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Using an SEL Approach to Teaching Benefits Teachers Too

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Many new teachers enter the profession with lofty aspirations for helping students develop a love for learning and many expe­rienced teachers remain in the profession with noble ambitions to deliver engaging instruction and optimize learning con­ditions for their students (Nelson, 2013). However, research shows that up to 44% of these teachers will experience stress, burn out, and even consider leaving the profession (Ingersoll et al., 2018). While a growing body of research has focused on how teacher use of SEL approaches to instruction benefits students (Ingersoll et al., 2018), SEL instruction can benefit teachers too. Early results from recent in­terviews with teachers awarded Responsive Classroom Teacher certification revealed that using this approach has benefits for teachers such as reduced stress and reduced burnout, and can even restore or reinvigorate the joy and love of teaching in three essential ways.

First, teachers reported leveraging the power of the natural learning cycle be­cause it leads to a period of exploration as the student follows leads and inter­ests, gathers information, and tries out new skills. In the natural learning cycle, student reflection follows student explo­ration and leads to revised or new goals (Dewey, 1938/1963; Piaget, 1923/1959). When it is time to learn additional skills or develop new ones, the teacher repeats the cycle with students by 1) starting with meaningful goals, 2) inviting students to explore actively, and 3) helping students reflect on their explorations (Center for Responsive Schools, 2016). When teachers kept this cycle in mind during lesson planning, the lessons became more pow­erful and engaging and en­abled students to become more knowledgeable and sophisticated in their think­ing. Teachers reported les­son planning as less stressful, which can reduce the longer-term possibility of burnout.

Second, teachers took the time and made an effort to get to know their students by actively observing them. Teachers did this by observing their entire class or a smaller group of students by interacting with them throughout the day (when possible), taking notes, and reviewing those notes at the end of the day while the information was still fresh. Some of the students’ attri­butes that teachers actively observed were peer relationships, learning styles, men­tal energy, language skills, and cognitive skills. Teachers used these observations to inform all aspects of their teaching, from how to organize stu­dents into groups to what types of formative assess­ments to use. As a result, teachers reported better relationships with their students, better connections with par­ents, and a reduction in stress. Teachers were also reminded of the joy of teaching.

Third, teachers reported that helping students to work together productively over time had a profound and noticeable impact on their students’ sense of com­munity, belonging, and learning. Most students, of course, enjoy any opportunity to talk and work with classmates. For en­gaging learning to happen for everyone, teachers taught students how to interact collaboratively in speaking, listening, and thinking. Teachers reported that when they took the role of choreographer (or facilitator) rather than lecturer, and went beyond making decisions about how to form partners and groups but instead listened, coached, reinforced, reminded, directed, and redirected students’ efforts when working collaboratively, they saw changes—sometimes dramatic changes—in their students. A common theme through­out the interviews was that teaching their students how to work to­gether collaboratively built classroom community and empowered their stu­dents to take risks, ask questions, ask for help, and take on new chal­lenges. All of this together led to students’ social, emo­tional, and academic growth, to teachers being less stressed, and to students and teachers being more joyful.

Decades of research has confirmed what many have known intuitively and for some time now—using an SEL approach to teaching has substantial and tangible benefits for students. Our preliminary but encouraging findings from teacher interviews suggest that these benefits— of using an SEL approach to instruction— benefits teachers too! When teachers use the Responsive Classroom approach to teaching to leverage the power of the natural learning cycle, get to know their students, and build classroom community, they can experience a classroom that is less stressful, be less susceptible to burnout, and even feel reinvigorated by the love and joy of teaching that brings so many to the profession.


  • Center for Responsive Schools. (2016). The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to Engage and Challenge Elementary Students. Turners Falls, MA: Author.
  • Dewey, J. (1938/1963). Experience and Education. New York: Collier MacMillan.
  • 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.
  • Ingersoll, R., Merrill, E., Stuckey, D., & Collins, G. (2018). Seven Trends: The Transformation of the Teaching Force, updated October 2018. Research Report (#RR 2018–2). Consortium for Policy Research in Education, University of Pennsylvania.
  • Nelson, S. Teaching: The most noble profession. (2013). Retrieved from
  • Piaget, J. (1923/1959). The Language and Thought of the Child. New York: Humanities Press.

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