April 14, 2021

Redefining Our Campus Culture: SEL Is Not Extra, It's Essential!

Rebekah Kmieciak
Rebekah Kmieciak headshot

There is no denying social emotional learning (SEL) has been the central focus in the education world over the last year. We have been reminded schools are not just learning institutions; they are spaces that cultivate curiosity where students and teachers alike develop lifelong connections. They are spaces that provide physical and emotional safety, and quite frankly, where basic needs, like food and clothing, are met on a daily basis.

As a community and society, we are making stronger connections regarding the importance of authentic SEL implementation and reflecting on all the ways it shows up in our daily interactions. In education, school districts are working hard to provide teachers and students the support they need to build schools back better than before. But doing so starts with acknowledging the fact teaching and learning are about more than just content and curriculum.

Teaching involves building positive relationships and promoting a sense of community. With virtual teaching, hybrid settings, and in-person teaching all occurring, it goes without saying that teachers are being asked to do more than ever before. As teachers attempt to balance this on a daily basis, it can feel like there is no time for intentional SEL practices. But this is simply not true.  

SEL is not an extra thing, an additional task, or a supplemental activity. It is the intentional practice of co-creating an environment where people demonstrate and experience safety and belonging. As educators, if we don’t spend our time building and fostering relationships, we miss a tremendous opportunity. It’s important to see SEL implementation as a practical application and not just “one more thing.”

We can't ask teachers to give what they don't have — districts need to re-examine their campus systems to ensure teachers have the resources they need. When districts intentionally create space and offer resources for continuous professional learning, teachers can make stronger connections to their current practices.

There are countless ways to meaningfully integrate SEL into classroom instruction and culture, but let’s look at some simple practices that help build and foster relationships in any space, virtual or otherwise:

Acknowledge emotions

Emotions are not good or bad — they just "are." Because emotions don’t just go away, it’s important to create spaces to let those feelings in, and as Dr. Dan Siegel says, “name them to tame them.” Daily and consistent check-ins with students are key to normalizing emotions and making space for folks to feel whatever they are experiencing. As an SEL coach, one way I check in with teachers and students is by using a practice called Four Corners (adapted from the CASEL Playbook). With virtual platforms like Google Jamboard or an interactive Pear Deck slide, teachers can check in with students both in person and virtual spaces. Teachers can also use interactive tools like Pear Deck’s Classroom Climate for a more anonymous way to check in that only the teacher can see.

Explicitly teach and model expectations

When we explicitly teach and model expectations, we create more spaces for SEL skill integration to occur. Oftentimes as educators, we make assumptions about the skills students have, or what prior knowledge they should have by a certain age. If we can see behavior as a skill, we can teach and model expectations for mastery, just like we would any other academic skill.

One way to achieve this is to look for opportunities to explicitly teach SEL skills. For example, if I'm a teacher, and part of my lesson involves students working with a partner, I want to use that opportunity to emphasize that working in pairs is an opportunity to build teamwork and collaborative problem-solving skills. When educators make concrete connections to the “why” behind their actions, students can better understand what the intended outcomes are. One tool I find useful in connecting commonly used strategies with SEL skill development is this chart, created by Ashley Taplin, Secondary Math Curriculum Specialist. It provides explicit dialogue for highlighting SEL skills during check-ins, goal setting, self-assessments, partner work, and problem solving.

Explicit Dialogue for Social Emotional Learning chart
This chart is useful in connecting commonly used strategies with SEL skill development.

Find (or build) your community

Staying connected to our peers and colleagues is imperative. But to do so, we have to intentionally make collaboration and connection a priority.

Simple practices, like taking brain breaks, cultivating mindfulness, and other routines geared toward reducing stress, are all small steps that can make a big difference. Finally, set an intention to work in collaboration—and not just with others in your content area or grade level. When we reach out to our counterparts in different departments, we find answers to questions like: How can we integrate literacy into math lessons? How can we use technology to bring science lessons to life? Co-creating with people who can offer a varied perspective brings a new layer of richness to our work.  

Let’s change the norm and create a new culture where SEL is seen as a core component of our work in schools and classrooms, not as an “extra.”

You can also boost SEL learning with Pear Deck’s SEL templates, available for free in the Pear Deck Orchard.

This week’s guest blog post was written by Rebekah Kmieciak, Social-Emotional Behavior Coach. Beginning her career in after-school program settings, Rebekah has developed a passion for service and advocacy in education. Spending many of her years as a high school Special Education instructor and volleyball coach, Rebekah is currently serving as a district Social Emotional Learning Coach. Now in her fourteenth year in public education, her work is deeply rooted in promoting education that is founded on principles of equitable practices and supportive teaching structures.