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Practice SEL Skills in Every Lesson

Last updated on December 1, 2021

As much as we would like a “curriculum” for social-emotional learning, it’s not realistic or authentic. SEL work with students happens every day in every class. As teachers, we can help students internalize these habits and mindsets in the way we structure and conduct our classes. This post will go through several tools and methods you can use to incorporate SEL-aware pedagogy into your lessons.

What Skills Am I Teaching?

There are five competencies for SEL awareness:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Responsible decision making
  5. Relationship skills

Each of these, on its own, can be explored in a number of ways. Our challenge as teachers is to specifically and clearly call out which competency we’re interested in through the task at hand. Each competency can be broken in to “can-do” statements, sometimes termed SWBATs (Students Will Be Able To…). Let’s take a look at how to work competencies into our lessons.

Be Explicit

Just like with content goals, we need to be explicit with what SEL goals we’re developing in a class period or activity. This is more than saying, “Today, we’re working on self-management.” That sentence can certainly be a component, but it goes beyond simply identifying the competency. Match a SWBAT to your skill and communicate it in clear, student-friendly language. Here are some examples of SWBAT you can start with:

Skills for Self

  • Use words to identify feelings
  • Develop a plan to meet a goal
  • Advocate for needs and supports

Interpersonal Skills

  • Identify emotions with verbal cues
  • Communicate understanding of others’ perspectives
  • Asking others how they think and feel

Community Skills

  • Matching behavior to the setting
  • Using feedback to adjust behavior
  • Taking action to promote positive change

Strategy Sample: Turn and Talk

Setting: You’re having students pair for a recent assignment or assessment review

Targets: Students will be able to use words to identify feelings, develop plans to meet goals, and ask others how they think and feel.

Teacher: “Everyone, I know there a lot of things you’d rather be doing that studying this quiz. When we pair up, the first thing I want you to ask your partner is about their motivation. Are they feeling motivated? Are they feeling uninterested? Don’t guess, ask them questions to find out. After you find out, make a plan to help each other. Be respectful, be yourself, and help each other out.”

SEL-aware instruction does not have to be unnatural or awkward. Simply calling out the individual and community skills you want students to practice and modeling through your instruction will help students engage in those behaviors more effectively.

Communicate the “Why”

“Why do we have to learn this?”

Those words can easily spark fear and frustration in a teacher’s heart. Sometimes it may be because it’s just what you’ve done in the class for a long time. Other times it’s because the lesson or skill you’re working on scaffolds to more complex topics. No matter the reason, the students are justified in asking that question.

As teachers, we need to make sure each and every activity we’re doing has a why attached. For your planning purposes, identify they why and then communicate it to the students. Phrases like, “I love this idea because,” “this will help you with,” and “I’ve never forgotten this,” are great ways to help students see the value in the work being done – whether it’s your instruction or their participation.

Through communicating the why, don’t forget to include SEL skills. Sometimes they why is to help them develop a skill! Something as simple as displaying a picture and asking “what do you notice? What do you wonder?” helps develop the SEL skill of appreciating similarities and differences. Every interaction in our classroom is an opportunity to help students develop their self-awareness, regulation, and contribution to the learning community.

Start Small

Working SEL into your instruction takes time and vulnerability. Consider your plans for the next few days or weeks and look for opportunities to include SWBATs and one of the Five SEL components in your instruction. As you get more comfortable at identifying those teachable moments ahead of time, you’ll be able to catch and use opportunities in the moment with your students.


Several of these ideas are from the book, Improve Every Lesson Plan with SEL.

silhouettes flickr photo by heinerengbrocks shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

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