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Posts from the ‘SEL’ Category

Doing the Work that Matters

Working with educators is probably the favorite part of my job. They are committed, passionate and courageous. They want to get better at teaching, because they care about their students’ wellbeing and success. They are a force for good.

Last week, I was fortunate to spend 2 days with a fantastic group of new teachers. They reminded me that supporting the social and emotional growth of adults, children and youth is doing the work that matters. It touches human hearts with long-lasting effects. It is time well spent.

As you start the new school year, you probably have a long list of things to prepare and get done during the first few weeks. If you are feeling excited and overwhelmed at the same time, I would encourage you to look at your list and consider:

What’s the work that matters?

Then, prioritize based on these insights. Let yourself be driven by the work that is most important for yourself as an educator, and for your students. Does it change your priorities? Give yourself permission to redo your list based on this question!

In my forthcoming book, Teaching with the HEART in Mind, I explore one of the most important lessons that I have learned growing my own social and emotional skills-there is nothing wrong with having emotions, both pleasant and unpleasant. We tend to judge ourselves for experiencing embarrassment, fear, anxiety… as if it were bad to feel these emotions. A big part of teaching SEL is helping children, youth and adults to approach emotions without judgement. Here’s a snippet about this. Let me know how you may incorporate this with yourself and your students during the first few weeks of the school year. I love hearing from you!

Honoring emotions is an important skill to increase self-awareness and develop a stronger sense of confidence, and it is a building block for the rest of the competencies in the HEART model. Honoring your Emotions means naming, interpreting and appropriately communicating feelings.

No judgment. As previously mentioned, emotions are data; they can provide valuable information which can help us to make better decisions. At the same time, if we don’t have tools to process them, they can be confusing and make us feel out of control. Children and youth may feel the need to avoid those strong emotions that feel uncomfortable: fear, anger, embarrassment. The reality is though, there is no way to avoid our feelings. In fact, it is good and healthy for kids to feel and express these feelings. An important message in teaching students to honor their emotions is this: there is nothing wrong with having these emotions; feelings are not good or bad, they are just information.

This is something that adults often forget. Imagine a child sharing with her gymnastics coach that she is nervous about the upcoming gymnastics competition.  The coach looks at her with a smile and says: “Don’t be nervous, everything will be fine. I will be there with you.” Although the coach’s intention is comforting the child, he is invalidating the kid’s feelings. Like in the earlier example where the parent left the room when the kid was upset, this child may be learning that she shouldn’t feel nervous. A better way to respond to the child would be:

“I understand you are nervous. It is okay. If I were competing, I would probably be nervous too. Do you remember when we had the Fall Festival? You were nervous then too, right? Do you recall what you did to calm down? (Coach waits for the child to respond) Oh, you took some deep breaths. That’s a great strategy. Would you like us to do it together? I will be there with you.”

Validating the child’s experience is a key part of this process, as we want children and youth to regularly tune in to their emotions. If we judge how kids feel (“you shouldn’t feel that way”), they will be less likely to develop their emotional literacy and ability to manage their emotions. Validate first, then help them cope and process the emotion. Finally, support them to interpret and communicate.

To a productive and joyful school year! Keep me posted on your SEL progress, and get in touch if you need any additional support.

Sign up for updates about the book or follow #teachingheartinmind on Twitter. I’ll be sharing another excerpt soon. Stay tuned!





Preparing Teachers to Support SEL

Implementing SEL programs and practices requires teachers to be open, self-reflective and sometimes vulnerable with their students. This may be easy for some teachers, while quite difficult for others. I remember a teacher saying during a training: “Students should learn these skills at home or in elementary school. I already have a hard time covering all my content, I cannot waste any time with check-ins and community circles.” You may have said something similar yourself, or heard colleagues have these conversations. It is part of the process.

Managing resistance (in yourself, your colleagues or administrators) may be step one in this process. It is completely normal. Change requires that we find the courage to ask difficult questions and push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. A school that engages in this conversation, and is able to acknowledge the feelings that block change, such as frustration, fear or judgement, it is starting the process for SEL implementation. If you are currently dealing with resistance at your school, make sure you also read this blog post, where I discuss resistance in more detail.

Far too often, teachers are left alone to figure out how and when they are going to teach these social and emotional skills to students. They are told what to do, but they are not engaged in the decision-making process. Who wouldn’t feel frustrated and resistant in a situation like that? For teachers to engage in any change process, and especially one that involves teaching and learning about emotions, they need to feel heard and supported. In my experience working with schools, little time is spent in creating a shared vision and commitment to this work, which is why many of these initiatives become short-lived: they fail to engage people at an emotional level.

