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SEL: Moving Beyond the Buzzword

*This post inspired by the #ICTE2020 conference. I hope to see you live (my presentation has the same title) and look forward to sharing more thoughts about SEL. For conference freebies, including free SEL curriculum samples, click here!*

What does the acronym SEL mean to you? Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has, like many other terms, become a buzz word. Similarly, it has lost much of its value and impact. A cursory glance at SEL has many schools evaluating relationships, whether it be teacher to student, student to student, or teacher to teacher. However, SEL is so much more!

The Impact of SEL

Proper application of SEL techniques has a wide range of benefits. This list highlights some of the key aspects of SEL work.

  • Increased academic performance
  • Reduced negative behaviors and improved positive behaviors
  • Stronger ability to handle stress and depression
  • Long term benefits to health, happiness, and goal achievement
  • Reduced negative behaviors beyond school
  • A key component of equitable instruction
  • Lowered risk of substance abuse

(Durlak et al., 2011; Taylor et al., 2017; Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015)

The Reality of Teaching

Social Emotional Learning is like any other skill or content. If a teacher wishes to see growth in their students, it will take dedicated time and practice. Similarly, ignoring or lightly brushing on a subject will show students that it is an unimportant topic that is not worth exploring and mastering.

Going beyond the buzzword, therefore, requires a consistent effort by the teacher in each domain of SEL instruction. It would be expected to be a part of every lesson and all classroom meetings. Instructional time should be given visibly to the practice of and improvement on the skill base of students.

How do teachers lose their sight on SEL, then? Typically, it starts with a lack of clear curricular focus. Many teachers say that SEL is important to them, but do not schedule or plan it into their daily instructional content. Therefore, it becomes a nice idea that they hope to touch on in a teachable moment, rather than a planned event.

For the teacher who has let this aspect of their classroom falter, initiatives lead them to touch on the most popular domain – relationships. As relationship-building becomes attached to the buzzword idea of SEL, educators who are strapped for time rely on it as the sole purpose of Social Emotional Learning. Students and educators alike begin to associate the term as a simply synonym to positive relationships and friendliness, operating with the hope that relationship-building activities will improve student outcomes.

Super Charging SEL Efforts

Results are not achieved by simply hoping for it. Teachers who hope to make SEL a strength in their classroom must constantly work towards that mission. It takes a critical understanding of each domain of Social Emotional Learning along with a daily, visible commitment to the practicing of those skills to see positive results.

The domains may best be described from the organization, Casel. Here’s a graphic from their website that illustrates SEL beyond the buzzword:

Examining the graphic shows five competencies: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Responsible Decision-Making, Relationship Skills, and Social Awareness. Similarly, it shows how these domains can be practiced and improved at multiple levels, including individual classrooms, whole schools, families, and communities.

How can a teacher create an effective structure for their classroom? It starts with practice and opportunities to grow in all five competencies. Building positive relationships are vital, but so is effective goal setting, or students being able to identify their own strengths and positive qualities. To become a SEL infused classroom, one must address each of these elements over and over again.

Putting It All Together

An effective Social Emotional Learning commitment looks like this:

  • A dedicated amount of time in each lesson for instruction and practice
  • Consistency in working on skills every day with little exception
  • Focused work in each domain
  • Attention given in the classroom as well as in the school culture
  • Opportunities for students to face challenges, grow, and reflect intentional on their growth

The buzzword driven teacher is likely to place an emphasis on relationship-building. Likewise, an SEL driven instructor will build strong relationships, but only as one of many aspects of their work. The difference is crucial in developing students who are prepared for engagement in a global society. Do not settle for buzzwords. Instead, learn, practice, model, and teach the entire gamut of Social Emotional Learning!

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