Getting Classroom Culture Right with Practical SEL

By Tamara Fyke.

Whether you are aware of it or not, you are teaching social-emotional learning (SEL). Your students are watching and learning from everything you do and say. They are learning how to deal with stress and conflict, how to relate to others, how to organize their tasks and time, and so much more. According to the Collaborative for Academic and Social-Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are five SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness. As an educator, you have a choice whether or not to teach these competencies and skills intentionally.

Teaching SEL in the 21st-century classroom means examining both content and practice in order to find ways to integrate SEL into the daily experience. Are we using relevant and engaging content for Morning Meeting or Advisory Period? As students read the assigned texts in ELA and Social Studies, are life lessons being highlighted and connected to SEL? Are cooperative learning opportunities that give place for student voice, such as class discussions and project-based learning, being utilized? Are we using a punitive or restorative approach to discipline? The bottom line is to build relationships and connect with kids.

Why SEL is an essential part of a strong classroom culture

In order for students to develop and succeed academically and social-emotionally, they need to know that they are seen, known, and valued. At the core of SEL is relationships – relationships between teachers and their colleagues, teachers and their students, and students and their peers. It means putting people first – above tasks and data. We need to slow down long enough to connect with what is going on in our own minds and hearts and to connect with those around us.

Culture is what we do; climate is how it feels. We can incorporate SEL with intention into the culture through direct SEL instruction as well as teachable moments throughout the day. We can build positive relationships. When we do that, the school feels safe – everyone knows they belong.

How to talk to your students about SEL & classroom culture

Kids are smart. They can tell whether an adult is being authentic or fake. Therefore, it is essential that before we teach SEL, we live SEL. Let’s face it: teaching is difficult, and it’s easy to become discouraged by the system and lose the passion and joy of being with kids. It behooves us as leaders of young lives to take inventory of what is going on in our own minds and hearts so that we can deal with the issues that we face. I tell educators all the time, “Get ready! As you dig into SEL, you will have things bubble up that you need to deal with. Embrace the process!” Some suggestions for working through your own stuff are to journal each day, paint your emotions, see a counselor, join a book club, set a regular phone appointment with your best friend, or take meditative walks. These tips will help you get in touch with you so that you can keep your heart alive and open to your students.

Being intentional about SEL does not mean we have to announce to our students, “It’s SEL time!” Instead, we can use relevant and engaging materials to foster meaningful conversations and offer interdisciplinary activities. The most important thing to keep in mind is establishing a common language across the school community so that everyone in the building is clear on definitions and expectations. In addition, we must clearly communicate these norms on a regular basis in order to minimize misunderstandings.

Overcoming two SEL obstacles

In my conversations with teachers over the years, I’ve learned that the biggest challenge for SEL implementation occurs when there is a lack of administrative support. Although many teachers implement commit to SEL implementation in their own classroom, their efforts can be undermined if the whole school community does not buy in. SEL must be the common language of everyone in the building, including administration, office staff, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, janitorial staff, parents and classroom teachers. This means the principal must clearly communicate a mission and vision that incorporates SEL to the entire school community.

Secondly, classroom teachers need to know that they have time for SEL in their schedule. According to Dr. Maurice Elias, the recommended dosage for direct SEL instruction is a minimum of 30-45 minutes per week, so a good goal is to reach 10 minutes per day. Many schools find that setting aside 10-20 minutes for Morning Meeting or Advisory Period is both manageable and beneficial. The time spent on SEL is regained later because less time is spent dealing with behavior problems.

5 strategies for strengthening the classroom’s SEL culture

  1. Establish a common language ― Define and communicate your SEL vocabulary. It is not enough to say, “Be responsible!” or “Be kind!” What does responsibility mean? Responsibility is owning what you do and say. What does kindness mean? Kindness is treating others the way you want to be treated.
  2. Institute classroom norms ― Be sure to use positive and motivating language along with your SEL vocabulary, such as “I can be respectful – value myself and others. I will listen when someone is talking because I may learn something.”
  3. Schedule conversations ― Whether part of Morning Meeting, Advisory Period, ELA, or social studies, take time to hear what students are thinking and feeling. Let them know that their thoughts and experiences matter.
  4. Incorporate interdisciplinary activities ― Give students an opportunity to work in groups and create – a book, a comic, a website, a game, a poster, a service project, a song…you name it! They are more inclined to engage and work diligently when given a clear deliverable.
  5. Focus on relationships ― You have heard the old saying, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Let your students know that you care about them as human beings, not just data points. Get to know their likes and dislikes. Be intentional about downtime in the classroom, such as game time once a month or lunch with the teacher once a week.

SEL is helping kids identify what is going on in their heads and in their hearts so they can use their hands to build up and not tear down. As one of my heroes, Mister Rogers, said, “Knowing that we can be loved exactly as we are gives us all the best opportunity for growing into the healthiest of people.”

Tamara Fyke is the creator, author, and brand manager for Love In A Big World, and is editor of Building People: Social & Emotional Learning for Kids, Schools & Communities, a book that brings 12 wide-ranging perspectives on SEL to educators, parents, and leaders. Follow her on Twitter: @entrprenurgirl

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