Expert Viewpoint

How to Bring SEL Out of the Silo and Into the Computer Science Classroom

Students Don’t Need an SEL Class, But Rather Authentic Opportunities to Practice These Skills

Right now is an exciting time in education, because many students around the country are being introduced to a whole new subject: computer science. When is the last time a new subject lined up alongside math, reading, science, social studies, and the rest?

At the same time so many are introducing computer science in schools, many are also trying to incorporate more social-emotional learning. Of course, the biggest barrier to teaching either of these areas in school is a lack of time, and no one is adding more hours into the day.

Fortunately, SEL and computer science are a natural pair. Incorporating SEL competencies into STEM lessons often creates a rich learning experience for students.

SEL: An Old Concept with a New Name

Schools have always understood that students' long-term success requires their development of a certain type of skill, in addition to supporting academic achievement. At one point, we called these “'other things” life skills, and we have also used terms like "21st century skills" or “post-secondary readiness skills" to categorize them. Even as terms have evolved and definitions become nuanced over time, what remains the same is that schools carry the responsibility for supporting broad learning outcomes that encompass achievement and skill development.

These phrases refer to skills like problem-solving, collaboration, and persistence. They are the non-academic competencies that students need to be successful in the adult world, and fortunately they’re also the skills students will need to put most of their academic skills to use.

Why SEL and Computer Science Are a Natural Fit

Computer science provides an amazing jumping-off point for SEL because it is the perfect synthesis of content knowledge and application of skills with the specific goal of solving real-world problems. Even better, the application of those skills is often iterative, asking students to tweak their approach using informative feedback, then try again and again.

As they come up with new ideas and work together to try new potential solutions, students have to apply their social-emotional skills, such as breaking a complex process into discrete tasks, working with teammates who have other ideas, or just sticking with a tough problem through repeated failures.

Having big projects to work on gives students an opportunity to learn important computer science concepts. It also provides them the chance to practice SEL skills authentically and actually mimic the way adults working in the field apply the very same skills.

Capitalizing on SEL Baked into Any Curriculum

Infusing SEL into a computer science curriculum — or just about any STEM curriculum — can be as simple as capitalizing on the fact that computer science supports SEL competencies in the classroom. Codelicious helps teachers do this by placing callouts throughout the lesson plan to bring these opportunities to their attention. We have curated the following simple suggestions to help you identify and maximize the natural opportunities to support your students' social-emotional learning as you navigate your existing curriculum resources.

For example, if your students are working in groups on a project that tends to elicit a range of potential solutions, this is a great spot to highlight the acceptance of different perspectives. Or, for a really big project, you might want to talk about self-management techniques with the whole class.

To find inflection points for teaching SEL, I recommend you find a social-emotional framework, like the one at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. CASEL lists five broad domains of social-emotional learning, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Once you become familiar with those areas, you’ll be able to determine what they each look like for your students; the self-management competencies a 2nd-grader should be working on can look quite different from those a high school sophomore is trying to master.

With an understanding of the various SEL domains, the next step is to look at the content standards for the lessons you’re trying to infuse with SEL. Within those standards, there is always a verb identifying what students should be able to do once they’ve mastered it. Those verbs will provide all kinds of opportunities to work on social and emotional competencies.

From there, you can simply tailor it to your students. If your 2nd-graders historically have trouble navigating conflict and you know there are good opportunities to work on relationship competencies, you might focus more of the lesson on developing those skills instead of, for example, responsible decision-making.

It may be tempting to let SEL spin up into a silo. Setting aside time to focus exclusively on particular skills works for math and reading, after all. But teachers don’t need another curriculum. You just need to recognize opportunities for the authentic practice of social and emotional skills within the work you’re already doing with your students.

About the Author

Whitney Dove, Ph.D., is the Senior Director of Curriculum and Content at Codelicious. She can be reached at [email protected].