being able to catch up.

However, as these teachers included SEL time in their daily calendar, they realized they now had a common language to discuss social and emotional issues with students, which made these conversations more effective. At the same time, they started to see students self-monitoring more and solving problems on their own, which meant they didn’t need as much support and facilitation from the teacher. Teachers reported that the benefits of teaching these skills outgrew the challenges they had to overcome to make it work in their classrooms. So, plan to celebrate the small accomplishments and prepare to find challenges along the way. It can be done, but it requires perseverance and purpose. In chapter 7, I discuss how you can prepare yourself for this exciting work.

Do you want to be in the loop about the book? Sign up for updates or follow #teachingheartinmind on Twitter. I’ll be sharing another excerpt soon. Stay tuned!

[i] Martínez, L. (2016). Teachers’ Voices on Social Emotional Learning: Identifying the conditions that make implementation possible. International Journal of Emotional Education, 8(2), 6.

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