Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom: How All Teachers Can Create an Environment that Supports SEL

By Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., author of The SEL Solution

Social Emotional Learning in the Classroom: How All Teachers Can Create an Environment that Supports SELSEL: Suddenly that acronym is ubiquitous in education journals, books for teachers, education websites and school districts’ professional learning plans. SEL was creeping into the education world before COVID-19, but now SEL is spreading faster than the virus was a year ago. Maybe that’s because the last year has been a social and emotional disaster, and educators are realizing SEL’s importance, not just for students, but for everyone. Or maybe it’s because CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) has provided educators with over 20 years of irrefutable, research-based evidence of the benefits of teaching social-emotional concepts and skills to students: from reducing behavior problems to improving students’ attitudes to significantly boosting their academic performance.

Whatever the reason, as an educator who has been teaching and promoting SEL for over 25 years, I’m thrilled that, after the last 10+ years of the de-humanizing obsession with standardized testing, SEL is now a major focus in K-12 education. While SEL is not new, (“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.”—Aristotle), just the letters SEL are creating stress for many teachers, who after years of sticking to their state’s or county’s academic script, are unsure how to “do SEL.” Also, I’ve heard many teachers complain in SEL workshops that “I can’t teach SEL in algebra,” or “I have so much content to cover, I don’t have time to teach SEL.” If you are one of these teachers, or just want some ideas of how to integrate SEL in your classroom, this blog is for you.

According to CASEL’s research, three of the most important characteristics of an effective SEL initiative in the classroom are:

  1. Building a supportive classroom environment
  2. Explicit instruction in SEL concepts and skills
  3. Integrating SEL into the core curriculum

While, particularly at the secondary level, the ELA, social studies, or health teacher might be the best choice to provide explicit instruction, and those courses, because they involve human behavior, best lend themselves to curriculum integration, ALL teachers can build a supportive classroom environment. And that’s key for SEL.

The Five Characteristics of a Supportive Classroom Environment

Creating a supportive learning environment involves addressing basic human needs. Many psychologists, economists, sociologists, and educators (think Maslow, Pink, Deci, Glasser, et al.) have theorized about the universal human needs. While they don’t agree on the terminology, there is general agreement on five categories of human needs. By addressing these five needs, teachers can develop the kind of classroom climate that leads to high-quality learning and performance.

1. Survival, Safety, and Security

This set of needs involves the universal need to feel physically and emotionally safe in an orderly environment. If students don’t feel a sense of safety and order, their brains default to the fight-flight-freeze response, shutting down the frontal cortex and making learning impossible. Some things you can do to address this need:

  • Provide clear academic and behavioral expectations.
  • Develop a routine.
  • Post (and adhere to) a daily/weekly agenda so students know what to anticipate.
  • Teach procedures for practical tasks (entering the room, getting the teacher’s attention, getting materials, cleaning up, going to the restroom, etc.).
  • Replace punitive or consequence-based discipline with restorative practices.
  • Use proficiency-based or competence-based grading system, replacing low grades with additional chances for success on summative assessments (no Fs, just incompletes or Not Yets).

2. Relationships and Belonging

This set of needs involves the drive to feel accepted, to belong to a group or community, and to have positive, trusting relationships. In direct opposition to the old “teacher college” adage “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving,” the newer “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care” is far more accurate. In order to take a risk (and all new learning involves risk-taking to some degree), students need to feel they can trust the teacher and peers. Some things you can do to address this need:

  • Greet every student as they enter.
  • Let student get to know you beyond your role as teacher (appropriate personal information, outside interests, family, background info).
  • Admit mistakes.
  • Hold community meetings or restorative circles.
  • Clarify roles (My job is/Your job is/Everyone’s job is).
  • Use class-building games and activities.
  • Implement cooperative learning structures.

3. Personal Power

This is the need to feel competent, to learn, to be good at something, to be heard, to make a difference. This is really the basic need that schools are meant to address, giving students the knowledge and skills to lead successful lives. Some things you can do to address this need:

  • Use community meetings as a venue to listen to students’ stories, concerns, questions, etc.
  • Encourage a growth mindset:
    • Praise effort, progress, and strategy rather than ability, talent, or natural intelligence.
    • Use Not Yet instead of low grades, giving students additional chances to succeed.
    • Share quotations and posters that support growth-mindset thinking.
    • Share times you have struggled with fixed-mindset thinking OR when you were able to learn something that was difficult for you.
  • Recognize student success:
    • Publish student work.
    • Send positive parent postcards.
  • Name a student of the week (and every student is student of the week at some point):
    • Every week, turn over part of class to a student and allow them to share specific information with the class (favorite music, activities, people, etc.).

4. Freedom and Autonomy

This need involves choices and novelty. When people feel trapped or forced to do (or learn) something, they lose motivation to do what they are being asked to do. While school is compulsory for most students, there are still some things you can do to address this need:

  • Provide choices. Some choices teachers can provide:
    • Seating
    • Learning partners or cooperative groups
    • Community meeting topics
    • Homework (odd- or even-numbered questions)
    • Assessment (Sometimes, you can assess student learning by allowing them to play to their strengths—perform a rap, write a skit, write an essay, create a model, paint a picture, etc.)
  • Provide novelty. While it’s important to have a routine, it’s also important to break up the monotony with something new and different. Some things teachers can do:
    • Teach in a different place (outside, in the auditorium, from a different part of the room).
    • Bring in guest speakers.
    • Take students on field trips (or virtual field trips).
    • Have students work with a partner they don’t usually work with.
    • Change up the routine.
    • Have students teach.

5. Fun and Play

This is the need that all mammals have, the need to play. The purpose of play in all species is twofold: the first is to bond with members of the same species. The second is to learn. If you watch kittens, puppies, even baby hyenas, you will see them playing. Through the ways they play, they are learning skills they will need as adults to survive (hunting, working as a pack, etc.). Children, too, when they play, are bonding with each other and learning important skills they will need later in life (sharing, cooperating, competing, etc.). Some things you can do to address this need:

  • Use humor.
  • Do class-building games and activities.
  • Create learning games for content.
  • Have a Joke Day (students are assigned to bring in an appropriate joke).
  • Throw celebrations of learning (We achieved 100% competence on this test!).

Be addressing these five universal human needs in the classroom, you will find students’ attendance and their attitude toward learning improves. Most importantly, though, it sets the stage for high quality learning, both in terms of subject area content and for SEL. By giving students what they need, you will be getting what you want, improved behavior and better learning.

Author Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A.Jonathan C. Erwin, M.A., has been a secondary English teacher, a professional development specialist, a college professor, and the director of training and curriculum for a federally funded character education program. His previous books include The Classroom of Choice (ASCD, 2004) and Inspiring the Best in Students (ASCD, 2010). Jon is currently an independent educational consultant, a senior faculty member at the William Glasser Institute, and a trained HealthRhythms facilitator. Jon’s work focuses on providing research-based approaches to teaching, managing, counseling, and training that appeal to people’s intrinsic motivations and help children, adolescents, and adults develop physically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially. A musician and martial arts enthusiast, Jon has earned a second degree black belt in karate and a first degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. He lives in western New York.

The SEL SolutionJonathan Erwin is the author of The SEL Solution: Integrate Social and Emotional Learning into Your Curriculum and Build a Caring Climate for All.

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