Social-emotional learning not only works to build a positive school culture but also helps with closing achievement gap among students. More and more schools are seeing that SEL is an essential part of academic success. It is the process by which students develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes needed to manage emotions, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. When schools work to foster these skills, they are teaching students how to overcome challenges that would otherwise hinder their academic success. 

There was a time when I thought social-emotional learning was just another trend in education that would fizzle out. I thought it was just something extra that admin would tell us teachers we needed to do for a year before it was replaced with something new the next. It wasn’t until I had a really rough year that I realized the power of SEL.

No matter how good of a lesson or activity I created, my students just didn’t seem to be learning what I needed them to know. I was experiencing so many behavior problems and the number of failing students on my roster kept rising. I spent so much time researching how to get students to learn. What I figured out seems so obvious to me now. I was only focusing on the academic content that students needed to learn.

The skills students needed to be successful with academic content is what I needed to focus on. I also needed to work on skills that I needed to be successful in teaching that content. I took a hard look at what those skills were. As I started creating a list of them I realized that they all fall under social-emotional learning competencies. So instead of putting SEL on the back burner, I spent time learning what it really is and used it to boost the performance of all the students in my classes. 

The Skills Developed by Social-Emotional Learning

You don’t believe me that SEL is the secret to academic success? Check out this chart that breaks down the skills within each SEL competency. Then answer this question: Can anyone (student or adult) really be successful without these skills? I’m willing to bet your answer is No way!

Infographic that shows all the skills that fall under each SEL competency.

How SEL Works to Close the Achievement Gap

  • SEL Promotes Positive Classroom Climate

One of the main goals of SEL is to create a positive and supportive classroom climate. One where students feel safe, valued, and respected. When students feel connected to their peers and teachers, they are more likely to engage in learning and take academic risks. By creating a positive classroom climate through SEL, you can help reduce absenteeism, increase student engagement, and improve academic achievement.

  • SEL Develops Self-Awareness and Self-Regulation

Another key benefit of SEL is that it helps students develop self-awareness and self-regulation skills. This helps students recognize and manage their emotions, cope with stress and anxiety, and regulate their behavior in a positive way. This better equips students to focus on their academic goals and overcome the distractions and obstacles that would otherwise stand in the way of their progress.

  • SEL Fosters Empathy and Social Skills

SEL also promotes empathy and social skills, which are essential for building positive relationships with others. By developing these skills, students learn to communicate effectively, resolve conflicts peacefully, and collaborate with others. These skills are particularly important for students who may not have the same opportunities to develop social skills outside of school.

  • SEL Supports Academic Motivation and Resilience

Finally, SEL can help students develop academic motivation and resilience, which are critical for success in school and beyond. When students feel confident in their ability to succeed academically, they are more likely to set challenging goals, persist in the face of difficulties, and bounce back from setbacks. By fostering academic motivation and resilience through SEL, you can help students overcome the negative stereotypes and low expectations that can hold them back.

Closing the Achievement Gap Strategies

So, now the question is how do you teach these skills to your students? How can you suddenly get a teenager to see the value of goal-setting or that anticipating challenges will actually help to overcome them? It isn’t with printed-out worksheets or a curriculum that students can’t relate to. Teachers have to be intentional about first modeling these skills and then slipping practice of these skills into already existing lessons and activities. For older students, this is the only way to make it genuine and effective. They need the chance to use these skills with your guidance so that they can be empowered by the results. 

I’ve got you covered with some of my favorite strategies for putting social-emotional learning into play in the classroom!

1. Explicitly Teach Executive Functioning Skills

Did you know that a student’s level of executive functioning is a higher predictor of success than IQ? With this being the case we would be crazy to not focus some time on helping students develop these skills. It is not safe to assume that teenage students walk into our classrooms as masters of organization, planning, or time management.

Executive functioning skills form the foundation for self-awareness and self-management. These skills go hand in hand with social-emotional learning skills. So, go ahead and use some time during class to help students organize their binders, manage their time by mapping out their study plans in their planners, and create action plans to achieve their goals. The benefits will far outweigh the amount of class time you may be worried about losing. There are also plenty of other opportunities to integrate these skills into your existing lessons. If you are interested, check out these self-awareness templates and these self-management templates that can be used with any content in any class!

Image with a reminder box that reads Executive functioning skills go hand in hand with social-emotional learning skills.

2. Let Your Classroom Get Noisy

Foster a collaborative classroom environment. Provide plenty of opportunities for students to work together, hold class discussions often, and allow the students to learn from each other. Cooperative learning gives students a chance to practice and reflect on their social-emotional competence. Through collaboration and class discussions, teens learn to support and challenge one another. They build self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision-making skills while simultaneously developing critical thinking and other academic skills. Cooperative learning will allow the integration of SEL and academics to come to life in your classroom!

Box with colorful background that reads Let your classroom get noisy.

3. Sneak SEL into Existing Lesson Plans

SEL skills can and should be integrated into what you already teach without taking away from the time you need for academic content. In fact, when it is integrated into academic content, it boosts success rates. When it comes to teens developing SEL skills, it is more effective to sneak them into academic content.

Programs for teens that explicitly teach SEL have been proven ineffective. These programs often feel lame to middle and high school students because they tend to tell teens what not to do but they don’t teach alternative strategies or use relevant resources. So, take a look at the lesson plans you have already created and ask yourself where you can slip in some SEL. Don’t worry about smothering the entire lesson; just sprinkling a little SEL here and there is more effective than you may think! Is there an opportunity for students to see multiple perspectives on a topic, resolve a conflict, or problem-solve? I have no doubt you will find these opportunities and so many more!

Image of a math teaching standing next to the whiteboard in her classroom with text that reads sneak SEL into existing lesson plans.

Social-emotional learning has the potential to help schools close the achievement gap by helping students develop the skills they need to overcome challenges to their academic success. Teaching these skills is the best way for schools to help students from all backgrounds and at all levels reach their full potential. If you are looking for more help with integrating SEL in your classroom, you can find it here. Just remember that developing these skills is a process. It won’t happen overnight; as long as you stick with it, you will see unimaginable results!