SEL, the Classroom, and Setting Students on the Their Own Paths

By Janet Price

ISA Senior Director of Programs

A tenth grade student works on a painting inspired by his study of the Harlem Renaissance.
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action


If “one size does not fit all” is true about learning in general, how much truer is it for social-emotional learning (SEL), which has a special focus on the individual? To make learning work, educators must conduct a thoughtful, thorough inquiry into what students in particular contexts need.

What we don’t have to re-invent are the steps in that inquiry. First of all, we can agree on the outcomes that we want our students to achieve, such as better test scores, a beautifully executed project, a willingness to engage in productive struggle, a belief in their own ability to succeed, and so on.

Next, we need to identify what is getting in the way of students achieving that outcome. Is it misconceptions, a lack of a strategy to get them through a “stuck” moment, years of being told that intelligence is something they do or do not have, or trauma in their lives, with little opportunity to learn coping skills? We can test educated guesses, but assumptions are dangerous. Here’s where listening carefully to our young people really pays off.

Part of every educator’s job is to find a strategy that “stuck” students can learn and practice that will help them overcome the obstacles and thrive both academically and personally. But:

  • How do we explicitly teach them that strategy?
  • How do we build in opportunities to practice the strategy as students go about the everyday business of classwork?
  • How do we create opportunities for students to reflect on how the strategy helps them succeed?
  • How do we measure the strategy’s effectiveness, and can it be tweaked to be more effective?
  • How do we ensure that students have internalized the strategy so that they can apply it to other challenges and obstacles?

A lot of questions to be sure. But by grappling with them, educators can effectively integrate SEL into the academic core, giving students opportunities to practice social-emotional skills in ways that lead to better academic outcomes. School teams can work to answer these questions and put those answers into action in order to arm students with the qualities that will help them succeed in school and in life: self-awareness, self-agency, metacognition, interpersonal skills, growth mindset, and reflectiveness.

Below are a few examples of how this inquiry approach has paid off for students in actual school settings:

  • At an ISA partner school where a quarter of ninth graders lived in temporary housing or were homeless, many students entered significantly below grade level. Students practiced a variety of reading comprehension strategies with culturally relevant texts geared to their current reading level, took quarterly reading assessments, and reflected on how using certain strategies was improving their reading skills, building growth mindset.
  • In a class for students who had repeatedly failed the state algebra test, teachers at this ISA partner school were able to dramatically improve their students’ pass rates by focusing on the students’ thinking rather than simply marking answers right or wrong. At the end of every class, they asked students to do one more problem and explain why their answer was correct. Teachers studied these “exit slips” to identify and address misconceptions through individual conferencing and follow-up lessons. Students’ belief in their ability to succeed in math grew as teachers paid attention to their ideas and as students learned to learn from their mistakes.
  • One school gave students more control over their own learning by instituting daily student self-assessments. Students decided their level of mastery based on quizzes or classroom activities and then got challenging but doable assignments designed to meet their current self-diagnosed learning needs. If they found the work was too easy or too hard, they switched to another level. Often the “expert” students gave support and feedback to their peers in addition to completing their own challenging assignment. Teachers were freed up to coach and support small groups, and more students successfully completed the work they had assigned themselves, eagerly advancing to the next level.
  • An English teacher at an ISA partner school found that her entering ninth graders could state their opinions and loved to debate, but they rarely backed up their statements with evidence and tended to shout rather than discuss ideas. She instituted student-led seminars during which the whole class got one grade for the day based on a set of criteria that included bringing each other into the conversation, backing up points with textual evidence, asking each other questions, and responding to the points of others. Not only did students improve their communication and teamwork skills, but they also used what they learned from each other to write stronger papers.

If these examples sound like solid and thoughtful pedagogy, well, they are—and so where is SEL in them? Very simply, SEL can be found in these students’ enhanced ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals, identify and solve problems, and reflect, evaluate, and make constructive choices on their own. Students don’t leave their social and emotional needs at the classroom door, and there are a range of strategies that they can employ that not only result in greater academic success but also in a belief that effort and perseverance will lead to continued academic success.

Here’s a metaphor for this work: If you throw a non-swimmer into the deep end of a pool, they will splash about without any success, a scary situation that can be very traumatic. But if you teach that person simple strategies to stay afloat, even to swim, then that dunk in the deep end becomes a manageable, or even successful experience. This positive experience can build resilience and lead that nascent swimmer to feel okay about tackling other tough tasks.

Equipping young people to succeed reinforces their belief that effort and perseverance can pay off. Educators can help students identify and work on what they need to be successful, set a goal, define a path to it, identify possible obstacles that they might face while on that path, and identify and enact strategies that students can use to overcome obstacles. Each step moves our students in the direction of success—their own success.