Teach Students Resilience, Empathy, and More with Social Emotional Learning Strategies

Bolstered by ESSA, social emotional learning is taking off in schools. Here’s how.


In Jeff Austin’s economics and government class, it’s a Jimi Hendrix quotation that often draws strong responses from students.

During a silent conversation exercise, the sentence “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace” is written on a large sheet of paper that everyone can see. Students work in groups to write their reactions to it. Without speaking—but with an occasional grunt indicating how badly they want to say something aloud—the students have a back-and-forth written discussion that illustrates how important it is to use words carefully, particularly in an era when so much interaction takes place digitally.

“I want them to connect to the content, but I also want them to connect to each other,” says Austin, who teaches at Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA), a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) high school in San Fernando, CA. “If you’re just teaching history to remember dates, or you’re just teaching English to learn words, it becomes pointless.”

The silent conversation strategy is drawn from Facing History and Ourselves, a curriculum that blends rich historical and present-day content with activities that engage students’ emotions and ask them to reflect on why people—including victims and perpetrators—make the choices they do. It’s what Mary Hendra, the associate program director for Facing History’s Los Angeles office, calls “engaging students’ hearts as well as heads,” and is a large reason why the program—with 10 U.S. locations and educational partnerships throughout the world—has been recognized as a proven social emotional learning (SEL) program by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization dedicated to advancing SEL in education.

According to CASEL, SEL is the ability to understand and manage one’s emotions, “feel and show empathy for others,” develop and keep positive relationships, and make good decisions. While the concept has been around since the 1960s, it is gaining new attention in education settings as a way to help children build resilience during the school years and beyond, manage stress, engage well with others, and gain confidence as learners. With schools now integrating SEL concepts into their strategic plans, all staff members, not just counselors or social workers, are finding ways to support them. School librarians, for instance, look for ways to use literature and other media resources to teach SEL ideas.

Medina Elementary School, in the Bellevue (WA) School District, has adopted Second Step learning programs, created by the organization Committee for Children and focused on SEL, bullying prevention, and child protection, in kindergarten through second grade. The school also implemented RULER, a program from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence that stands for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotions—in grades three through five.

Over the past year, Arika Dickens, the school librarian, has been more intentionally shaping lessons for K–2 students around SEL concepts. In a recent lesson for kindergartners, for example, she read Deborah Freedman’s By Mouse & Frog (Viking, 2015), in which the characters make choices that lead them to be angry and frustrated with each other. Using the Second Step curriculum as a guide, she developed questions for the children that focused on empathy, managing emotions, and solving problems. They worked as partners to explore questions, such as “How do you think Mouse feels about Frog’s behavior?” and “What could Mouse do to let Frog know how he’s feeling?”

“It was when I heard a student say ‘take deep belly breaths’ that I knew they were internalizing the SEL lessons from their classrooms and could apply it to outside situations,” Dickens says. “Modeling discussions like this in our library let the children know that social emotional learning happens everywhere.” (Also read: “Hearts and Minds: A starter collection of picture books that strengthen SEL,” p. 30.)

1702-SocialEmotional-wordsAn ESSA connection

A strong emphasis on helping students form positive relationships and develop empathy for others has always been part of the mission of SJHA, which was founded in 2011 by a team of teacher leaders, including Austin. But now most schools are taking a closer look at their efforts to foster students’ well-being because of increased knowledge about how many students are affected by depression, trauma, bullying, abuse, thoughts of suicide, and other mental health issues.

In the Boston Public Schools, for instance, superintendent Tommy Chang has appointed a new assistant superintendent for social emotional learning and wellness. Meanwhile, in LAUSD over the past two years, 300 school social workers have been trained to deliver students a resiliency-building program developed at the University of California Los Angeles.

“The concept of doing curriculum-based teaching in the classroom early on and in middle school is something that’s brand new for us,” Pia Escudero, the director of LAUSD’s School Mental Health division, said in an interview with Chronicle of Social Change. “Based on the high numbers of children who have been exposed to trauma, we now know there has to be a universal approach and it has to be something that really is available to all children, not just a select few. It really calls for a systems lens.”

