How SEL helps you as a teacher

By Shivohn N. García, PhD

As you well know, there are many benefits to social-emotional learning (SEL). Setting goals, asking for help, showing empathy. These are all examples of social-emotional skills that help students thrive.

When students have limited social-emotional skills, they’re more likely to struggle when they face a new challenge or conflict. A lack of social-emotional skills can even cause kids to drop out.

Teaching SEL is not a solution for all of the challenges our students face. But there’s a lot we can do as educators to make a significant positive impact. It starts with our own social-emotional skills.

Why your social-emotional skills matter

To teach SEL, we need to be aware of and continue to develop our own social-emotional skills as educators. 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
  • Practicing a growth mindset

Why self-awareness is important to your teaching

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

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.

It can be hard to maintain that level of self-awareness in a busy classroom. 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. 

Ways to practice self-awareness in the classroom

  • Acknowledge your own emotions and how they may play into your reactions. 
  • Name the skills you’re using (or “think aloud”) for your students 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.
  • 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. 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 educators, we’re constantly using self-management skills to meet the demands of a high-stress job and manage life outside of school. So 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. Some students might have trouble managing the stress of “not getting it” when the curriculum isn’t flexible for their learning and thinking differences.

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 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 grow your classroom practice. It feels new and requires attention when time is short. Consider it 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 experienced failure repeatedly 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. 
  • Model your own self-management, and 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. In many ways, social awareness is what helps 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.

One of the best ways to use social awareness with your students is to get to know them and their families. 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. That is one of the best ways to show your respect for differing perspectives and life experiences.

It’s not always easy to see another perspective. It’s especially hard when 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.

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 the ability to think about how what you do impacts yourself and others. You make choices about how to behave and interact, based on ethical and social standards and safety. Responsible decision-making includes:

  • 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. We all have different values, priorities, and experiences that impact our decision-making.

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. We make choices each day about instruction and classroom management. We also make choices about how to help our students become decision-makers.

Consider a classroom that uses Universal Design for Learning (UDL). With UDL, 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.

Remember that schools have their own set of values that influence decision-making. Many schools value higher education and may focus on sending graduates to college. Think about the decision-making process this requires of students. Imagine how difficult that process may be for students who would be the first in their families to go to college.

Your role in supporting students may be to acknowledge that their process may be very different from your own. Help them 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 help us connect with others. Listening skills, conflict resolution, and communication are important tools we use to navigate relationships.

Like the other social-emotional competencies, building relationships skills is hard work. You need to use the skills of self-awareness and self-management, and to engage with others in a meaningful way. Relationships also require a certain level of trust, vulnerability, and practice. Without practice, we often default to the emotions we are more comfortable expressing.

In the classroom, it can be a challenge for both teachers and students to build trusting relationships. 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 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. 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 are listening and responding to their feedback.
  • Plan classroom activities that focus on building trust and a sense of belonging.

As educators, we may not be able to control some aspects of our jobs. We may not be able 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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    About the author

    About the author

    Shivohn N. García, PhD is an experienced educator and the senior director of the Impact team at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Gabrielle Rappolt-Schlichtmann, EdD is the executive director and chief scientist at EdTogether and an adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.