An educator’s guide to developing social-emotional learning skills in K–12 students
In the U.S., there has been significant progress over the years to establish social-emotional learning (SEL) as an integral component of modern education policy. President Obama signed the ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) on December 10, 2015. This bipartisan act reauthorizes the ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) of 1965. In ESSA, there are a number of elements that support social and emotional learning along with providing flexibility for local and states school districts to describe and evaluate student success. The job of teachers and school counselors entrusted with teaching social-emotional learning skills to students can be made a bit easier with the use of a social-emotional learning skills tool for educator like CounselHero.
Today, social-emotional learning has been extensively recognized as a core element of laying a strong foundation for K-12 education. Teaching SEL isn’t about doing it at the expense of academic work. Rather, it provides a strong basis on which academic work can be built. Over the last few years, there has been a steady and speedy rise in interest in SEL. This is especially true in 2020-21 as districts had to navigate the challenges triggered by COVID-19 and even face events related to racial injustice. All these have made it important to focus on developing social-emotional learning skills in K-12 students.
Let’s take a deeper look at what SEL is about and how students can be greatly impacted by them.
1- Social-emotional learning – What’s it all about?
Social-emotional learning refers to the process through which students can better understand their emotions, set goals for themselves, and act in a healthy manner toward others as well as themselves. When it comes to social-emotional learning, the coverage is wide – right from an array of attitudes and knowledge to skills that are essential both for the academic and overall post-secondary success of students. To achieve success in life, students need to be taught SEL skills like emotional awareness, problem, critical analysis, teamwork, problem-solving, conflict-resolution, and decision-making, among others. Though such skills are an integral part of success, traditional assessments in several schools typically measure them.
Before planning SEL activities or looking for a social-emotional learning skills tool for educator, what the focus areas are should be clear. For instance, social learning needs individuals to grow in a number of ways. To begin with, their self-awareness should be given a boost. And when that happens, the individuals will start to have a better understanding of both their limitations and strengths. This would help them become suitably confident, which means the areas where they’ve the necessary proficiency would be handled well while they’ll be ready to seek help in areas that aren’t their strong points. Not sure why such knowledge is important? Because knowing when you should seek help is an important part of growing.
Another crucial aspect of social-emotional learning is self-management, where students should be taught how to handle their own impulses and stress. Individuals who can self-manage better are the ones who’re usually better at goal-setting and establishing ways to accomplish those goals.
In today’s multifaceted and diversifying society where an amalgamation of religion, races, cultures, and people take place, it’s important to be socially aware. This refers to focusing more on the awareness of others, which is different from self-awareness. When students are socially aware, they’ll be able to understand the point of view of others better.
Relationship skills are the fourth key component of social-emotional learning. These include listening, communication, and cooperating skills that are not just helpful in the classrooms but even at the workplace and in personal life.
Learning to make informed and responsible choices is yet another component of social-emotional learning. Teachers and counselors should show their students the way to arrive at constructive choices, which are based on ethical standards, and consider the social norms as well as the safety of others. In other words, those who make responsible decisions are the ones who make choices that not only benefit them but are advantageous for others as well.
Perhaps now it’s clear that social-emotional learning isn’t just a way to teach students academics. Rather, it tries to contextualize the teaching of academics for students within the ambit of learning ways to handle their own personalities. Thus, for social-emotional learning, teachers and counselors have to act beyond the role of academic instructors. They need to be their students’ psychological supporters, who can guide them to manage their own emotions well. And by helping the students in the five core areas as mentioned above, teachers and school counselors can assist the students to become better at managing themselves and their relationships with others (such as peers, family, educators, school administrators, etc.), which would get reflected in the positive results produced in the classroom. To plan SEL programs quickly and efficiently, teachers and counselors could use social-emotional learning skills tool for educator, such as CounselHero.
If you’re still not sure why social-emotional learning is important for K-12 students, here’s a piece of information. Past research has found that there’s a high probability of Kindergarten students having stronger social-emotional skills graduate from high school and college, and follow it up with stable, full-time employment. Additionally, such individuals are less likely to be on public assistance, commit crimes, and have problems related to alcohol, drug, and mental health.
SEL is also supported by neuroscience. Since every behavioral intervention is a biological intervention, ensuring repeated SEL experiences in school would have long-lasting effects on a young mind. Such experiences would re-wire the neural pathways, which are essential for building and sustaining habits. And when educators create and sustain consistent SEL practices, they’ll help create the setting that’s crucial for optimal learning and working conditions.
Now, let’s see how educators and counselors can develop social-emotional learning skills in their students.