Another explanation for the increased focus on SEL in education is that the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in late 2015, calls for a new element of student success by allowing states to add a nonacademic indicator in their student accountability systems. School climate or student engagement surveys, for example, would be such an indicator.

Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants, which direct funds toward helping schools provide a “well-rounded education,” are also part of the law, assisting schools in supporting the health and safety of students through, for example, school-based violence prevention, anti-bullying, or mental health programs.

Before ESSA, several states were beginning to develop SEL standards. According to CASEL’s State Scan Scorecard Project, four states—Illinois, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—have K–12 SEL standards. Another handful of states have adopted standards up to third grade, and most states have them at the preschool level. This year, CASEL is also partnering with eight states to develop policies and SEL standards. Those in the Collaborating States Initiative are California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Washington.

To help educators and the public gain more understanding of SEL, the Aspen Institute has announced a two-year initiative that will include site visits and field hearings. The National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development will involve classroom teachers; superintendents; and business, philanthropy, health, and military leaders. A separate youth commission will ensure that students’ voices are part of the conversation as well.

“A single, one-size-fits-all approach won’t work and is not on the table,” Shirley Brandman, executive director of the commission and a former president of the Montgomery County (MD) Board of Education, wrote in an Aspen Institute blog post. “That said, all students deserve to go to a school that provides a comprehensive approach to learning and development that prepares them to thrive in school, in our evolving 21st century workplace, and in life.”

Mindfulness and belonging

While long integrated into instruction for young children, SEL programs are now gaining attention across all grade levels. In addition, schoolwide SEL approaches are more likely to create opportunities for all staff members to reinforce the skills that educators want students to develop. Over the past decade, schools across the country have been implementing mindfulness programs because they have been found to have a range of benefits, “including improvements in working memory, attention, academic skills, social skills, emotional regulation, and self-esteem, as well as self-reported improvements in mood and decreases in anxiety, stress, and fatigue,” psychologist John Meiklejohn and colleagues wrote in a 2012 article.

Mindfulness is just one strategy that John Adams Middle School in Santa Monica, CA, has implemented to increase a sense of belonging among students and address their social development. Creating clubs to strengthen relationships between students and teachers is another. In Amy Beeman-Solano’s language arts class, Facing History lessons and activities are woven into her instruction. “To me, Facing History is a toolbox for linking the stuff of the mandated curriculum to the things that [students]care about,” Beeman-Solano says.

On the day after Halloween, eighth graders stand in a large circle, preparing to read a line or two from the scary stories they have been writing. But before they start, Beeman-Solano asks them to consider why some students groan when asked to read their own work before the class. “It’s embarrassing,” one student says. “Fear of judgment,” another says. A third responds, “Some people could feel anxiety or stress in public speaking.”

Pausing for such a discussion helps the students remember how to be respectful audience members and reinforces a central Facing History principle of “putting yourself in somebody else’s shoes,” Hendra says.

Beeman-Solano says she first began using Facing History when she was looking for a way to get her students to better connect to Red Scarf Girl (HarperCollins, 1997), a memoir by Ji-li Jiang about the Cultural Revolution in China. Because her school has a variety of efforts focused on supporting students’ social-emotional development, she says it’s hard for her to “tease out” the impact of Facing History. She says the question for her is, “Do I feel that the [engagement] has improved, especially in struggling students?”

1702-SocialEmotional-CHARTBringing SEL into the open

Across the country in the Smithtown (NY) Central School District on Long Island, students are getting opportunities to practice and express social emotional skills in Tim Needles’s art and media class at Smithtown High School East. “I think art has a lot of connections with SEL learning,” he says.

Needles and several other teachers participated in a pilot project in partnership with Project Presence, a nonprofit organization that teaches mindfulness and provides professional development for teachers. Students who were enthusiastic about the approach created a video to explain the concepts to students in elementary school.

