Start the School Year with Three Simple SEL Strategies that Work

At the start of the school year, parents, teachers and students alike have plenty of logistics to manage. There are external lists to think about such as supply lists, schedules and back-to school-nights, many of which fall outside of one’s total control.

However, we need to also take a few minutes during this hectic time to talk with young people about their internal lists–what they bring from within that they can control. Things such as attitude, effort and respect.

Before diving into three social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies, it is important to put them in context. I advance these as a simple, practical, easy set of attitudes to emphasize. We recognize there is much progress–and still much debate–in the field on how to define, measure and integrate SEL (see graphic below). With so many terms, frameworks and strategies (most of which are really good!), sometimes parents, teachers and kids want to simply know “What can I do today?”


Simple SEL Strategies

The following are strategies that I’ve found in my roles as teacher, leader, parent and human being that are practical, actionable and easy to remember.

All of them focus on mindsets that are within our control rather than on circumstances that are outside of our control. Most ideas listed are appropriate for teachers to use in the classroom as well.  When it comes down to it, it’s about training kids how to think about learning and themselves.

1. Practice a positive attitude. Choosing to be positive in every situation (half-full instead of half-empty).

Positive attitudes toward learning, toward oneself and towards others all matter. According to Steve Wilkinson, Hall-of-Fame tennis coach, author, and the person who taught me and thousands of others these important life lessons, said, “It starts with attitude. No matter what the circumstance may be, we have the choice to be positive. Once our attitude is set, we position ourselves to give full effort in a positive direction.” This can include:

  • Encouraging students to think of the new year as a fresh start.
  • Replacing “What did you do at school?” with “What were two positive things that happened today?”
  • Posting quotes connecting attitude and learning. “Having a positive mental attitude is asking how something can be done instead of saying it can’t be done.” (Bo Bennett)
  • Encouraging students to use technology, ideas and experiments to figure out how something can be done.
  • Recognizing positive attitude. Using words like grit and perseverance (see more from Duckworth and Tough).
  • Unlocking the benefits of a good attitude by showing gratitude and thanking your children. Send a positive text.
  • Modeling an attitude of a love for learning. Let your kids see you enjoying reading.
  • Saying “I appreciate your good attitude” instead of just “good job.”
  • Resting is key to attitude. Ensuring everyone gets an appropriate amount of sleep each night.
  • Asking “what can this become?” instead of “will it always be this way?” A good attitude sees possibilities.

2. Give full effort. Striving for excellence through daily discipline.

Full effort is at the heart of Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, encouraging people to “believe that abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work.”

  • Say things like, “Give it your best” or “This may take a few tries.”
  • Ask “What was something you did today where you felt proud of how hard you tried?”
  • Use digital tools to maximize productivity and build ownership in learning.
  • Reinforce effort and process (not just outcomes) — “I noticed you’ve been preparing for that presentation for three nights and I bet you feel ready. Not sure what your grade will be but I know you’ve worked hard at it.”
  • Leverage the fun built-in to apps that use gaming to motivate learning.
  • Recognize and build upon strengths. When kids are affirmed for what they CAN do, it can help when they face something more challenging.
  • Set students up for success with a regular time and place to do homework.
  • Likewise, establish guidelines for technology use. Use your phone to find information, not to socially text during homework time.
  • Make it easy to work hard–make sure they have tools to succeed. Digital tools are awesome and so are simple supplies. I have a friend who “decorates” her front hall table with a candy jar full of Post-it Notes, colorful flash cards, highlighters, device chargers and other supplies–all are welcome to grab and use.

3. Show respect to self and others. Recognizing the inherent worth of each individual changes communities and improves learning.

  • Encourage students to look each teacher in the eye and shake hands.
  • Be kind to others–be the first to reach out to new kids and include others.
  • Find the good in everyone you meet.
  • Think of how attitude influences respect. According to Clayton Christensen, “If your attitude is such that you can only learn from some people, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited.”
  • Use names like “scholar,” “student” and “learner” as you talk with your child. Have fun with it, such as “Scholar Simon…”
  • Give your children/students your undivided attention–spend time with them and be there.
  • Celebrate each others’ accomplishments in simple ways (special treat, acknowledgement).

Some of these tips may not seem all that new–for example, setting a time and place for homework. But, when such practices are coupled with a statement such as, “We want you to have the best chance to succeed with the effort you are putting in…” the growth mindset is reinforced.

It can be fun when our kids show full effort and “succeed,” whether it’s getting picked for the right team or landing a role in the school play. It’s easy to feel proud and praise what they did along the way.

It’s more challenging–but even more important–to emphasize things like effort and attitude when things don’t go our way: when a test is failed, a concept not understood, a shot missed, an injury suffered, a learning disability diagnosed or a strained relationship with a friend. While those may not be things commonly posted on social media, times of challenge or suffering can provide opportunities to practice these mindsets.

A great acronym to remember these is EAR (Effort-Attitude-Respect). Just like a third base coach might tug on the ear to have a runner steal home, parents can tug on their ears as a friendly reminder. Or, switch it up and go with “ARE” and ask “How ARE you choosing to live today?”

We are very grateful for the great work being done by organizations like CASEL and the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development on that front.

As we work toward collective understanding, let’s remember that applying SEL concepts can be pretty simple: see the good, work hard and be nice. Let go of things you can’t control, and focus on things you can.

Read more:

This is an updated version of a similar blog that originally ran on Getting Smart in September 2016.

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