A teacher's guide to social and emotional learning

social emotional learning

When asked about a teacher’s job description, most people can tell you they’re responsible for lesson planning, classroom instruction and grading assignments. What’s not as commonly known is the “hidden curriculum” of unwritten and often unintended lessons in social and emotional learning (SEL).

SEL is a critical part of a young child’s development, yet it is an often overlooked quality in educators. When students lack social-emotional abilities, they struggle more than their well-developed peers when faced with change, challenge and conflict.

As a teacher, you already play a critical role in your students’ development of these skills. But as you know, there is always more to learn and improve upon. Find out how you can increase your impact by proactively incorporating SEL skills into your lessons.

We created this guide to social and emotional learning based on our recent webinar presented by Tenley Hardin, MA, MFT candidate and certified professional life coach (iPEC). Learn more about how a focus on SEL can have positive effects on academic outcomes and classroom management.

What is social emotional learning?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to:

  • Develop healthy identities
  • Manage emotions
  • Achieve personal and collective goals
  • Feel and show empathy for others
  • Establish and maintain supportive relationships
  • Make responsible and caring decisions

To teach SEL, educators must engage in self-reflection and become aware of their own biases, triggers, positive and maladaptive patterns. This requires vulnerability and the willingness to recognize areas of improvement without becoming discouraged about being imperfect.

5 Core competencies of social emotional learning

To break it down even further, let’s unpack the five SEL competencies and how they can impact your professional development, along with student success.

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is the ability to identify and understand your emotions, thoughts and values and how they influence your responses and behaviors. This includes capacities like:

  • Letting yourself feel emotions instead of dismissing or suppressing them
  • Checking in with yourself and identifying emotions
  • Examining your personal prejudices and biases
  • Maintaining a growth mindset

Why is self-awareness important for teachers?

Teachers who are self-aware are better able to recognize strengths, overcome fears and interrupt cycles of negative self-talk. Becoming more self-aware takes time, but with practice, you’ll be able to shift to a more empowered and positive state of mind.

Reflect on the following questions to deepen your understanding of yourself:

  • What thoughts trigger an emotional reaction in me?
  • How are my emotions influencing my responses and behavioral patterns?
  • What kind of obstacles have I already overcome in my life?

2. Self-management

Self-management is the ability to set goals, deal with stress and control impulses, reactions and behaviors. Mastering these skills can be challenging, especially for children who have experienced trauma. Young brains are still developing, and strong feelings can be overwhelming.

Self-management skills include things like:

  • Identifying and using stress management strategies
  • Exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation
  • Setting personal and collective goals
  • Using planning and organizational skills

Why is self-management important for teachers?

Teaching is a rewarding, important and challenging job. You constantly use self-management skills to prioritize responsibilities and cope with stress. But even the most experienced teachers have moments of anger, frustration and helplessness.

The more adults model how to recover from a difficult or stressful situation, the more a child will follow and use the same strategies. When young people witness trusted adults acknowledging their own mistakes and limitations, it gives them examples of how to do the same. It destigmatizes common fears like failure, making errors or not having answers to all the questions.

One helpful exercise targeted at developing your own self-management skills is to identify stressors or emotional triggers and your responses to them. Then take the time to reframe those thoughts into something more positive. For example, you may start by thinking, “That lesson didn’t go as planned, I feel like a bad teacher.” Instead, flip your thinking to, “That lesson took an unexpected turn, how can I improve it for next time?”

3. Social awareness

Social awareness is a complex skill. It is the ability to appreciate different perspectives and empathize with others, including those from diverse background and cultures. A socially aware person feels compassion for others and understands social norms for behavior in different settings. Social awareness competencies include things like:

  • Recognizing strengths in others
  • Showing concern for the feelings of others
  • Understanding and expressing gratitude
  • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones

Why is social awareness important for teachers?

As an educator, you’re responsible for creating a safe and welcoming environment that honors all students. Without high levels of social awareness, teachers can unintentionally replicate or exacerbate harmful practices and conditions. If students or their families don’t feel seen, respected or represented in the classroom, they are unlikely to engage with the school and the child will suffer as a result.

Start challenging yourself to increase your social awareness by contemplating the following questions:
  • Who am I in relation to others?
  • How do others perceive me?
  • How do aspects of my identity (race, gender, class, body size, age, etc.) affect my perceptions of others and vice versa?

4. Relationship skills

Humans are social creatures by design. Establishing mutually supportive relationships is an incredibly important component of a healthy and happy life. People who successfully sustain relationships with diverse individual and groups are skilled at things such as:

  • Communicating effectively
  • Demonstrating cultural competency
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Showing leadership in groups
  • Seeking or offering support

Why are relationship skills important for teachers?

Successful teachers know how to build bonds with their students and their families, co-workers and the school community at large. Managing multiple diverse relationships is often complicated but having strong listening and conflict resolution skills makes it much easier.

One of the most important social-emotional competencies is repair. In this context, repair means recognizing you may have harmed or alienated someone and reaching out to address it and work through it together.

All teachers have reacted to stress by being harsh or yelling. It’s not ideal, but you now have the opportunity to repair. In these situations, try taking a deep breath and saying, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled. I am frustrated right now, but I will make sure I use a calmer voice next time.”

5. Responsible decision making

Responsible decision making is the ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions. Some well versed in making good decisions will consider ethical standards and safety concerns and evaluate consequences before reaching a conclusion.

Identifying problems and proposing solutions Acknowledging and validating another person’s thoughts, feelings and ideas Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness Learning how to make a judgment after analyzing information, data and facts

Why is responsible decision making important for teachers?

You’re faced with many important decisions each day as a teacher. Your actions impact students, their families, fellow teachers and the entire school community, which means your choices carry a great deal of responsibility. Being able to critically think about the consequences of different potential actions is critical, as well as knowing your limitations and when it’s necessary to ask for help.

Children are also faced with important decisions that have consequences on the rest of their lives. Demonstrating this process and communicating its importance will help your students understand the impact of their choices and how they affect those around them.

You can instill this by using the responsible decision-making model, which outlines the following five steps:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Analyze the situation
  3. Brainstorm solutions and solve the problem
  4. Consider ethical responsibility
  5. Evaluate and reflect

Set your students up for success

You’re already an important role model for your students. After learning more about social and emotional learning and reflecting on the prompts outlined above, you may be better equipped to foster these principles in your classroom. With your guidance and example, your students will learn how to become more resilient and deal with difficult emotions and situations.

Looking for more ways to help your students build the skills and habits that will help them succeed in the future? Check out the many Professional Development Courses offered at UMass Global.


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