Demystifying Integration of SEL and Academic Instruction

Guest blog by Wendy Said, M.A., Former Manager of Educational Partnerships, Collaborative Classroom

The children who walk through the doors of our schools are the future caretakers of our democracy.  In order to be prepared for that role, they will need opportunities to develop the social and emotional skills CASEL identifies as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship awareness, and responsible decision-making.  Children can develop these competencies in robust and varied ways that extend beyond the playground and lunchroom, allowing them practice employing these life skills across the school day. 

Now, more than ever, as the country emerges from the pandemic, it is imperative for schools to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) across the school day, in a variety of contexts, both inside the confines of the classroom and beyond.  Students need explicit SEL instruction integrated into their  academic lessons in order to develop and deepen their understanding of how these “soft skills” support both their academic and personal development.  Embedding SEL competencies throughout the learning process increases the complexity of the integration of these skills and decreases the predictability of who will succeed and who will fail.  Integration of academics and SEL requires students to master a surprisingly complex set of skills. For example, in order to attain the 8th Grade Ohio ELA Standard RI.8.9 (Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation), students must be able to access a wide range of SEL Skills.  They must be able to persevere through challenging cognitive undertakings in learning new content, wholeheartedly listen to others’ opinions, keep an open-mind when accessing various resources that support their work, recognize their biases, synthesize opinions to support current understandings, know when and how to ask for help, and how to clearly communicate their thinking.

In my career as a mentor and educational consultant, I have seen many teachers struggle to integrate social emotional learning across the curriculum, understandably, as it felt like one more demand on both their planning and instructional time. I have also met teachers who have found ways to seamlessly integrate SEL across the curriculum as, over time, it became woven into the fabric of their pedagogy.  Below I’ve shared several lessons I have learned from educators who have found ways to prioritize and explicitly teach SEL skills across the curriculum.These teachers have taken time to develop their understanding of the specific  SEL competencies AND how these competencies are inextricably linked to the standards they are required to teach.  To gain a deeper understanding of how standards align to SEL skills please access this Aspen Institute Brief: This Time With Feeling: Integrating Social Emotional Development and College-and Career-Readiness Standards.

1. They use a simple  “bookend” or “SEL sandwich” approach.  They reserve several minutes of time both at the beginning and end of every lesson (across content areas) to address and explicitly teach SEL skills that support the instruction taking place. For example, “Today you will be working with partners to solve multi-step equations.  What does a good partnership look like?  Sound like? What can you do to be a helpful partner today?  What do you need from your partner to make the work go smoothly?

2. The teacher and students create an anchor chart which is placed on the wall of the classroom for students to reference each time partner work occurs.  The teacher then states, “At the end of the lesson today, I will check back with you to see how it went working with your partner, what went well for you both, and what you will want to continue to work on throughout your partnership.

3. The teacher incorporates reflection opportunities throughout the process. As the partner work progresses, the teacher circulates the room providing timely and specific feedback both on the academic content and the SEL goals.  At the end of the lesson, the teacher saves a few moments for reflection on both the academic content and SEL goal for the day. She might offer “How did your partnerships work today?  What are you proud of during this time together?  What will you work on tomorrow to best support one another?  What do you most appreciate about your partner?  Please take a moment to thank them and let them know.

In total, this teacher spent only five minutes at both the beginning and end of class developing students’ SEL growth in support of the academic goal for the lesson.  The teacher did not have to spend any extra time planning and although it took 10 minutes of class time, the teacher spent less time having to micromanage groups as students spent the class period on task and actively engaged in the work together, knowing they would be held accountable at the end of the lesson.  To view K-6 lessons that integrate SEL and Ohio’s Content Standards for English Language Arts sign up for a free Learning Portal trial at Collaborative Classroom.

4. Finally, these teachers incorporated a variety of teaching practices that both supported SEL growth and honored students’ humanity. These practices include strategies such as student-centered discipline, supportive teacher language, responsibility and choice, warmth and support, academic press and expectations, classroom discussions, self-reflection and assessment, balanced instruction, and competence building through modeling, feedback, and coaching.  You can read more about each of these practices in American Institute for Research Brief: Teaching the Whole Child: Instructional Practices that Support Social Emotional Learning in Three Teacher Evaluation Frameworks.

Our students will thrive if equipped with the SEL skills required to adapt to the ever-changing demands of our world. We are providing our students with a tremendous service by integrating SEL into content area teaching that allows them to practice these skills in a wide range of circumstances and real world applications. We need to provide them opportunities to build relationships with peers that they may not have otherwise been inclined to do outside of the academic setting. SEL prepares them for a bright and successful future making genuine connections with others and helping students attain their dreams.

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