2- Implementation of welcoming inclusion activities, routines, and rituals
Welcoming inclusion activities are crucial to create a connection between the people in a room and between them and the work they’ll do. These short, interactive experiences ensure every culturally rich, perspective-laden voice is being heard, learned from, and respected. The more individuals are able to share their voices fully, which are completely received without any bias or discrimination, and are understood by others, the safer and stronger would our learning environments become. This would encourage the growth of knowledge and appreciation for people from diverse backgrounds. Thus, a growing appreciation for diverse people would offer opportunities to welcome people in the ways they want and need to be included.
Welcoming routines could be defined as modes of communicating what needs to be done. These include a well-planned series of tasks or a system of actions that contribute to an anticipated rhythm, which triggers an event. Welcoming routines could be a list of written directions and/or images close to the door of an elementary classroom, or may be a board with a “Do Now” scribbled on it for secondary students to let the students know what they’re expected to do upon their arrival. This means students who enter the classroom can see at a glance how they can get engaged. Thus, with the practice of such steps, together with other classroom routines, teachers can create an orderly, calm setting where learners are able to move forward with confidence.
You can call welcoming rituals a special subset of welcoming routines as they are routines filled up with special meaning. An example could be how the workday of Supreme Court justices in the U.S. begins. Every day, they shake every other justice’s hand, which is a public statement that despite their differences of opinion, which are very strongly held and expressed during the course of their workday, they’re members of the civil society and can maintain personal connections despite their differences.
In a classroom, welcoming rituals may include a consistent, warm greeting of every student at the door. Educators can plan a wide range of welcoming activities, routines, and/or rituals that help build a close-knit community and create connections among people that would facilitate the work ahead being accomplished on time and with great efficiency.
For instance, a welcoming/inclusion activity could be the 5-minute ‘four corners’ game where the participants are asked to reflect on an image, statement, or prompt by moving to a "corner" that matches their choice. The room could be made to have four or five such ‘corners’ that correspond to the choices the participants will be given. Once they’re in their chosen corner, they would talk about their justification for choosing that corner with others prior to reconvening with the whole group.
This welcoming/inclusion activity is helpful in promoting the significance of divergent perspectives and why all voices need to be heard and respected. With it, the participants get the chance to connect with others, while hearing a range of reasons that have drawn them to the common category. This activity also includes movement, which helps bring an energetic vibe to the room.
This SEL activity encourages the participants to practice their responsible decision-making skills of analyzing and evaluating the situation. Based on this, they’ll select a ‘corner’ and discuss their choice. This activity also encourages social awareness skills of considering different perspectives and practicing empathy as the participants listen to understand each other’s choices and the reasoning that led to those choices. Educators who need help to plan and track such activities to develop social-emotional learning can look for a suitable social-emotional learning skills tool for educator like CounselHero.
3- Use of engaging strategies
Embedding engaging strategies in social-emotional learning, which include brain breaks, transition techniques, and anchor thinking and learning, is equally crucial for the development of students. Such strategies are intrinsically infused with SEL and help anchor learning and thinking throughout the experience. Engaging strategies differ in terms of complexity, include reflection and processing time, and are made of sequential steps that support learning – both at the individual level and group level. The aim of such strategies is to be in tune with and responsive to biological, neurological, social, and emotional needs. And they need to be implemented with a well-thought plan because using them without authenticity or randomly would be unlikely to bring a positive, systemic impact.
As SEL skills are essential to engaging strategies, it becomes crucial for educators to make SEL explicit. Additionally, they should be aware of the skills they’re trying to develop and the level of their impact on the learning process. It’s important for the learners to be supported by the educators so that they can deliberately engage in SEL-integrated instruction. Ideally, a balance should be maintained between interactive and reflective experiences to ensure they meet the requirements of all learners and even the leader’s needs in accelerating or putting a brake on the group’s energy, based on what the moment asks for.
With brain breaks, educators can be more responsive to their students’ needs. These breaks refer to simple and short activities that teachers can put to use during transitions, either as part of their regular schedule or when their class isn’t present at its full attendance. Throughout a school day, students are under tremendous pressure as several demands are made on them to finish their allotted work, stay in control of their behavior, participate in the activities or tasks, and focus on the given instructions, among others. All these indicate how a lot of self-regulation should exist for students. And it’s here that brain breaks can help. With activities and strategies planned and implemented throughout the day, teachers can help students regulate. And planning such brain breaks can be made easier by an appropriate social-emotional learning skills tool for educator, such as CounselHero.
With brain breaks, educators can provide their students with essential opportunities for regaining focus, anchoring learning, and boosting creativity. When you embed relevant and brief experiences that help engage students emotionally throughout the delivery of the content, they’ll better ensure the transfer of those concepts into long-term memory. When you’re given chances to be up and moving, you let your brain feel refreshed and open to learning. But the design and timing of brain breaks are important as they’re directly related to the ongoing experiences.
