Should Social-Emotional Learning Be a Separate Class?

Kelly Brouse
Kelly Brouse
Elementary school principal; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction
Two young girls in a classroom bumping elbows together.

Over the past year as educators revamped many aspects of their instruction, one common adjustment was the increased focus on Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Recognizing the various ways a global pandemic could affect student well-being given the reduced social interactions as well as the increased worry and exposure to stressors, it was imperative that establishing a strong foundation for social-emotional well-being be a primary focus in the classroom.

Many different approaches were utilized to achieve this goal, and best practices are currently surfacing around SEL instruction. While there are authentic connections to this work all day long in a classroom setting, it is undeniable that explicit instruction in SEL competencies ensures students acquire the skills we expect them to use to both self-regulate and interact productively with peers.

What are SEL competencies?

One of the most renowned frameworks for SEL was designed by a group called CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.) CASEL coined five competencies: Self-Awareness; Self-Management; Responsible Decision-Making; Relationship Skills; and Social Awareness.

Within each of these competencies, many skills exist for students preK-12 that can and should be explicitly taught and modeled before students are expected to apply them independently. Utilizing these five competencies when addressing SEL ensures that a school program addresses both self-regulation skills as well as interpersonal skills, recognizing both the differences and commonalities between the two.

The Value of Explicit SEL Instruction

SEL is, understandably, content that may be viewed as something that gets woven throughout the day and is applicable across settings. Teachers may find meaningful opportunities to practice social awareness during collaborative group work, and discuss emotions when analyzing characters in literature. While these opportunities for authentic discussions around SEL are valid and important, they are maximized when explicit instruction is provided on individual SEL competencies and skills in a dedicated block of the day.

Some teachers may choose to enhance their morning meeting structure with an added SEL lesson multiple times a week. Others may choose to have it stand alone, separate from a morning meeting or advisory routine, and deliver a clear lesson sequence related to something like calm down strategies or the steps to problem solving. In either model, the thing that truly matters is that the content of the lesson is on nothing other than the SEL skill in focus.

When SEL skills are viewed like math or literacy skills, the mindset shifts for both teachers and students to recognize that behavior can in fact be taught and improved over time, just like a student’s ability to read. Shifting our values to dedicate time to SEL also communicates to students that their habits of mind not only can be grown and changed, but we in fact expect that to happen.

What Is Taught in the SEL Block?

At this point many districts have adopted full curriculum programs like Second Step or RULER that provide clear and spiraled curriculum units for teachers across grade levels. There are many benefits to having a specific program in place, primarily being the access to vetted resources as well as common language across classrooms and grade levels. Students can build off of concepts year to year when a school utilizes a program like Second Step, and developmentally-appropriate learning targets and resources are provided to help students solidify their SEL foundation over time.

If your district doesn’t utilize a purchased program, they should still have an in-house team of curriculum writers providing a civics framework that has a clear lesson sequence with age-appropriate resources that target both emotional management, growth mindset, and interpersonal skills. Whether it is a coined program or grassroots curriculum, there should be enough content that a classroom teacher can teach an average of two lesson blocks a week on SEL so that over the course of the year all five CASEL competencies are strengthened.

Outside of the SEL block, teachers should also be creating routines around goal-setting, classmate interactions, and reflection that afford students the opportunity to put what they are learning into action and set personal goals around SEL competencies, relationship build with peers in the classroom, and also reflect on what is going well related to these social-emotional skills for themselves and others. Adding in these components to the instructional week will create carryover from the SEL block so that skills can be applied authentically.

Can you Assess SEL?

If SEL is going to stand alone as its own class, we should have the means to measure student progress. New programs are emerging for schools to formally assess student progress with SEL competencies and skills. Many states are currently investing in pilot efforts to determine if these assessments are a valid indicator of student growth with SEL. Most assessments are currently likert scale type forms for teachers to fill out about students that monitor how frequently a child engages in observable behavior.

As students get older, self-reflection can be included in these platforms to get a better picture of what is happening for a student emotionally. SEL is, of course, gray by nature, so caution is encouraged when trying to establish a concrete measure for the development of social-emotional skills in students. Nonetheless, efforts to assess student learning in SEL is important to both refining our instruction for students and also valuing the importance of SEL in the classroom.

Last Thoughts From a Teacher

Over the course of this past year, I had the opportunity to coach teachers through our district focus of implementing SEL curriculum with fidelity. One of the most poignant takeaways came from a teacher during our end of year meeting.  She shared that not only did her students grow leaps and bounds because of their SEL lessons, but she in fact became a better teacher, mom, and friend, because she learned alongside her students about managing emotions and problem solving.

When she was able to better understand how her own worries may be manifesting thanks to a lesson in her SEL curriculum, she could empathize better with her students and coach them through moments of challenge. Similarly, explicitly teaching collaborative group skills helped her communicate better with other adults in her life. Delivering lessons on SEL content has not only positively impacted our students, but educators as well.

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