I can still remember the moment when I realized teaching self-control is essential—it was my first year teaching, and a brawl broke out in my 5th grade classroom when one student knocked a pencil off another’s desk. It was a wake up call for me.

I had been focused on teaching reading and math standards, but in that moment I realized that if my students weren’t able to negotiate conflict in a healthy way, they would struggle to be successful in life—no matter how well they could read.

Our country has come a long way in valuing Social Emotional Learning (SEL). The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development recently issued a report calling the United States a “nation at hope” that better understands how social and emotional development contributes to learning and to children’s later success as adults. Here’s what teachers should know about integrating these concepts into their classroom:

Teaching SEL Improves Student Outcomes

You don’t have to sacrifice academics. The Aspen Institute’s report found that, “It is a mistake to view social and emotional learning as a ‘soft’ approach to education.” In fact, they found the exact opposite to be true: “An emphasis on these capacities is not the sacrifice of rigor; it is a source of rigor. While many elements of a child’s life improve along with the cultivation of these skills, one of the main outcomes is better academic performance.”

Reframe Your Thinking

Instead of viewing your students’ bad behavior as annoyances, treat them as clues. Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and co-author of No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind says, “The behaviors that are the most challenging, and that drive us the craziest, are actually telling us something really important. They are telling us the specific areas in which our kids need teaching, support, and skill-building.”

In the example above, my 5th graders’ actions told me that they had deep emotions that they were having trouble processing. I was able to pull the students aside individually to find out what was happening in their personal lives, and also integrate SEL strategies into my class. I used resources like the four step process from Character Playbook (below) to better equip all my students with the tools they needed to understand and manage their emotions:

  • Name the emotion.
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Choose how to react.
  • Talk to someone.

Old School Doesn’t Work

When we’re frustrated, it’s easy to slip into lecture-mode, but this can actually make things worse. Studies of conflict resolution programs like Project WIN have found that some overused strategies meant to decrease student violence—such as scare tactics, tough love, and adults lecturing students—actually end up increasing unwanted behaviors. The most effective approach is to develop meaningful relationships with our students, and help them learn to harness the power of their brain by teaching helpful SEL strategies.

One Teacher Can Make a Difference

The Aspen Institute report found that teachers often wonder if they should use a stand-alone program to teach SEL skills, or whether they should incorporate these skills into their normal lessons. The answer is both.

Schools and teachers can implement evidence-informed lessons like The Compassion Project, which helps students cultivate real-world skills around empathy, compassion, and mindfulness.

Teachers can also incorporate these concepts through literature, and find natural touch points during the day (like transitions) to help their students practice self-control.

Turn Transitions Into SEL Opportunities

  • If your students come off the bus rowdy and angry at each other, start every morning with 5 minutes of stretching and music to help them get in the right frame of mind for good decision-making.
  • Provide “just-in-time” reminders: “In a minute we’re going to line up for lunch. Remember that we stand on the blue line with our hands by our sides.” Taking a few seconds to set expectations ahead of time has been proven to help children inhibit inappropriate behavior.
  • Recess is fun, but it can also be a source of high emotions and drama. When students return to the classroom, have them spend two quiet minutes focusing on their breath.
  • Take a mini-break between lessons to help students reset. You’re more likely to see outbursts if you ask kids to go straight from one tough task to another.

Be Encouraged

Teachers have always cared about students’ overall wellbeing, but we haven’t always had the tools or support necessary to teach them critical life skills. With the passing of the Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA), districts and states are now focused on whole child education and there are more SEL resources available to teachers.

This is good news for teachers and students because, as the Aspen Institute report says, “The promotion of social, emotional, and academic learning is… the substance of education itself. It is not a distraction from the “real work” of math and English instruction; it is how instruction can succeed.” By integrating simple strategies and resources like the ones mentioned here, we can take active strides towards making SEL a part of everyday school life.

Robin Sykes is a former elementary school teacher and the current Vice President of K-12 Marketing and Communications at EVERFI. In her free time, she enjoys reading Agatha Christie books, growing vegetables, and traveling to the world’s 196 countries (over 40 so far). She lives in Nashville, TN with her husband and one-year-old daughter.


Real World Learning Matters

EVERFI empowers teachers to bring critical skills education into their classrooms at no cost. Get activated and join 50,000+ educators across North America!