Expert Viewpoint

How to Manage Social-Emotional Learning Needs in the Classroom

Educators know that social-emotional learning, also known as SEL, is an important and crucial student need, but managing this in the classroom can be difficult. After all, there’s so much on educators’ plates and SEL is one more thing weighing on educators’ minds.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

And SEL is more important than ever right now.

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted our lives upside down almost overnight. Students witnessed family members lose their jobs, fall ill, and struggle with isolation. Students themselves went from attending in-person classes to attending classes over Zoom and not seeing their friends for months.

Research shows that remote learning hampered connections between educators and students. In fact, according to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Educator Confidence Report, just 7% of educators felt prepared to address the SEL needs of their students during remote learning in 2020.

That’s a lot of trauma in an already tough year.

It’s no surprise that the vast majority of educators — 94% — agree that students need more social and emotional supports.

Now, with students back in classrooms, it’s important educators continue to monitor and address their students’ SEL needs. While reading and math gaps might have traditionally been higher up on the list of priorities, addressing SEL needs sets them up for success. After all, academic needs can’t be met until students’ SEL needs are met first.

Below, I’ve highlighted a few tips for addressing SEL needs in the classroom, as well as how technology can help the increased emphasis on SEL feel natural and authentic.

Check-in with students

“How are you?” It’s a quick and simple question that we often overlook, but asking students how they’re doing or how they’re feeling welcomes students to class and starts each morning with a personal connection.

It also serves as an SEL check. If a student isn’t doing great, what can I do to help? What’s bothering you this morning? A simple question goes a long way and might lead to a bigger discussion.

As educators, we can’t change our students’ backgrounds or what they face outside of the classroom, but by checking in with students, we can help students feel comfortable and safe—setting the foundation for learning.

Monitor and note students’ well-being

How many times have you noticed something and made a mental note, only to forget it at the end of the day?

While post-it notes and notepads have their place, electronic notes and recordings are important when discussing students’ well-being and mental health. This also creates a single database where your colleagues can record their own observations about specific students, allowing educators and administrators to take a systematic and coordinated approach when addressing students’ social-emotional health. Safeguarding as a practice addresses these risks — setting educational leaders up to effectively manage students’ non-academic needs.

When properly implemented, Safeguarding as a practice reduces the time and cost of reporting student concerns, documenting evidence, managing tasks and follow-ups, assigning referrals, auditing paper trails and assembling reports.

Create a supportive atmosphere

The average school year is 180 days. A safe and supportive learning environment gives students a space to express themselves and share their feelings and thoughts. Students come from different backgrounds, ethnicities and experiences. It’s important we set ALL of our students up for success.

Classrooms are places where students need to be helpful, cooperative, kind and caring about one another. Students want to succeed, as well as be supported and valued. As educators, it’s important we create a supportive atmosphere from the first day of school to the last day of school.

Give students opportunities to speak, participate and lead. Encourage students to engage in their own unique ways. Some students might be comfortable raising their hands and speaking. Other students might prefer to write their answers. No matter students’ preferences, provide options to encourage participation.

A supportive atmosphere where students feel supported within their own needs leads to academic success and makes school a place to not just learn, but grow.

SEL’s importance in school and beyond

It’s exciting to have students back in the hallways, classrooms and school grounds. We’ve got a lot of things on our plates this year, but by weaving SEL supports into the learning, we’re setting students up for success — in and out of the classroom.

About the Author

Curtis Linton is the Executive Director of Safeguarding in the U.S.A. for UK-based The Safeguarding Company, a provider of software and training to systemically protect students’ well-being. Curtis has spent the past twenty years documenting highly effective equitable practices and advocating for schools that work for all of today's diverse students. With The Safeguarding Company, Curtis is introducing Safeguarding practice and the MyConcern platform to US schools as a way to actualize student equity by managing the whole child's needs—both their academic and non-academic concerns.