Creating the Right Culture for Social and Emotional Learning

By Anna Durfee

On my first day of second grade, my mom and I walked hand-in-hand to my classroom. I had loved school up to this point, and I’d simply expected that second grade would be just as great–if not better–than first grade and Kindergarten.

Then I met my teacher, Mrs. W. All of the thoughts I had about how school was this magical place where you got to make new friends and learn new things vanished in approximately two seconds as my teacher answered my, “Hello, I’m Anna!” with “You’re late! Get working on that math assignment!”

Good feelings? Gone.

Nearly 28 years after my sojourn into second grade, the concept of social and emotional learning (SEL) has gained steam in the educational arena. SEL is a way for educators to help students understand their own emotions, the emotions and behaviors of others and their ability to manage their goals by creating the right environment for it through activities and modeling these behaviors.

But how can teachers create activities or structures in their classrooms to help students understand who they are and how their emotions impact themselves and others? How can educators mold a culture where students can essentially practice good relationship skills, study their impact on social constructs and grow empathy for others, while also learning to appreciate and have respect for the power of their own emotions?


As a teacher, I get the awesome opportunity to walk into a school building each day where the culture is different than the one I was exposed to in second grade. We work hard to make sure that we maintain a few key practices that allow for SEL.

I say “allow” because I feel that the tenants of SEL are something children are naturally curious about. If you’ve ever seen a toddler hit someone else for what appears to be no reason whatsoever, you’ve seen someone who is curious about how their actions affect others. As long as we put kids before content, lessons and conversations about the complex interaction of emotions and behavior will naturally arise.

One key practice we strive for is that each teacher works to give up the control we think we’re supposed to have. True learning happens when we’re allowed to explore. What my second-grade teacher couldn’t understand was that she was creating, day by day, an environment where I didn’t have control over my learning. It was very much a “do this worksheet,” “sit here”, “I talk, you listen” classroom environment.

Here are several ways to help you create the right culture for SEL in your classroom.


As students begin to make decisions about their learning, and as teachers step out of the way, situations caused directly by student voice and choice arise and the stage is set to start conversations surrounding SEL.

Here is what that might look like:

It’s the first day of school, and normally you would roll out your procedures and class rules. Instead, you’re trying to step back and share the classroom voice. You ask your students what rules they think you should have for the classroom and create a list. A few weeks go by and you realize that some of the rules the students came up with are causing some problems. Hurray! Problems are an opportunity for learning.

You decide to facilitate a discussion where the class reflects on the rules. How do they feel about class? What effect did their decisions have on the class or individual classmates? Are the rules hurting or helping us build relationships? Before you know it, your class has engaged in a discussion about crucial social and emotional skills, all because you gave up some control. You created the right conditions and SEL was the natural result.



Another key aspect is collaboration. Students in my class are always working in groups. We all have our own feelings about group work as we’ve probably been the person in the boat who is rowing while the rest enjoy the ride. However, group work can create the right conditions for talks about respect for others, self-discipline and communication, all tenants of SEL.

Here is what that might look like:

You get your students into groups and soon you hear, “Josh won’t work.”  “Kendra won’t listen to my ideas!”  “Can’t I just ignore everyone and work by myself?”

These don’t sound like joyful sounds, but you are a teacher who is focused on SEL. You know that when real emotional conflicts arise, the students will gain the motivation to learn some new strategies to resolve them. When their inability to manage themselves creates chaos, their minds and hearts tend to tune in just a little bit more when talk about self-awareness and community impact comes up.



Authenticity is the last piece that helps create prime conditions for natural SEL. When things become real, things become meaningful and students begin to care. When that happens, you have created a culture to talk about decision making, communication, problem solving and self-confidence. These skills are real to them now because it’s not just something to help them get through some assignment–it’s something to help them work through a very real problem.

Here is what that might look like.

You want your students to study mental health. Parker pipes up and says, “I learned that many people with a mental illness don’t get treatment.” That’s very true. Chloe says, “How do we help people get the treatment they need?” Sam says, “People don’t know enough about mental health. They need to learn.”

And suddenly your students are organizing a mental health awareness campaign, complete with fundraisers and educational seminars. You have conversations daily about developing empathy for those who suffer from a mental illness, the ethical responsibility of everyone from individual citizens to whole communities to end the stigma of mental illnesses, and their own self-awareness and how they evaluate their own mental health.

I know this is what it would look like because this exact scenario happened in my classroom.


Much like, “build it and they will come,” create the right conditions and watch your students’ SEL grow. Under the right environment, you can help students feel like they exist within a culture that supports their messy, awkward and sometimes frustrating journey to learn important social and emotional skills.

For more, see:

Anna Durfee is an English Facilitator at Compass Academy, a magnet high school that is part of the New Tech Network. Follow her on Twitter: @annadurfee 

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