Expert Viewpoint

Four Simple Steps to Adding SEL to Any Classroom

Social-emotional learning is about cultivating a deeper care for the self in the present moment. That is something we all can do, and that is something that we should all do. In the same way that we care enough about our physical health to brush our teeth twice a day, we can care about our mental health enough to do something just as quick and easy, just as regimented. You won’t die if you forget to brush your teeth, but you can feel it, you can just tell, and sometimes those around you can too. Once you and your students begin routinely building social-emotional skills, it will be like brushing your teeth; it’s just better when you do.

You can begin teaching social-emotional learning in your class in four steps: planning to pause, practicing, tracking it, and finally, by talking about it.

Step 1: Plan to Pause

Picking a practice is fun and easy. A practice can be anything that is done with intention and purpose that aligns with how you want to feel in your next experience. If you take a deep breath before a 3-point shot to feel focused, that is a practice. If you hold a cross before making a big phone call to feel calm, that is a practice.

Mindful practices are often organized by activity type; breathing, stretching, relaxing, etc., and can be found all over the internet with varying quality and connections to spiritual orders. Always watch and practice first, but if it works for you and you are confident in teaching your class, it's a practice worth teaching.

Deciding what practice to start with can be intimidating, especially if you are not confident with traditional breathing or yoga-based practices. Introducing students to the structure of practicing with SEL tools can accomplish an array of goals.

There are plenty of free resources such as this blog that teachers can refer to for inspiration while picking an SEL practice to begin with. Once you get into the swing of teaching such practices, your students will be prepared to use the tools productively in an independent fashion during times that they need to pause and reconnect with their learning.

After deciding on a practice, write out the plan, and create what you need to teach it. In my experience, I have always preferred creating week-long slide decks that house the videos, scripts, or visuals for our SEL practice, in addition to the reflection questions. You can use a calendar to link a single practice a day, or even have a hard-copy book labeled with Monday – Thursday labels to indicate what you are doing and when. If using a hands-on tool, you can set a different intention of focus each day, or use a different rotation for practicing.

The example below, “Sunrise Breath,” for a YogaEd video illustrating how to do a sunrise breath stretch, shows how a teacher might plan to use the same practice with a different intention all four days.

A sample chart shows how a teacher can track a Sunrise Breath yoga for kids as an SEL classroom practice

I suggest planning to pick a short period of time out of the day to engage in the same practice every day for four days straight. When you’re deciding the time, doodle, close your eyes, tell a story out loud, and do whatever you need to do to visualize this happening in your class exactly as it is during that time. If you can imagine being interrupted, frustrated, or simply not having enough time, consider shifting your instructional block (even just rearranging) to ensure that you can do it for real.

Next, use a practice log to literally write out the whole week, ensuring that you label the time that you are going to do your activity. An ideal log would include places to edit the day, the date, the month, and the quarter with a way of indicating if the practice took place on that day. It takes very little time to set up a way of recording these details, but the information derived from your chart is what this process is all about.

Notice on the chart how the implementation calculation is out of four. The statement “We practiced four out of four days this week which equals 100%” is a very powerful statement to make. “We’ve been doing it pretty often” is not. I use four because kids are really great at knowing the meaning of quarters, half, and whole fairly early in life, and it's a very easy way to understand how much of something you have accomplished.

Steps 2 & 3: Practice & Track

After you do the thing — engage in the practice, if you will — indicate on your chart that you did it. If it’s too inconvenient to track that you are doing something, I’d suggest that the thing you are doing is not important enough to you. You don’t have to wonder about this though, because you will have data to show what is important and what isn’t.

If you don’t use the tracker for the whole week, literally write 0 out of 4, or 0%. Think back to every single chance you had to do it, and remember why you decided not to. Start there with the tiny changes you make to next week’s chart. Keep making small changes until you finally begin to see your data move in the direction you desire; then analyze what your class likes and what feels good, and grow from there.

Introducing the routine of using SEL practices in the class works really well, and free activity pages such as this one make it easier than ever to begin SEL lessons in the classroom. Numerous studies show improved attention, focus, and academic achievement follow when SEL practices are implemented with fidelity, so I believe it is a goal worth setting.

Step 4: Talk About It

Reflection does not have to be formalized, long, or even instantaneous but it does need to happen. Just imagine asking your guided reading group what they thought about the “sloth or chocolate croissant” practice as they get settled at the small group table. The students are talking to you and to each other about an experience you all shared, and they are building genuine connections because of it.

If possible, scheduling a deeper reflection discussion once a week is ideal.

In the DataBased SEL curriculum materials we use, the weekly practice shifts slightly in intention each day with quick reflection discussions comparing the different ways to do the same practice. At the end of the week, students engage in an independent reflection session where they decide which intention they would like to set for the practice and then decide to practice individually or with peers.

Talking about the intention and use of the practices in multiple ways makes it a real tool for your students to use in a situation where they need to change how they feel for what they need to do.

Social-emotional learning is about cultivating a deeper care for the self in the present moment. Teaching your students that it matters what they feel like when they are learning may be one of the most important things you teach them.

About the Author

Sara J. Bourne is a social-emotional learning specialist at the middle school level, and she is studying educational leadership, social justice, and policy at Boston College. She is passionate about merging the power of data-based, layered instruction systems with the basic principles of mindfulness and social-emotional learning to implement sustainable methods of distributive leadership that empower all members of the school community to engage in continuous learning and improvement.