Research clearly demonstrates that integrating social-emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom is good for both students and the adults who work with them.
But there’s a story that the research hasn’t captured—the one of powerful transformation that can result from the practice of SEL.
I recently spoke to a number of educators about the impact of SEL on themselves and their students. What they told me revealed the potential of SEL to transform not only people, but also education itself.
SEL transforms the inner life of teachers
When educators begin using SEL in the classroom, sometimes the most surprising outcome is how they personally change. Unless a teacher is an automaton, teaching students emotional and relationship skills compels a teacher to reflect on his or her own social-emotional competencies—sometimes both in and out of the classroom.
Elementary educator Patricia Morris found that she had changed significantly as a result of using SEL in her classroom. “I’m calmer, more patient, kinder, and far less controlling,” described Patricia. “I’m more focused and able to let little things go that before would’ve made me crazy. I’m also more willing to look for the reasons behind things that happen. And I’ve become more optimistic, so when anything terrible happens, I try to see what good might come out of it.”
Lora Bird, a Kindergarten and music teacher, discovered that SEL rounded out her personality. “I’ve become a much broader, more grounded person by becoming the person that my students need me to be,” said Lora. “At the beginning of my career, I identified as a sweet, nice, kind person, so it rubbed up against my self-concept when I had students who needed an assertive and firm teacher. I had to learn how to be really firm and assertive while still being kind and true to myself. I quickly discovered how much I needed that firmness in every area of my life!”
Cultivating social-emotional skills within themselves helps teachers model these skills for students—a critical factor for successful implementation of SEL. For example, one study found that teachers who were required to teach an SEL program, but didn’t buy into what they were teaching, actually worsened their students’ social-emotional skills. But research has also shown that teachers who do develop these skills reap the rewards of greater mental health and more effective teaching, both of which have a huge impact on students’ success in school.
Mandi Ruud, a middle school teacher, not only modeled SEL skills for her students, but also asked her students for help in cultivating these skills:
SEL helped me realize that I needed to improve my social-emotional skills, too. So I told my students that becoming socially-emotionally intelligent is a lifelong goal and that perhaps we could work on these skills together—help keep each other in check. And they really do call me out sometimes. If I’m getting a little frustrated, they’ll say, ‘Ms. Ruud, you don’t get to talk to us like that because that’s not nice.’ And I tell them, ‘You’re right. That’s not fair of me.’ So we work on how we talk to each other and our general empathy towards others.
SEL promotes teacher well-being
Well-being is one of the major outcomes for educators who cultivate their own social-emotional skills. With the high attrition rate of teachers—a whopping 50 percent in the first five years—teacher self-care is crucial, if not imperative, for the profession.
The efforts of the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to make SEL and teacher care a priority before implementing SEL in the classroom shows an extraordinary understanding of “we can’t teach what we don’t know.” In other words, OUSD has realized that teachers who don’t take care of themselves by developing their own social-emotional skills will have a hard time helping students to do so. Associate Superintendent Brigitte Marshall articulated this understanding along with her role as a leader in promoting teacher self-care throughout the district:
I’ve been given permission by the district to prioritize my own well-being and my understanding of being in relationship with people. The direction given by the district is that these things matter and will actually make you more effective in doing what you care about. But we constantly need reminders when the work becomes urgent to take care of ourselves—so that we come to work ready to do good work as opposed to fatigued and exhausted. To have the district institutionally name that this is important makes a huge difference, which is why I took my role as an ambassador of SEL throughout the district very, very seriously. If this is to permeate the district, then leaders have to take it seriously and lead in a certain way. Knowing this was the expectation of me, I could not be hypocritical and talk about work-life balance and improving interpersonal skills without focusing on improving these things for myself.
SEL changes teachers’ views of the profession
Even though the job is tough, teachers do the most meaningful work in the world: shaping the lives of human beings. And, according to research, people who find meaning in their work have higher levels of job satisfaction, motivation, and performance. But oftentimes the stress and demands of the profession cause teachers to lose sight of this meaning—which can lead to burnout and teacher attrition. SEL helps to restore this meaning.
Middle school teacher Katherine Shea found SEL to be career-changing. “Last year, I resolved to not yell at my students,” she said, “and it turned out to be the best year I’ve had as a teacher, with the best relationships I’ve ever had with my students. SEL completely changed the way I taught and it made me more excited to go back this year.”
Meena Srinivasan, program manager for OUSD’s SEL and Leadership Team and author of Teach, Breathe, Learn: Mindfulness in and out of the Classroom, found that SEL renewed her love of teaching:
Before I started working with SEL, sometimes I got so stressed that I lost contact with my original intention for becoming a teacher. SEL has rekindled that light inside of me. It’s the light of why I became an educator in the first place—to help students connect with their dreams and aspirations and become better people who contribute to the world in a positive way. That’s the power of the SEL lens; it fosters purpose and meaning and deep connection.
SEL enriches the student-teacher relationship
The relationship between teachers and students is at the heart of learning, and most teachers intuitively know this. Research has shown that students who experience a caring relationship with a teacher are more motivated to learn, and, hence, they enjoy school more and demonstrate greater academic success. The practice of SEL can bring this relationship to teachers’ conscious awareness, helping them to intentionally cultivate positive relationships with students.
