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How SEL Helps You as a Teacher

By Shivohn N. García, PhD

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Setting goals, asking for help, showing empathy . These are all examples of social-emotional skills that help students thrive—both in and out of the classroom. There are many benefits to social-emotional learning (SEL). In fact, some researchers argue that these skills are foundational to learning and can be even more important than academic skills.

When students have limited social-emotional skills, they’re more likely to struggle when they face a new challenge or conflict. In fact,  one study shows that 70 percent of students who drop out of school do so not because they lack the ability to do the work. They drop out because they lack the social-emotional skills to navigate challenges. 

That’s not to say that teaching SEL is a solution for all of the challenges our students face that are outside of our control. That’s one of several myths about SEL . But there’s a lot we can do as educators in the classroom to make a significant positive impact. It starts with our own social-emotional skills.

Why Your Social-Emotional Skills Matter

Social-emotional skills not only improve academic outcomes and classroom behavior for students. They can also have a positive impact on our own personal and professional success as educators. To teach SEL, we need to be aware of and continue to develop our own social-emotional skills. Only then can we model and teach those skills to our students.

As a starting point, both educators and students need to feel valued and safe. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) developed a framework that defines five core competencies of SEL. These are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. 

Learn more about the five core competencies, why they’re important to our practice as teachers, and how you can model them in the classroom.

What Is Self-Awareness?

Self-awareness is the ability to recognize and understand how your emotions, thoughts, and values impact your behavior. Self-awareness skills include:

  • Identifying and expressing your emotions

  • Recognizing your strengths and challenges

  • Having an accurate self-perception and self-confidence

  • Exhibiting a growth mindset

Why Self-Awareness Is Important to Your Teaching

Have you ever been upset about a student’s behavior and short on patience, but paused to ask yourself, “Why am I feeling so short-tempered?” You might have run through a quick series of responses in your mind before deciding what to say or do.

This response may have been instinctual. Or maybe someone taught you self-awareness skills: how to self-reflect, accurately perceive your feelings, and express those feelings to others.

To be sure, it can be hard to maintain that level of self-awareness in a busy classroom. We all have varied ways of dealing with our struggles and frustration in different situations. Just like our students, some of us may retreat from a conflict, avoid a new challenge, or downplay our successes because we don’t always recognize our strengths.

Remember that we’re all human. We won’t always be our best selves at every moment of the day. Embracing that reality helps us authentically engage with students, check our biases, question our own motivations, and pause to take stock of our decisions. As teachers, we need to know how to express ourselves in appropriate ways so we can model it. 

Ways to Practice Self-Awareness in the Classroom

  • Acknowledge your own emotions and how they may play into your reactions. 

  • Explicitly name the skills you’re using (or “think aloud”) as you model them. (It’s important for students to recognize that you’re still learning and practicing these skills, too.)

  • View students as partners in developing social-emotional skills .

  • Create opportunities for success for yourself and your students. 

  • Understand that it may take a little longer for some students to learn social-emotional skills as they develop self-confidence. 

What Is Self-Management?

After you’re aware of your emotions, then you can work on managing them. Self-management is the ability to regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behavior in varying situations, as well as motivate yourself and cope with stress. Self-management skills include:

  • Controlling impulses

  • Managing stress effectively 

  • Showing motivation

  • Setting and meeting goals

  • Using executive functioning skills (like planning and organization)

Why Self-Management Is Important to Your Teaching

As adults, we’re constantly drawing on our self-management skills throughout the day—both meeting the demands of a high-stress job and managing life outside of school. Given this, it’s not surprising that we all struggle from time to time.

Using these same skills can be hard for students too, especially when you think about the barriers they face in and out of the classroom. For example, some students’ self-management skills can be challenged by a curriculum that isn’t flexible for their learning and thinking differences. That can make it difficult for students to manage the overwhelming stress of “not getting it.” The same curriculum may also not be historically and culturally diverse enough for them to see themselves represented in it. You might see students who appear to lack motivation or interest. It’s important to explicitly acknowledge that you see these challenges. Using culturally responsive teaching and drawing on diverse content can also improve students’ sense of safety and belonging.

The barriers that students face can affect not only their readiness to learn, but also your own self-management. It’s normal to feel challenged or stressed when you try to expand your classroom practice. It feels new and requires attention when time is short. Consider it as an opportunity to build your self-management skills.

Ways to Practice Self-Management in the Classroom

  • Understand that some students who learn and think differently have had recurrent experiences of failure because school systems haven’t been able to meet their needs.

  • Understand that some students’ experiences are at odds with school systems and institutions that are historically inequitable.

  • Know that when students’ lived experiences are in conflict with school values, they may disengage from class. 

  • When you model your own self-management, explain the “why” behind what you’re doing.

  • Use goal-setting in the classroom and teach students how to set life goals.

What Is Social Awareness?

Social awareness is the ability to understand other points of view, show empathy , respect diversity, and understand social norms. This skill is, in many ways, what enables relationships to thrive. It includes:

  • Taking different perspectives

  • Appreciating diversity

  • Respecting and responding empathetically to others

  • Understanding social and ethical behavioral norms

  • Recognizing available supports and resources (family, school, and community)

Why Social Awareness Is Important for Your Teaching

To maintain and build healthy relationships with students, we need to be aware of and respect other perspectives, values, cultures, and differences. Equity and empathy are both at the heart of this work.

