Leading with Social and Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a current hot topic in PK-12 education, for good reason. SEL development in K12 classrooms may just be the most important initiative out there, and yes even more critical than literacy and math. Why? Because students who focus on social and emotional skills demonstrate improvement in areas spanning personal, social and academic life (Payton et al., 2008). From teamwork to emotional stability and adaptability, educators know that the stronger a student’s SEL skills are, the happier, more confident and overall more successful that student will perform in and out of the classroom. 

But SEL is often seen as a challenging add-on to a classroom teacher’s already overwhelming set of responsibilities. Between curriculum, standardized testing, and lesson planning, how does one also focus on this additional area? Well, the great thing about SEL is that it can (and should) be woven into most classroom interactions, lessons, and activities. Consider layering SEL into your every day by following these three big ideas.

Check your core belief in your students. 

Most educators join the field because they want to make an impact in the lives of kids. In order to make that impact, you’ve got to believe in your students’ potential to learn and succeed. Remind yourself of that core belief in the morning when you first walk into the classroom. Call on this belief during trying times, such as behaviorally difficult days, or when a lesson seems to have flown over some students’ heads. A growth mindset in your classroom begins with your belief system, so remind yourself often that you believe in your kids. That belief will no doubt come through in your interactions with them. 

Understand and implement SEL signature practices. 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), whose mission it is “to help make evidence-based SEL an integral part of education from preschool through high school,” offers educators strategies to weave SEL into the norm of the school day. There are three signature practices that many educators already do in their classrooms, impacting student SEL in a positive way every day. The signature strategies include: incorporating welcoming rituals, such as morning meetings and structured pre-activity climate setting; student engagement strategies, such as “turn and talk,” and Socratic seminars; and optimistic closures, such as “aha moments” and reflection. All of these best practices offer students a voice in their classroom, and leave room for authentic discussion and problem-solving, leading to SEL development as a priority for all. 

Take baby steps, but be consistent. 

Here is where strategic thinking becomes such a critical aspect of the educator role. Strategize the overall vision, (e.g. “I want to be a teacher who prioritizes SEL every day in my classroom.”) and then set benchmarks that are reasonable and attainable. A small step could be as simple as incorporating an engagement strategy that is new to you as an educator. Perhaps Socratic discussions have not yet made their way into your repertoire, so try to focus on how to moderate this type of teaching and learning style. Stick with it until you begin to feel comfortable and confident that a new idea can be implemented, such as a new optimistic closure idea. Consistency is key here, as part of what makes a teacher great at showing his own SEL skills to students is to be that person who consistently delivers day-to-day. 

SEL is a more recent focus for PK-12 educators, but we imagine that it’s here to stay. It simply makes sense to prioritize a concept that will allow students to feel more secure, confident and ready to take on challenges when they walk into the classroom each day. The bottom line is that it shouldn’t be a scary topic, but one that is easy to incorporate with the right mindset, a little strategic thinking, and solid communication.



The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (n.d.). Retrieved from

Payton, J., Weissberg, R.P., Durlak, J.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., Schellinger, K.B., & Pachan, M. (2008).  The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students [PDF]. Retrieved from

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