Gentle Tips for Social-Emotional Learning

Carlyn Coffey
Carlyn Coffey

July 08, 2022

Social-emotional learning is a hot topic in the world of education, and it’s easy to see why. While achievement markers like grades and standardized test scores are actually rather nonpredictive of students’ future happiness and achievement in adulthood, emotional wellbeing does indeed permeate the worlds of work, relationships, and even health; affecting each positively.

In the wake of a pandemic, teachers have more to juggle than ever before, as students attempt to “bounce back” from, essentially, years of remote learning and even completely missed school. Anecdotally, student behavior has plummeted for many, causing additional strain on educators.

“Catching students up” from missed educational milestones, developing classroom management skills, and succeeding in simply completing regularly scheduled lesson plans is more than enough to expect from educators, and yet it’s difficult to ignore the benefits of social-emotional learning that, if incorporated, could ease the stress of all these other activities. The question becomes: how much social-emotional learning can a teacher reasonably attempt to incorporate while remaining consistent in the practice?

The Best Way to Improve Students’ Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Many professionals suggest social-emotional learning (SEL) should become an entire subject of learning, much in the same way math, social studies, and language are areas that we prioritize. This speaks to SEL’s contribution to positive life outcomes. However, many schools and individual teachers are not in a position to simply add whole subjects to their curriculum. Districts require a top-down approach to get this done.

While we can advocate for drastic SEL incorporation, what can be done in the meantime so that students can reap the many benefits of SEL without a daily 45-minute chunk of time devoted to it?

One strategy includes incorporating SEL programs for only those students considered “at-risk” for emotional or behavioral problems. However, determining which students are at-risk, and to what extent, takes time and additional planning. Also, it has the potential to de-rail such students even more upon being identified as “different” or even “struggling”. Besides, research shows that all students can benefit from social-emotional learning tactics, no matter how much emotional intelligence they’ve previously accumulated.

Instead, a more evidence-based approach is to infuse SEL tactics throughout currently occurring classroom learning, for all students. Embedding SEL throughout existing curriculum takes pressure off teachers to create full-blown lesson plans while still providing social and emotional growth for students.

Activities to Help Students’ Social-Emotional Development

While various research espouses differing pillars of SEL, there are five facets of social-emotional growth that are common to most studies. These include the ability to self-reflect, recognition of others’ emotions and thoughts, emotional self-control, problem-solving skills, and the capacity to collaborate with others.

There are also a variety of ways to approach improvement in each of these proposed realms of social-emotional learning. In fact, there are an overwhelming amount of companies that provide SEL programming and curriculum for schools and districts to put into practice. However, our focus here is to implement activities that address social-emotional learning in the regular course of daily classroom activities, for no additional cost.

A note: journaling is an inherently self-reflective activity, and therefore can be a beneficial tool for growth in any core area of SEL. Therefore, a daily or few-times-a-week practice of giving students time to journal is a helpful suggestion for overall SEL. A prompt for each facet of SEL is provided to guide students in their attempt at social-emotional learning.

Ability To Self-Reflect

This facet includes a student’s aptitude to comprehend their own emotions, identify what they value, and make their own goals to work towards. It also includes the student’ capacity to determine their own strengths and areas of growth while recognizing the connections between their own thoughts and resulting actions.


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Have students share their dreams in small groups. This tactic has been used in the Wisdom of the Heart Program in Tel Aviv, where it’s been found that dream-sharing can drum up unrecognized feelings that students have about themselves and their experiences, bringing them one step closer to self-awareness and self-reflection.

Journaling Prompt For Students:

What is one action or task I completed today that I am proud of? Why do I feel that way about the action or task?

Recognition of Others’ Emotions and Thoughts

A vital component of overall social intelligence, “recognition of others’ emotions and thoughts,” includes students’ ability to feel compassion and empathy for others, as well as the general comprehension of others’ emotions and the connections between those emotions and subsequent actions. This skill includes seeing other individuals’ points of view.


In conjunction with any lesson, make space for a group discussion to take place on the subject. Ask students to share their thoughts on a reading or concept in relation to what they’ve experienced in their lives. This gives students the ability to recognize others as full persons with a range of emotions and experiences. Encourage students, when not speaking, to practice active listening. Active listening is a learned skill that is beneficial for the general recognition of others’ emotions and thoughts.

Group discussions offer another benefit: student participation in classroom talk is correlated directly with better student achievement and faster learning. It’s easy to evaluate your own classroom talk, which students aren’t participating, and whether the ratio of teacher-to-student talk is off-kilter when you have the analytical tools to collect data instantly.

Journaling Prompt for Students:

Reflect on any conversation you had yesterday. How did you feel during the interaction? How might the other person have been feeling?

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Emotional Self-Control

Emotional self-control includes such factors as self-motivation, emotion and action regulation, and positivity. These skills might manifest in an ability to handle stress, work through challenges, and delay gratification. An individual who practices emotional self-control is able to tolerate “not knowing” something without expressing embarrassment or intense frustration.


When reading to students, encourage them to stop you when they don’t know what a word means. Model this behavior for them. Pick out a word from the text yourself and behave as though you are struggling to understand it. Together, find the word in a dictionary and discover its meaning.

Journaling Prompt for Students:

What calming activities can I engage in when I’m feeling stressed?

Problem Solving Skills

Such skills include critical examination of a given situation, especially one in the social sphere, and the capacity to make decisions that help progress problems in a positive direction. School can be seen, in general, as an attempt to teach students how to solve different varieties of problems.


Lessons in problem-solving skills can be incorporated into any curriculum, given that a teacher can create a problem that needs solving related to the subject.

Teach students to approach problems using a sequence:

  1. Explain to yourself in your own words what the problem is.

  2. Create an end goal you wish to have reached by the end of your problem-solving process.

  3. Brainstorm as many solutions as you can.

  4. Determine all the various outcomes for each solution you’ve come up with.

  5. Choose what you determine to be the best solution.

Journaling Prompt for Students:

How does a flexible problem-solver approach an issue? How can I grow to become more like that flexible problem-solver?

Capacity to Collaborate with Others

This facet of SEL includes relationship maintenance, communication skills, and the capacity to constructively work through conflict with others. Students must feel safe and secure before they are ready to collaborate with others. Furthermore, their sense of security in the classroom is highly correlated to the relationship they’ve formed with their teacher. It’s important for teachers to build relationships with students, which we describe strategies for here.


Create opportunities for students to regularly work in groups to foster their capacity to collaborate with others. Require students to fill out a worksheet afterward, evaluating their own contribution and collaboration.

Journaling Prompt for Students:

When is the last time I disagreed with someone? How did we work through our disagreement? How can I work through disagreements in a more constructive way in the future?

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