Teresa Collins, an associate professor of education, described how SEL not only gave her a deeper understanding of the connections she forged with students, but also shifted how she viewed her students. “I have always believed strongly in the teacher/student conference model,” said Teresa, “and explicitly encourage students to meet with me outside of class to discuss their work. But SEL helped me to see the even greater importance and significance in these informal connections. As a result, I saw my students in a more compassionate way than I had before. SEL simply, but powerfully, changed the way I viewed them as individuals.”
SEL also provides teachers a lens through which to view the most challenging students and then teaches them to respond to these students with compassion and understanding rather than shame and punishment. For educators of young children, this is particularly important as research has shown that a student’s relationship with his or her Kindergarten teacher has an effect on the student’s long-term academic outcomes—all the way up to 8th grade!
Lora Bird shared how she used SEL to help a student in her Kindergarten classroom—who had experienced a lot of ongoing trauma—thrive in school:
This student came to me with a core of defiance—she would rip up her papers, run away, and be quite obstinate. Most teachers would have labeled her oppositional-defiant, created a big file on her, and sent her to a counselor. Because I’m trying to embody SEL, I chose to be calm, persistent, caring, and kind with her. I gave her permission to use a “feeling wheel” to label her emotion, and then sit in the “peace place” until she was ready to join the rest of the class. It gave her the power to know that she didn’t need to act out in order to avoid a task. She started to open up to me and tell me why she was so sad and disappointed. It took about two months to turn her around – so that instead of acting out, she could tell me her story or draw a picture, then let the situation go and bounce away.
I learned that, even though it can be hard to not take a child’s behavior personally, when you are mindful, you realize that the bad behavior is a cry for help. I think of a quote I read in a book: “When a child gives you a noose, you throw back a lifesaver.” Children will give you a noose to hang them with because they believe in their own worthlessness and they expect that you will, too. They don’t expect to trust adults or that someone really cares about them. This child is in second grade now and she’s mostly bouncing and happy because she no longer needs to express her pain by misbehaving. She’s also become quite a little writer, expressing very deep and profound things, showing a wisdom beyond her years in her ability to process her emotions.
SEL transforms student relationships
One of the main purposes of SEL is improving relationships between students. To the skeptic, positive student relationships may seem irrelevant to academic achievement; however, one study found that both students’ self-control and sense of peer acceptance had a significant impact on their achievement in math. In other words, academic success wasn’t just the result of students’ ability to sit and do the work. Whether or not they felt other students in the classroom accepted them made a huge difference as well.
OUSD educator Kurt Kaaekuahiwi, who teaches ethnic studies to middle schoolers, described how SEL transformed the relationships amongst his students:
One of our guiding questions in the class is, “What does it mean to be a human being?” I want students to walk away with a culturally-sensitive approach to how they see other people who are different from themselves and to develop a greater purpose in how they utilize their experiences as a person in the world. SEL has cultivated an openness in the classroom that helps students share this exploration with each other. I had a 6th grade boy in a class with mainly 8th graders who shared two or three difficult stories in class. The other students cried and he broke down. Then kids got out of their seat in circle and hugged him. In this moment, students were seeing themselves in a human way that they don’t often get to feel or think about or reflect upon. But they were doing that in this moment because they saw another human being and were able to reach out to him, connect with his pain and suffering. The relationship dynamics in the class shifted after that.
SEL requires micro-moves
SEL is very personal. Everyone comes to the SEL table with different social and emotional capacities—students and adults alike. As a result, not everyone sees the value of SEL. For an educator who passionately believes in SEL, but who is surrounded by nay-saying colleagues, this can be a very lonely journey.
At this year’s GGSC Summer Institute for Educators, organizational psychology expert Monica Worline introduced the concept of micro-moves—small on-going actions of an individual or group of individuals that can bring about large changes in an organization or school. For teachers who feel alone in their efforts to implement SEL into their schools, a micro-move such as asking the question at a staff meeting, “What if we started our meetings by checking-in with each other,” can be empowering.
Chris Zorn, a music and art specialist teacher at a university lab school, described how learning about the field of SEL not only gave him a new perspective on how to implement SEL at the school level, but also helped him feel part of the larger SEL movement:
I was becoming increasingly frustrated that it was so difficult to make change on a school-wide basis. But the Random Acts of Kindness (RAK) on-line SEL course helped me to relax and realize that I’m just planting seeds and that I can’t do everything myself—to stop worrying if the SEL that I’m teaching doesn’t come to fruition today or tomorrow. I think it’s very easy for those of us who really want to do this SEL work to feel alone and that it’s too big of a burden. Now, I look for opportunities where I can do just one next step, rather than having to change the entire school culture. The RAK class also made me see how big the SEL field is and how many people are doing things with it. That was a big wake-up call for me to know that I wasn’t alone. That even though I may feel alone in my school, there are many other people on this planet who recognize the importance of SEL and want it to become more of a focus in education.
The power of these stories shows what’s possible when education begins to focus on the development of the whole person. Rather than denying the social and emotional lives of teachers and students, SEL embraces our humanity, both individually and in relationship.
But these stories also reveal the unique experience of SEL for each of these educators. Thus, mandating SEL without a deeper understanding and personal experience of its impact serves no one. As Mary Hurley, Coordinator for SEL and Leadership Team in OUSD, explained, “Each person coming into SEL has to own it personally before we can actually systematize it.”
Many thanks to the teachers who shared their stories with me and to Mary Hurley of OUSD, Marilyn Decalo of Random Acts of Kindness, Kim Schonert-Reichl of the University of British Columbia, and Lisa Pedrini of Vancouver Public Schools for putting me in touch with these amazing educators.