It’s important to remember that not all brain breaks are shaped equal. Sometimes, you’ll need to design and implement activities that involve physical movement to help your students wake up after a long period where they have been sitting. At other times, you may need some activities that bring everyone’s attention back to the matter being discussed, especially if it’s a relatively dull matter after something pretty exciting. At times, you may even simply need to get everyone’s focus back to learning and thinking.
For instance, if a specific class is primarily scheduled to have direct inputs or a lecture, educators can schedule particular brain breaks to help digest that delivered content and offer sense-making opportunities. When the classroom is more autonomously centered, brain breaks could be provided in an authentically custom-made way, which aligns with the individual flow of learning and doing.
Transition techniques usually include routines and rituals that indicate shifts within a school day or class period. Though these are extremely helpful techniques for everyone, they’re absolutely essential for students who suffer from processing challenges or who have had past traumatic events, which have adversely affected their social and learning experiences.
To understand the kind of engaging strategies educators can use in classrooms, let’s consider the ‘attention signal’ where the goal is to get pairs or small groups engaged in an activity and bring their attention back to the facilitator. To bring the group’s attention back, different strategies can be used like raising hands in the air, clapping, flashing the lights, lowering your voice, etc. When students are deeply immersed in meaningful, task-oriented conversations, you need to use attention signals to grab their attention. Such signals work well because they engage the participating students in a multi-sensory experience, including kinesthetic engagement (where they raise their own hands), auditory (where they hear the noise level drop), and visual (where they see others raising their hands).
With ‘attention signal’, you can reinforce five SEL elements in students, namely:
- Self-Management: Participants choose when to transfer their attention.
- Self-Awareness: They become conscious of their own behavior.
- Social Awareness: They respect the gradual silence in the group.
- Relationships: They politely bring their conversations to an end.
- Responsible Decision-Making: They make several small decisions for the benefit of the group and their own learning.
4- Optimistic closure
For social-emotional learning, every experience needs to be closed in an intentional way. But an optimistic closure doesn’t necessarily mean a “merry ending” always. Rather, it showcases a shared and individual understanding of the significance of the work, and can offer a sense of achievement along with supporting forward-thinking.
Optimistic Closures may help identify subsequent steps, be reflective about the learning, or help create associations to one’s own work. Since learning and work are always an integral part of a student’s life, these experiences deliver a moment of collection, pause, or reflection, which help anchor learning and create anticipation for the forthcoming efforts.
What’s important in social-emotional learning is that every school day, or class period, or engagement ends in a considerately planned and meaningful way, which helps everyone leave with energy and appreciation, while looking forward to getting connected again.
An example of an optimistic closure is the ‘Future Me’ task where participants are asked to write a letter to their future self. In the letter, they should write about what they have learned from the activity and what its takeaways are. Educators could encourage the students to offer their own selves some heartfelt appreciation and sage advice, which would help remind them of their present-day aspirations. Such encouragement and some direction could be given to the students via posting or reading prompts relevant to the activity. For example, questions like these could help the students:
- What would you want to remember from the session today?
- What have you learned today that you would apply in the forthcoming days, months, and/or year?
- What specific message of encouragement would you want to send your future self?
- What reminders about your current feelings would you want to include in your letter today and send to your future self?
To make this SEL activity a bit more interesting, educators could bring variations and modifications. For instance, they could provide the students with a postcard each (instead of paper and an envelope), thus reminding them that their ‘letter to self’ will be public since their words would be visible when the letter is in transit and finally, delivered. And educators can find precious help while planning and executing these activities if they use a social-emotional learning skills tool for educator like CounselHero.
5- What makes CounselHero useful for SEL activities
CounselHero is designed to help educators visualize a place where schools are able to access an integrated, research-based SEL curriculum. This would help support educators, school counselors, and their students navigate the necessary social-emotional learning skills through classroom or advisory time.
By using this social-emotional learning skills tool for educator, school counselors would also have the choice to customize their curriculum by adding or editing elements to the SEL curriculum that will be provided. Additionally, any surveys, assessments, other forms of data, etc. will be managed efficiently through the product to facilitate longitudinal growth comparisons. Students can use this tool for other notable features like setting up appointments, messaging, planning their courses, tracking deadlines and submission dates, learning about themselves, building a resume, conducting mock interviews, or researching careers, colleges, and courses – to name a few.
From a traditional educational setup, transitioning to social-emotional learning could seem difficult, which could be a reason why many schools resist such change. However, SEL has become crucial today as it helps in cultivating students’ own well-being, emotional and social competencies, and cultural competency in addition to helping build a positive school climate. And by using eCounselHero – a leading social-emotional learning skills tool for educator, you can ensure the transition to SEL is seamless.