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Demystifying SEL

Updated: May 20

SEL, or as it's commonly known, Social and Emotional Learning, has had an awakening. It's about time! You see, I've been teaching SEL since 1988. Yes, it wasn't called Social and Emotional Learning. Instead, I thought of it as just effective and necessary teaching. Sure, it's great to put a name on practices that must be part of our daily instructional approach. With that name, though, there needs to be more clarity about what SEL looks like in our schools and classrooms. We hope to build your confidence in your Social and Emotional Learning repertoire by providing the guidelines below. 


What Does Your Classroom Feel Like?


As you think about your classrooms or schools, what do they feel like? That may seem like a strange question; what do they feel like? It shouldn't be. Whether it's your classroom or school, "Social and Emotional Learning" should feel safe, accommodating, welcoming, and genuine, along with a place where students and staff want to be, not have to be. While it's impossible to know every situation that we deal with each day, the above descriptors seem simplistic enough that we can make them part of our culture. 


Everything in our schools starts with safety. SEL is grounded in that principle. It's impossible to have spaces where students and staff are risk-takers and proud of their school if they don't feel safe emotionally and physically. Think about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Safety is right near the bottom of the pyramid. Right above it is the relationship piece that social and emotional learning firmly leans on as a daily practice. 


When I started substitute teaching in 1988, I recall being at different schools every day for almost five months. I didn't realize it back then, but now that I look back, I see that the schools where SEL was present were obvious. Those places looked "happy," and you knew that from leadership down to students, it was a school that resonated with hope and joy. 


It’s Not Magic, but it is Magic!


Even with widespread agreement about the power of Social and Emotional Learning, a critical misconception still exists that can lead to confusion and frustration when teachers attempt to implement SEL. Staff and leadership often believe one lesson or SEL idea will work like magic, instantly transforming classrooms and students. In reality, SEL isn't a fancy illusion. Instead, repeated bouts of common sense practices, when done effectively, can lead to staff and students feeling magical about the possible outcomes. The data from the following article backs up something most of us all know. Promoting SEL improves academic achievement and higher levels of well-being.


I frequently ask new and even veteran teachers looking to adopt SEL in their classrooms: "When you recall those fantastic teachers earlier in your life, what was it that they did as educators that kept you coming back for more?” I’ve gotten various answers, but almost uniformly, some parts of their answers have always been, “The class felt accepting, authentic, flexible, with high/realistic expectations.” That is SEL in a common sense and easily applicable way of thinking. I've provided a simplified graphic and descriptions to delve deeper into the keys to success in social and emotional learning. 



  1. Voices from the students and teacher share equal importance. When I think of any class that embodies SEL, each has a component that includes both the teacher's and the student's voices. We can't expect students to feel comfortable speaking and connecting with their peers or the teacher if they aren't talking or using various forms of communication. In today's tech world, there isn't an excuse for even those students who seem quiet. Every student can and should feel their voice being heard.

  2. The atmosphere is uniquely positive. Students are excited to be in class - Please consider the sentence you just read. As a leader or teacher, are your students excited to be in class? Seriously, think about your answer for most students. Academic and emotional/social growth can't occur at high levels if students don't look forward to class. Some of you have students who excel despite not enjoying the class. I know I've seen many of them over a long career. But this misses the point. Social and Emotional Learning is about creating environments that foster positive growth and experiences that students look forward to.  As somebody who often uses acronyms or similar ideas to pass along an important point, consider the following: Is your class a place where students show the ABCDEs as the norm, not the exception - Acceptance, Bravery, Compassion, Determination, and Empathy? Hopefully, your answers are resoundingly yes. Congratulations on making social and emotional learning part of your school/classroom experience.

  3. High expectations of student conduct and established norms are never in doubt - When I give out opening letters to students, high expectations are the first bullet. Each semester, at the close of class, many students will say, "Shap, you expect much more of me than I expect of myself!" High expectations shape so many parts of our class and school. Sometimes, it becomes easy to lose sight of the power that high expectations create in schools, but I encourage you to stay the course. The results will pay off. Regarding SEL, this is especially meaningful when we discuss how relationships are formed and the constant communication in class. Social and Emotional Learning is grounded in respect, honesty, trust, empathy, kindness, and patience. Things often happen when we expect the best of students and ourselves. 

  4. Communication is grounded in both group and one/one encounters. Once our lessons begin, our love of content can easily lead us to forget about those small yet essential moments we spend speaking with students. While mentoring teachers, I often get the question, "How can I speak with every student during class?" Each of us has our own best ways to connect with students. From an SEL standpoint, it's about being purposeful with actions, whether right when students walk into the room, during small group sessions, taking a brain break, or even at the closure of class. There isn't always an exact moment. Still, a short, 30-second check-in can address a student's emotional and academic needs. Plus, it creates that positive culture I mentioned in #2 above.

  5. Lessons involve cognitive, social, and physical elements in most of our planning - Out of all the struggles I see with establishing a class or school around SEL practices, lesson planning is at the top of the list. In my experience as an SEL liaison, staff often think that Social and Emotional Learning is an add-on to our classroom instruction. Nothing is further from the truth. No matter the grade level or the content area we teach, there must always be a blend of academic instruction, social interaction, and, hopefully, small bouts of getting students out of their chairs. Most important, as it relates to this topic, is remembering that lessons should be fluid and connect elements of each domain. It doesn't require planning every five-minute interval, but instead, building a classroom space where students are frequently connecting, challenged with various work types, and have short, purposeful breaks. It's beyond the scope of this writing to cover all the ways to implement SEL strategies. Still, check out Casel - Fundamentals of SEL for many great ideas. Also, I'd love to help if you have questions. 

  6. Praise, Persistence, and Patience show students you value their worth - For those who've been in education for extended periods, you are probably aware of the "mouse wheel" of innovation. Every few years, a new idea is thought to change the education landscape, only to have some other new idea following and in its tracks. SEL should always be something other than that type of innovation. Praise, persistence, and patience have always been parts of effective instruction, even though they are core Social and Emotional Learning tenets. 


Leaving You With A Thought!


I hope you have picked up one idea that can be returned to your classroom or school. As a reminder, no “magic bullet” will address every issue we face. Still, SEL is uniformly proven to improve academic, social, and emotional growth in school. 


When you go to work and enter your classroom, take a moment before students enter and think about your instructional approach. Would you want your children to be part of the class? Hopefully, your answer is a resounding yes! Congratulations on your SEL progress. You are awesome!


About the Author

Craig Shapiro

Shap has dedicated 35 years to being a Health and Physical Education Teacher. He is the upcoming host of the "Cutting the Crap with Shap" Podcast and also works as a Wellness Coach, Speaker, and SEL Liaison. A nationally ranked powerlifter and USPA Masters Powerlifting Record Holder, Shap’s passion for fitness is evident in all aspects of his life. He enjoys various fitness activities, writing, speaking, and cherishing time with his family. Stay positive, stay happy, stay well!


Twitter: @Shapiro_WTHS 

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