Social-Emotional Learning Is Everywhere

By Michelle Fuentes

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As educators, we understand that social and emotional learning (SEL) goes beyond the scripted lesson plan. We know that the opportunity to teach SEL exists everywhere. A major part of our job as educators is to prepare our students to use and apply these skills effectively and appropriately.

During my first year of teaching, I struggled to understand how to implement SEL in the classroom. How was I supposed to accomplish my curricular goals and build SEL skills simultaneously? As time passed, though, I realized that these lessons didn’t need to be limited just to Morning Meeting and that I could incorporate SEL skill building throughout the day. I began to capitalize on opportunities to dis- cuss SEL, such as when students had trouble deciding whose turn it was to sit on the beanbags during independent reading or during extracurricular activities such as band. I also knew that I could turn to read-alouds to show students how to problem-solve and figure out situations on their own.

SEL in Developing Classroom Norms and Community Building

Developing classroom norms is critical during the first few weeks of school. As educators, we recognize that SEL skills are essential to those classroom norms. Getting students involved with the creation of classroom norms allows them to practice those SEL skills and take ownership of their classroom rules, all while fostering SEL competencies such as collaboration, responsibility, and assertiveness. A safe space promotes inclusivity and continuous reflection and revisiting of the rules.

As a tool for promoting classroom norms and community, read-alouds provide ample opportunity for students to engage and have meaningful discussions. The following are examples of some books that you can include during Morning Meeting or an allotted read-aloud time slot to explicitly foster SEL skills and community norms:

  • Early elementary. The Buddy Bench by Gwendolyn Hudson Hooks. In this book from the popular Confetti Kids series, Padma and her friends create a buddy bench where kids can sit if they feel lonely and need a friend.
  • Elementary. Sparkle Boy by Lesléa Newman. Young Casey loves sparkly things, just like his older sister, who does not approve until an encounter with teasing bullies helps her learn to accept and respect Casey for who he is.
  • Upper elementary/middle school. It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way/No tiene que ser así by Luis Rodríguez. Monchi likes to write poems, hang out with his cousin Dreamer, and tell stories to his uncle, Tío Rogelio, until one day, a member of the local gang tells him it’s time to join up.

SEL in Social Settings Outside the Classroom

Recess, lunch, and extracurriculars are times when students are pushed to be socially aware. Students get to explore how to handle different social and emotional situations in these different environments, and sometimes need additional support in navigating complex social scenarios. These situations can vary, from students choosing who is on their touch football team to who gets to sit at the end of the table closest to the kitchen. As these different social situations arise, students can practice their SEL skills and learn from any mistakes along the way.

Extracurriculars are also opportunities for students to continue to use and practice their SEL strategies while also learning a new skill, such as a musical instrument, sport, art, or language. Students may experience difficult and challenging moments during these activities. For example, a student may become frustrated while they’re learning a song during band practice, or keep missing shots on goal while they’re playing soccer. Lauren Barack (2019) notes that “school can harness other extracurricular programs to put into practice that may be introduced in a classroom, and then further put into practice when the books are put away,” an observation that emphasizes that SEL is everywhere.

The following are some suggested books that help students to understand that these emotions are completely valid, and provide some useful techniques on how to cope with difficult situations in the future:

  • Early elementary. Joshua’s Masai Mask by Dakari Hru. A magical Masai mask takes an African American boy on a series of adventures, and he discovers the joy of being himself.
  • Elementary. Allie’s Basketball Dream by Barbara Barber. Allie’s story of self-determination is one that young athletes, both boys and girls, will recognize. Perfect for anyone who has experienced the ups and downs of practicing and playing hard, Allie’s Basketball Dream is a spirited tribute to perseverance.
  • Upper elementary/middle school. Miosotis Flores Never Forgets by Hilda Eunice Burgos. Perfect for fans of authors Meg Medina and Barbara O’Connor, this heartfelt novel about family, pets, and others we hold close is one that you’ll never forget.

SEL in Read-Alouds

Students are exposed to many different texts, videos, and other forms of entertainment both in and outside of school. While it is easier to recognize SEL connections in some books than in others, it is important to highlight and emphasize those connections when they are present. Books themselves also are a way to teach about the different competencies. Lee & Low Books’ Toolkit for Building a Diverse Social and Emotional (SEL) Library (n.d.) offers educators a step-by-step guide for evaluating a collection of books based on popular SEL themes. This tool is designed to showcase how educators can use the texts in their current classroom or school library to address objectives aligned with their school’s SEL framework or curriculum. Some additional tools to help build your social-emotional library include:

It is important to acknowledge that the classroom and extracurriculars are not the only spaces where SEL occurs. There are many other moments in students’ day-to-day experiences that we may not see, times when students are either learning or using SEL skills. We want to ensure that as educators we have equipped our students with adequate tools to face situations calmly, effectively, and proactively.

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Michelle Fuentes

Michelle Fuentes is the literacy specialist at Lee & Low Books, the largest independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity and multi-culturalism. She was previously the lead educator for English as a Second Language in Memphis and Atlanta for five years, serving grades 5–8. She brings her passion for equity, parent and family engagement, and English language learner best practices to Lee & Low Books, where she creates student-centered educator resources and leads engaging professional development workshops.