I recently published a case study with the Learning Policy Institute, looking at how teachers can be supported to develop their own social and emotional skills in preservice and in-service training, so they can engage students in developing these same skills. Check out the full report here, and a handy infographic here.

These are the implications of what we learned for SEL implementation in schools:

  • Integrate SEL into the fabric of the school. All adults, from leadership to support staff, need to understand the importance of SEL and know how to support it. SEL is seen not as something that is done through discrete lessons, but rather as something that contributes to students’ development.
  • Start with the social and emotional learning of the adults. When teachers and principals are aware of their own emotions and how these emotions impact the classroom and school environment, they are more likely to support students in understanding their own feelings.
  • Create explicit opportunities to generate buy-in and engage teachers in making decisions about SEL implementation. Educators are a key component of any SEL initiative; without their buy-in and commitment, resources allocated for SEL implementation could go to waste. By creating opportunities for teachers to learn about SEL through trainings, observing colleagues at their school or district, or attending conferences, educators can be active participants in making decisions about how SEL is implemented at their school.
  • Create professional development on SEL that is explicit, sustained, and job-embedded. Teachers, counselors, coaches, and other professionals working in schools benefit from training on how to teach social and emotional competencies and how to infuse SEL in teaching practices. As with all good professional development, follow-up and coaching are important components of educator learning, which ideally is differentiated based on the educator’s experience and prior exposure to SEL and the needs of the student population being served.
  • Provide ongoing support to educators using SEL assessments for instructional purposes. SEL assessments can provide meaningful data about students’ social and emotional skills that teachers can use to inform classroom instruction. Educators need sufficient time and training to understand the measurement tool and how it relates to the school’s SEL implementation framework before being asked to use and respond to data.

As you are planning your summer PD or school retreat, consider how important it is to authentically engage teachers in your SEL efforts. And if you need support, send me a note. I love hearing from you.

I’ll be taking a break from writing in July. Be back in August with more tools and strategies to integrate SEL in your teaching practices, and more snippets from my forthcoming SEL book Teaching with the HEART in Mind. Sign up for updates to stay tuned!



Melnick, H., & Martinez, L. (2019). Preparing teachers to support social and emotional learning: A case study of San Jose State University and Lakewood Elementary School. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Summer is for Self-Empathy

“I don’t have enough time to do everything that needs to be done.” The end of the school year is a busy and stressful time of year―for teachers, students and parents. Schedules are packed with deadlines, school activities and family events, leaving everybody feeling stressed and overwhelmed. According to research, our perceived time pressure is about how well the activities we need to perform fit together in our heads and how much control we think we have over them. This is good news, because it means we can do something about it! Check out this article from Greater Good Science Center, if you need some tips for handling time pressure. Read more

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. Read more

Removing Barriers to Learning

I just returned from attending the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), one of the largest educational research gatherings in the world. Among the thousands of scholars participating in the meeting, there is a special interest group for those passionate about SEL. This year, I organized the program for SEL researchers and was excited to see some new research areas, such as parenting and SEL, cultural competency and diversity, and teachers’ wellbeing. At the same time, I was disappointed to encounter several inquiries that measured social and emotional skills, while ignoring (conscious or unconsciously) the context in which this learning takes place. Read more

Adversity Affects Learning

David was a 5th grader at an elementary school in East Oakland (California), where I worked as a special education teacher¹. The school was located in a neighborhood greatly affected by crime, drugs and gangs. Many students at the school had been exposed to violence and abuse, and most students had some kind of psychological trauma. David lived with two siblings and his mom, who was addicted to drugs. I saw David twice a week to work on his reading. The minute he walked into my room, I could clearly see if he was doing well or having a hard day. When he felt defeated, frustrated or pushed in any way, he would shut down and not respond to any verbal communication. Read more

The Power of Relationships

Think about your relationship with a good friend or a close colleague; you may push each other to do better, seek comfort when you are struggling or simply share a good laugh. As social beings, human relationships are at the core of a healthy development. This is true for all—children, youth and adults. From the infant who is starting to develop a bond with their caregiver to the elderly person, nurturing our human capacity to form and maintain relationships is essential to developing a positive sense of wellbeing. Read more

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