Great Educators Teach the Whole Child: Integrating SEL In the Classroom

By Abbas Manjee
“Mister, why do we have to do this? I’d honestly rather work on math right now. Or anything else.”
This was advisory class (also known as “guidance”). I was a certified high school math teacher, but like so many of my peers, I also taught advisory. In advisory, teachers met with students to develop their social skills and help them explore college and career options. The class sounds practical, particularly because I taught in New York City alternative high schools serving at-risk students.
Oddly enough, New York City’s academic policy mentions advisory only once in a footnote: “There are no standards in ‘guidance’ or ‘advisory’; such courses may only bear credit if they are taught by appropriate subject-certified teachers…”
This might explain why advisory was so often treated as an afterthought in New York City public schools. We weren’t provided thoughtful or engaging curriculum, and yet, every student took advisory multiple times in a year to accumulate elective credits and meet graduation requirements.
I rarely felt underprepared teaching math, but unfortunately it was advisory that helped me perfect the art of improvising. Being in an alternative high school, my students were academically behind and at risk of getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline. It was vital they graduated high school, but a diploma doesn’t guarantee students the social and emotional learning (SEL) skills needed to be informed citizens and productive members of society. SEL, in schools across this country, is often put on the backburner and siloed off in classes like advisory or guidance.
According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, (CASEL), social and emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” CASEL defines these in terms of specific competencies that can be assessed and mastered: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.
I can say with confidence that my students didn’t learn anything in advisory in my first two years teaching it. I had no idea what I was doing and I was never paired with a veteran teacher. In my third year, I decided to write my own advisory curriculum grounded in debate and civil discourse. I wanted my students to learn how to reason effectively: I loved hanging out with them during lunch and I was getting irritated hearing them argue with faulty logic.
That year, my students would learn how to listen actively, communicate clearly and control outbursts. They chose to debate over issues resonating with them the most: police reform, stop and frisk, housing segregation and gentrification. Near the end of the semester, we held a formal debate. It was fantastic, causing me to have a “this is why I teach” moment and restoring my confidence in my curriculum and the class.
When it came time for my advisory students to defend their logic in Algebra, the skills just did not transfer.
“This isn’t advisory Mister, this is MATH, AND I’M TRYING TO TELL YOU MY ANSWER!”
It took a couple more years of this disconnect for me to finally figure it out: teaching social skills in isolation is absolutely ridiculous. In “the real world,” as teachers say, challenges are complex. You’re never just solving a math problem. You’re communicating, collaborating, managing yourself—the list goes on.
Life is interdisciplinary, and while our education system has finally started to acknowledge this (e.g. STEAM, the CCLS ELA standards), we’re still compartmentalizing what makes us human: social and emotional learning. The head and the heart are connected, and our schools, curriculum and education technology should reflect this.
At Kiddom, my classroom experience with at-risk youth has proved invaluable in helping us build a platform that connects content, curriculum and analytics. Being standards-based, we support CASEL’s SEL competencies and we encourage our teachers to track them in tandem with academic standards. Our content integrations help teachers personalize learning and provide students with the ability to self-advocate and manage their own learning, two key SEL competencies.
Here’s how it might work for an English teacher: imagine you’ve assigned students a persuasive essay and provided them with a rubric communicating academic expectations. With Kiddom, you can append SEL competencies directly into the same rubric and track those skills in one place. If you want your students to manage themselves (e.g. complete and submit the assignment on time), you can add a self-management rubric row. Thoughtfully mixing SEL with academics ensures SEL isn’t being taught in isolation. If you want a framework for this or just more examples like this one, here’s a free guide we co-authored with educators on integrating SEL.
Kiddom is just one education technology company. Teachers need more education technology companies thoughtfully creating and providing SEL content and services, and they need schools to provide the professional development necessary for learning how to effectively weave SEL into their curriculum. As technology gets smarter and continues to empower us, the future does not depend on all students learning how to code or taking AP calculus. Rather, the future will lie in learning how to solve complex problems with empathy and sound decision-making, because social and emotional learning transcends the classroom.
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Abbas Manjee is Chief Academic Officer at Kiddom and a former high school math teacher who served at-risk youth in New York City. Follow him on Twitter: @Yo_Mista

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