Making Time to Teach SEL Skills Using SEL Strategies

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“The first 15 minutes of class is a social and emotional check-in. I start with asking my kids how they feel and they can respond with the emoji, giving a happy face, exciting face, an okay face, or sad face. Then I ask them to privately chat with me about why they chose that particular emoji. When several kids show the same one, I address the comments I received without singling out individuals.”

L. Littlejohn (personal communication, November 15, 2020)

Developing social and emotional competence benefits not only the individual but also the community in which the person lives, works, plays, and learns. Students attend schools in many different types of communities, learn in a wide variety of classroom settings, and are taught by educators using a broad and ever-changing array of curricula and methods. Yet one thing stays constant: What we know and believe about our students individually, culturally, and developmentally informs our expectations, reactions, and attitudes. Knowing our students means understanding the whole child. We need to know not just how our students are performing on standardized tests and classroom assignments but also where they stand social and emotionally. Using what we learn about the whole child, we should follow a social-emotional learning (SEL) strategy, explicitly teaching student-centered lessons to support active and interactive learning, with practice to construct knowledge and solve real-world problems, followed by reflection.

Explicit Instruction in SEL Skills

“Teachers provide instructional support by teaching new material in manageable amounts, modeling skills and behaviors, guiding student practice, helping students when they make errors, and providing sufficient practice and review.”

National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, 2018

Center for Responsive Schools has always articulated five social and emotional competencies: cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (C.A.R.E.S.), which comprise the foundational skills for positive health practices, engaged citizenship, and school success. Social-emotional learning is sometimes called “the missing piece” because it represents a part of education that is inextricably linked to school success, but until recently has not been explicitly stated or given much attention (Civic Enterprises et al., 2013). There is a national movement in state departments of education to develop SEL learning standards, evidence that educational stakeholders have demonstrated commitment to continue to reform and to improve education and student achievement outcomes by adding SEL as a fifth curriculum. Currently, 30 states have already created or adopted SEL standards (Gerstner, 2020).

I recently reached out to some colleagues to see how they are addressing SEL—how they are making time to teach it, how they are using SEL practices to teach virtually or in person, and what impact their efforts have when they explicitly teach and model SEL skills.

One of the first practices shared is taking time to plan what social and emotional learning should look like and feel like in their classroom environment, both in-person and remote. Many of those I spoke with devote the first few minutes of class time to building a positive community and setting the tone. Starting the day or class period with a Morning Meeting to assess the mood of students or creating reflection prompts about their weekend or day are two strategies they use to assess students’ readiness to begin the class period.

Another strategy is finding the right literature and stories to represent students in their classrooms. It is important for students to be able to identify themselves with characters in a story. Selecting a representative novel or piece of literature allows students to feel a sense of belonging. Students will relate to characters who undergo changes and experience conflicts similar to their own, and will be able to hypothesize how the characters could handle real-world situations. Connecting with characters gives students the opportunity to express their feelings, share why they are feeling a particular emotion in a safe and non-judgmental way, and, most importantly, become invested in the learning.

Elementary educators who try to help kindergartners stay patient, focused, and collaborative, or middle school educators who try to help adolescents to be kind and welcoming to all peers, know that these skills and habits do not come naturally to all children and cannot be mandated: they have to be learned through a careful process (National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, 2018). As educators think about this process and create buy-in from students, they realize how challenging this approach can be on a daily basis and understand the importance of practice and demonstrating SEL skills. Here are some examples to assess students’ skill readiness:

  • Provide opportunities for frequent check-ins
  • Collaborative group work
  • Written check-ins to jump-start private conversations
  • Journal writing activities
  • Creative artwork activities
  • Positive affirmations
  • Implement a space where students can calm down, reduce their stress level, and manage their emotions

Increasing Efficacy

“If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

E. Oberle and K. A. Schonert-Reichl, 2017

Many educators have had to go from engaging with students face-to-face in a physical classroom to virtual distance learning. This adjustment has not been easy for educators or for their students. However, there are ways to develop or maintain social and emotional competence:

  • Acknowledge your own emotions
  • Obtain professional help through counseling and therapy
  • Take the time to understand students’ social awareness and needs
  • Communicate more effectively with parents/caregivers
  • Set goals and adhere to these goals to maintain motivation and momentum
  • Support colleagues’ accomplishments to maintain a positive environment
  • Mindfulness Practice Supports SEL Engagement

Mindfulness is a powerful practice for becoming aware of one’s emotions and learning to manage them. Mindfulness serves as a tool to process all emotions, especially the ones that have the potential to take us out of control because they are uncomfortable or make us fearful. Mindfulness supports social and emotional learning by providing strategies that train our brain to identify, name, and manage emotions and our expressions of those emotions so that we can remain in control of ourselves, be successful in the moment, and remain on a successful trajectory. Studies have shown that when mindfulness is practiced in the classroom it reduces anxiety, stress, and burnout for both students and teachers, and in doing so improves academic and behavioral outcomes (Jennings, Lantieri, & Roeser, 2011), which in turn improve attention, concentration, and resiliency. Mindfulness is a way of creating a culture of health and wellness, providing students with strategies that they can use outside the classroom.

Tips for Supporting SEL

When establishing an SEL program in your school, here are some tips to get you started:

  • Provide opportunities to support and empower teacher decision-making.
  • Adapt to a wide variety of educational contexts.
  • Gather formative data to assess and reassess your program.
  • Selects stories, texts, and media that represent the diversity of your students. Students should feel a connection and visualize themselves as the characters in the stories or texts.
  • Discover ways to support teacher efficacy through professional development.

Share best practices with parents and caregivers so they can incorporate SEL skill-based learning from school and demonstrate its practice at home.

Knowing our students individually, culturally, and developmentally will inform our expectations, reactions, and attitudes. Regardless of the classroom setting—in person, remote, or hybrid—developing social-emotional competence of our students will not only benefit the student but also the community where they live, work, play, and learn.

Download The Mindfulness Student lesson samples on recognizing and managing emotions. The complete lessons can be purchased separately or as part of the Fly Five Curriculum.


  • Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The missing piece: A national teacher survey on how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
  • Gerstner, C.-C. E. (2020). C.A.R.E.S. social and emotional standards for a course of study mapped to state standards. Center for Responsive Schools.
  • Jennings, P. A., Roeser, R. W., & Lantieri, L. (2011). Supporting educational goals through cultivating mindfulness: Approaches for teachers and students. In A. Higgins-D’Alessandro & P.M. Brown (Eds.), The handbook of prosocial education (pp. 371–397). Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Oberle, E., & Schonert-Reichi, K. A. (2017). Social and emotional learning: Recent research and practical strategies for promoting children’s social and emotional competence in schools. In J. Matson (Ed.), Handbook of social behavior and skills in children (pp. 175–197). Springer. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-64592-6_11
  • National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. (2018). From a nation at risk to a nation at hope: Recommendations from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.