Implementing Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom: 6 Tips

The heartbeat of the classroom comes from you.  

As educators, if we hope to encourage and create a space for student growth, then it must start from the relationships we foster with our students.  From the moment your students walk into the classroom, you have an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the year.  

Think about it: The first few minutes of class are the most chaotic as students transition from one class to another—or worse, come back from lunch or recess.  However, by taking a few moments to use proactive techniques like greeting students at the door and modeling good behavior, we can build a positive classroom culture that focuses on building relationships rather than just addressing disruptive behavior. 

Consider spending a few moments welcoming students into the classroom. By doing this simple action, you have help promote a sense of belonging and provide them the support they need to feel invested in their learning.  

Why do positive greetings work? When students feel welcome in the classroom and a sense of community, they will be more willing to try new things and put forth effort into their learning experiences. When greeting students, it’s important to use their name, make eye contact, and use nonverbal greetings like a wave, fist-bump, or even a handshake. Remember: This is also a great time to ask how their day is going or provide words of encouragement.  

Along with building relationships with your students, we must provide opportunities for students to develop and foster skills to succeed in school and their communities.  We commonly refer to this as social-emotional learning (SEL). In my opinion, SEL is not an emotional intervention, but an academic one.  

Keep the following in mind when implementing SEL in your classroom: 

1. It all starts with you!

To implement SEL, you need a strong foundation—and that starts with you. However, that does not mean you have to be the picture of flawless emotional health and perfect social skills. Having bad days and making mistakes are merely part of the human experience—and acknowledging your faults is a part of maintaining your well-being. Make a point of reflecting on your flaws openly with students, taking time to apologize when you are in the wrong, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

2. Communication will be key. 

We all know the power of effective communication skills, but putting them into practice is another story. Communication is key to building a positive classroom culture and creating relationships with students. You have the power to create a culture that encourages students to speak up when they have something to say in class, when they are upset, or to express themselves. 

Students may feel reluctant to share their feelings due to preconceived notions that it will be seen as distracting or disruptive. When we take the time to coach students to express their emotions with others, we can facilitate strong relationships with our students.

3. Group activities will benefit your implementation of SEL.

By making group activities a regular part of your classroom culture, you will find it easier to implement SEL in your instruction. Students can forge stronger bonds with peers and practice communication and collaboration skills. Encourage groups to celebrate setbacks as part of the learning process, and encourage group members to put forth their greatest effort rather than focusing on their limitations.  

4. Mindfulness and self-regulation are equally important.

Academic demands continue to increase each year for our students and it is easy to get caught up in district priorities, state mandates, and curriculum maps.  Brain breaks can be a great way to provide students short breaks to center their minds and body.  Reflective activities like journaling, mindfulness exercises like guided breathing, or meditation are easy to implement in any classroom.  Taking the time to teach these strategies can provide them the tools for self-regulation and reflection.

5. You should build SEL into your curriculum.

Wide-reading experiences are a great way to help students learn to connect emotionally with others and recognize their own feelings. Following the development of a character, how those characters react to different situations, and how characters cope with the outcomes can create an open discussion where students personally connect to the characters.

6. Remember that all feelings are valid.

Your students are going to have good and bad days. As the teacher, it’s so important to remember that these feelings are very real to your students. Developmentally, they have not gained the same level of perspective or understanding as you have that whatever is going on in their lives is not the end of the world. 

When you notice a student getting frustrated or upset, take some time to have a conversation with that student. Ask him to put into words how he’s feeling and why. They may not open up to you right away, but over time you will build a relationship of understanding and they will begin to trust that you will listen to them.  

One more note: I want you to remember that building your classroom culture is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s going to take months of rigorous practice, adjustments for any speed bumps or injuries, and self-care to keep yourself moving forward.

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You can watch a recording of blog contributor Amy Dendinger's recent webinar as part of our Lead the Way to Literacy series, where the READ 180 classroom teacher explored developing a positive culture in the classroom and how social-emotional learning ties into her instruction.