Last summer, Needles taught an SEL-infused STEAM program with a maker space in the district’s summer C.A.M.P., an acronym for Character Academics Mindset Preparedness. The program serves middle school students who might be at risk for social-emotional problems or who are just interested in the programs offered, which include art, music therapy, writing classes, and movement exercises.

Because not all of his school’s students get to take art, Needles has also launched a school-wide initiative called Project Gratitude, in which every student in the school is invited to create a piece of art focusing on the topic of gratitude.

Bringing SEL into the open, Needles says, helps students understand that others often feel the same way they do and “makes their lives much easier.”

Academic research

In a 2011 study, Loyola University Chicago psychology professor Joseph A. Durlak and colleagues evaluated the impact of 213 school-based SEL programs on students at all K–12 grade levels. Compared to students from schools not using the programs, the researchers found improved SEL skills, which included being able to regulate their emotions, manage stress, show empathy toward others, and have better problem-solving or decision-making skills. Their attitudes and behavior also improved.

Some programs in the study also contributed to an 11 percent increase in student achievement—a finding that researchers say can alleviate educators’ concerns that emphasizing SEL will distract from their academic mission. “There are a variety of reasons that SEL programming might enhance students’ academic performance,” Durlak and coauthors wrote. “[S]students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges. Students who set high academic goals, have self-discipline, motivate themselves, manage their stress, and organize their approach to work, learn more and get better grades.”

With its two guides—one for preschool and elementary grades and another for middle and high schools—CASEL gives school leaders recommendations on how to choose and implement SEL programs. The authors note that SEL fits well with other current school reform initiatives, such as college and career readiness as well as attention to mindfulness. The study also shows that bringing in outside experts or consultants is not necessary in order to deliver an effective program. Regular classroom teachers and other school staff members—including librarians—implemented the intervention programs reviewed in the study.

At New Milford (NJ) High School, library media specialist Laura Fleming says she is increasingly being called on to participate in special education or parent meetings regarding a particular student because she often has a different perspective than classroom teachers or administrators.

“Sometimes I have a relationship with that child that the parents or teachers involved recognize,” she says, adding that the maker space she created in her library a few years ago has contributed to forming those relationships. “To me, it’s not about the cool things kids make. A lot of the regulars tend to be the kids who are the most disaffected with the traditional school. They know when they walk through those doors, they can be themselves.”

Dickens notes that there is a concern that SEL can become just another nice idea without much substance. That’s why, she says, it’s important for schools to make a “whole community effort” to integrate the practices schoolwide. At Medina Elementary, school staff meetings now have an SEL focus, which helps her and other specialists stay current on the practices and vocabulary teachers are using in the classroom.

“There is no quick fix, no one lesson to teach social-emotional learning,” Dickens says. “It takes modeling by teachers, integrating SEL concepts into numerous lessons, and posing questions that inspire deep conversation. It takes recognizing situations as teaching moments and taking the time to problem solve together.”

SLJ contributor Linda Jacobson is an education writer and editor based in the Los Angeles area.

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Thea T

Hi there, the illustrations are beautiful and I wondering if I may have permission to use the first image illustrated by Andrea Cobb for my university assignment? Thanks so much!

Posted : Oct 25, 2019 07:31


Hi Thea. I'm SLJ's creative director, Mark Tuchman. I agree with you that Andrea Cobb's illustrations are beautiful! (She also did the cover for the issue in which this article appeared). When we commission art, the copyright is retained by the artist, so they are the only ones who can grant permission. Usually, using an image in a non-commercial project, especially for educational purposes, is not a problem (fair use,etc) but as a courtesy, you may want to reach out to Andrea directly. Her email is: andrea (at) andreacobb (dot com).

Posted : Oct 25, 2019 07:35

Natalie johnson

How does one balance the SEL wheel? That seems to be the challenge from where I sit with students?

Posted : Jun 18, 2017 06:05



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