It’s not always easy to see another perspective, especially if you’re trying to address a student’s behavior or a disagreement with a colleague in a difficult moment. But you can still acknowledge differences and be compassionately curious about the other person.

One of the greatest ways to approach social awareness with your students is to get to know them and their families and their hopes and aspirations. It helps you decide how to approach lessons, present content, react to student behavior, and more. It also allows you to create opportunities for students to bring their whole selves into your classroom—one of the best ways to show your respect for differing perspectives and life experiences.

Ways to Practice Social Awareness in the Classroom

  • Build a classroom community that values the collective good and concern for other people.

  • Create space and norms for you and your students to talk about how hearing a new perspective changed your point of view.

  • Ask for your students’ feelings and perspectives on the classroom environment.

What Is Responsible Decision-Making?

Responsible decision-making is a skill that begins to develop in early childhood but is a life-long endeavor. It’s the ability to think about how what you do impacts yourself and others. Responsible decision-making also includes the ability to make constructive choices about how to behave and interact, based on ethical and social standards and safety. These skills include:

  • Identifying and analyzing problems and situations

  • Solving problems as they arise

  • Evaluating and reflecting on the consequences of your actions

  • Taking ethical responsibility for your decisions and their outcomes

Why Responsible Decision-Making Is Important for Your Teaching

As educators, we juggle decisions every day about workload, time management, and self-care, among other things. We all have different values, priorities, and experiences that impact our decision-making.

Decision-making plays a role in how we collaborate with colleagues. Because of the different factors that influence our decisions, it can be helpful to draw on colleagues’ knowledge and experiences to make choices, like how to best support students who learn and think differently.

Decision-making is a big part of how we interact with students, too. That includes the many choices we make each day about instruction and classroom management. But this social-emotional skill also comes into play when we think about how we prepare students to be decision-makers themselves.

For example, consider a classroom that uses Universal Design for Learning . In these environments, teachers design lessons so students have choices about their learning. This gives students the chance to make decisions about how to manage their time, how to show what they’ve learned, and how to navigate social relationships when working with their peers.

It’s also important to remember that school communities have their own set of values that influence decision-making. For instance, many schools value higher education and may focus on sending graduates to college. Think about the immense decision-making process required for students to choose what to do after high school, especially those who would be the first in their families to go to college. Your role in supporting students’ decision-making may be to acknowledge that their process may be very different from your own—and to identify people with similar experiences who can serve as models.

Ways to Practice Responsible Decision-Making in the Classroom

  • Recognize that students need your help to learn to become responsible decision makers in developmentally appropriate ways.

  • Share with students your own process as you make decisions and explain the “why” behind them.

  • Seek out and provide access to diverse role models who have similar experiences as the students in your class. 

What Are Relationship Skills?

Relationship skills are the ability to build and maintain healthy and fulfilling relationships with others. Humans are wired for relationships, connection, and community. But these skills need to be developed. Relationship skills include:

  • Communicating effectively

  • Cooperating with and listening to others

  • Resisting peer pressure

  • Asking for and providing help when it’s needed

  • Negotiating and resolving conflict 

Why Responsible Relationship Skills Are Important for Your Teaching

Relationship skills enable us to make and maintain healthy relationships with individuals and diverse groups. Listening, conflict resolution, and communication are critical tools that help us navigate relationships both in and out of the classroom. 

Like the other social-emotional competencies, building relationships skills is hard work. It asks you to use the skills of self-awareness and self-management, and to engage with others in a meaningful way. It also requires a certain level of trust, vulnerability, and practice. Without practice, we often default to the emotions we are more comfortable expressing. Sometimes we fail to actively take the perspective of others. That’s just human nature. 

In the classroom, it can be a challenge for both teachers and students to build a trusting relationship with each other . But when it comes to modeling social-emotional skills, there’s an added layer. You need to partner with students on building their emotional vocabulary so they can become agents of their emotions. 

Students might struggle with expressing themselves, so they need your support. Being able to give and receive help is an important way to build and maintain relationships. It’s a powerful form of social capital. It means not just seeking help in a time of need, but also being able to offer help to others. Many of us are better at offering help than we are at asking for it when we need it.

Ways to Practice Relationship Skills in the Classroom

  • Search for the “why” behind a student’s behavior before responding.

  • Identify when an action wasn’t appropriate and provide an appropriate alternative action or response. 

  • Acknowledge that these skills can be difficult to practice.

  • Find ways to practice problem-solving without actual conflicts, like role-playing.

  • Build in ways for students to reflect on their own thinking, patterns, and relationships.

  • Be an active listener and show students you’re hearing and responding to their feedback.

  • Plan classroom activities that focus on building trust and a sense of belonging.

As educators, we wear many hats. We may not be able to control some aspects of our jobs or to directly help with the many challenges our students face outside of school. But we can use our own social-emotional skills to make our classes a safe place where students know we value them, their families, and the experiences they bring to school.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom