Best Practices for Developing SEL

Posted by Emily LachinskiO

March 2, 2018

Hoonuit’s latest series of professional development modules helps teachers become more comfortable with SEL instruction.


Though its underlying precepts have been around for decades, social and emotional learning (SEL) didn’t become an educational buzzword until at least the 2010s. Thanks in large part to the efforts of advocacy groups like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning — and research suggesting that it delivers an eleven-fold return on investment — SEL has now spread to school districts which collectively enroll more than a million U.S. students.


In short, SEL encourages teachers to focus not only on instructing their students in traditional subjects like reading, science, and mathematics, but on developing their students’ capabilities in five non-academic areas — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making — as well.


As author, lifelong teacher, and architect of Hoonuit’s new SEL professional development series Dr. Rita A. Jensen points out, for this development to be successful, it must occur early and often. “SEL needs to start in early childhood. And after that, it’s ongoing, and it’s continuous. Schools can’t treat it as just another special. ‘We have art at this time, music at that time, SEL at another time.’ That’s not going to work.”



Knowing Thyself


In fact, Jensen argues that effective SEL begins well before students even walk in the door. Prior to putting SEL techniques into practice, it’s important for teachers to assess — and, when necessary, improve — their self-awareness, their self-management, and so on. Most teachers — indeed, most people — don’t make the best decisions when they’re flustered or overly stressed, and few will disagree that teaching in an American public school can be, to put it gently, hectic.


“Some of the things teachers have to deal with are incredibly stressful,” Jensen confirms. “Teachers have to be able to manage their own emotions effectively if they’re going to foster SEL.”


SEL-oriented professional development — which Jensen insists must be more involved than a one-off after school workshop — also entails helping teachers adjust their expectations for students. Many teachers come to the table with longstanding, often unconscious biases that hamper their ability to provide effective SEL. “People still come to teaching with ideas like, ‘If a student comes from a single-parent home, I’m not going to expect as much from him or her,’” Jensen says. “That’s not right. Teachers should have the same (high) expectations for all of their students while remaining aware that different students will need different things from their teacher to meet those expectations.”


This kind of individualized attention is critical, especially in schools serving at-risk populations. “We can’t guarantee that all children come to us from homes where they’re surrounded by socially and emotionally literate adults — and we can’t change that,” Jensen concedes. “What we can do is equip children with social and emotional skills to deal with whatever adverse situations they may face.”


Bringing SEL into the Classroom


In the classroom, practical SEL must be as comprehensive and continuous as SEL-oriented professional development. That said, it should be more or less “invisible” to the casual observer. According to Jensen, “SEL should become an integrated part of instruction, not an additional subject that gets ‘taught’ from, say, 10:00 to 10:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”


Ideally, SEL simply becomes part of a classroom’s culture. The rules, expectations, and guidelines that teachers establish communicate what they value and what they think is important and even young children can pick up on these social and environmental cues.


As such, Jensen suggests that teachers frame their classroom rules in positive (do this, do that) instead of negative (don’t do this, don’t do that) terms. “When I was working with learners in grades 1 through 8, my rules weren’t, ‘Don’t hit your neighbor’ and ‘Don’t make disruptive noises,’ but rather, ‘it’s okay to make mistakes;’ and ‘It’s okay to be different;’ and ‘Listening is an important part of life.’” Rules like these create an environment that not only supports academic success but facilitates SEL.


When cooperation, diversity (of thought, of background, etc.), and productive imperfection are the central tenets of a classroom, ordinary instructional activities such as collectively reading a book can easily incorporate SEL lessons. Children’s literature often features characters in complicated situations where they have to make difficult choices, scenarios which can be used to explore empathy and investigate coping strategies as naturally as they can be used to test reading comprehension and introduce concepts like theme, plot, and character.


In other words, SEL is not about asking teachers to do more, but asking them to approach what they’re already doing just a little bit differently. “SEL is just a set of tools,” Jensen explains. “Teachers have to know when to use them, how to use them, and which tool to use in which situation. Otherwise, it’s ineffective.”


Better Preparation, Better SEL


Ultimately, as Jensen indicates, SEL is but one mechanism among many that can — and should — be deployed to educate “the whole child.” To prepare its staff to deploy SEL effectively, a school must make an effort to fortify its teachers’ own social and emotional (and “traditional”) intelligence, a process which requires comprehensive and inclusive professional development materials.


With that in mind, Hoonuit has created a series of professional development modules designed to help teachers incorporate SEL in their classrooms and work with their students from every angle — social, emotional, intellectual.


At the end of our conversation, Jensen laid out her vision of what a modern educator should be: “What I want are informed decision-makers and instructional leaders. I don’t want teachers to be mere assistants to materials or curricula.” We couldn’t agree more, and our goal has always been to create professional development materials that support — and hopefully create — exactly this kind of enterprising educator.


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