How Do You Teach Social-Emotional Learning?

How Do You Explain SEL In The Classroom?

The recent shift toward social-emotional learning (SEL)–accelerated by the shift to remote teaching and learning and the isolation of a global pandemic–is, of course, a wonderful thing.

If nothing else, it’s a nod and a wink to the idea that students are first people. Emotion drives us as human beings–our brains literally, for example. In Why Emotion Is More Important Than Understanding, I quoted the following ‘neuroscientific’ explanation:

Emotion enhances our ability to form vivid memories of even trivial events. Norepinephrine (NE), a neuromodulator released during emotional arousal, plays a central role in the emotional regulation of memory . . . Our results indicate that NE-driven phosphorylation of GluR1 facilitates the synaptic delivery of GluR1-containing AMPARs, lowering the threshold for LTP, thereby providing a molecular mechanism for how emotion enhances learning and memory.

So emotion enhances learning by flooding the brain with biological actuators of memory. In education, we look for symptoms of these emotions, maybe engagement or creativity.

In regards to human motivation, in his book ‘Drive,’ Daniel Pink says that, “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table: Pay people enough so that they’re not thinking about money and they’re thinking about the work. Once you do that, it turns out there are three factors that the science shows lead to better performance, not to mention personal satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

These pseudo-abstractions–autonomy, mastery, and (especially) purpose–are all either causes or effects of ’emotions.’ These emotions themselves are causes and effects of mindsets and psychological urges and patterns. These urges and patterns have been forged over time through the natural and countless feedback loops embedded in living.

See also What’s A Feedback Loop?

Years ago, there was a push for ‘Whole Child’ education that addressed the broader needs of children–those that extend beyond the academic. Recently, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has also been referenced and emphasized because the idea of teaching an anxious or hungry or depressed student the Pythagorean Theorem just doesn’t feel like our best thinking. Let’s address the former, the thinking goes, so that we can teach the latter.

It’s at this point that we really need to decide what the purpose of school is–something I’ve addressed directly and indirectly in dozens of posts over the years: The Definition Of Good Work, The Characteristics Of A Good School, What Works In Education And How Do We Know, and more.

Is it the responsibility of school to ‘attend’ first to the social-emotional well-being of a child? Maybe ‘responsibility’ isn’t the best word. Should it be a priority? A ‘nice to have’? A ‘while teaching other stuff, add this in’? A way to frame all academic learning?

Should there be standards for it so we all mean the same thing? Standards for social-emotional learning seems like an absurd idea but maybe it’s not. Maybe education needs to understand this kind of push collectively.

Don’t We Already Teach Social-Emotional Learning?

Or rather, in pursuit of it? There is ‘social’ and ’emotional’ in your classroom without you needing to do anything more than you already do.

The emotion of entering a classroom or receiving learning feedback.

The emotion in social interactions–behavioral, verbal, psychological, recreational, non-verbal (e.g., body language), implied messages, etc.

The emotion of questions that students ask–and the emotions those questions cause–which encourages students to revise or improve or reword or clarify the question, and ask it again.

The emotion of the knowledge demands they encounter.

The emotion of the perceived utility and sheer possibility of knowledge.

The emotion of knowledge deficits and skill deficits.

The sense of ‘self’ in social terms and the ongoing (and sometimes less visible) opportunities for transfer of understanding.

The way the brain connects data and patterns reflexively, making meaning where it isn’t always obvious–and how close this process is to creativity.

In contrast to the teachings of Buddha and the Stoics, we tend to only use understanding in order to cause or mitigate select emotions and states of ‘being’ to create or maintain certain conditions we hope (another emotion) will make us feel less ‘bad’ and more ‘good.’

It may useless to compare emotion and understanding because it’s obvious both are crucial to living and recent events have illuminated the extraordinary need not for ’emotion’ but for rational, careful, patient, and unbiased thinking. In these cases, critical thinking must carry us.

But as a species, emotion is more important than understanding because, in lieu of all of our willful rationality and effortful pursuit of universal truths, we are ‘wired’ for emotion and it drives us forward–up, away, and back again in countless and quiet little cycles of life. In the human brain, the neocortex facilitates ‘reason’ but is often encouraged to do so through feedback loops and dopamine rewards.


For better or for worse, most of us live in ongoing pursuit of ‘happiness’–to feel good. We seek to have things and be around others. We are sentimental and nostalgic. We resist and push back. We are prone to confirmation bias and avoid cognitive dissonance. We want what we can’t have and can often misunderstand the value of something until it’s gone.

We hope and we hope and we hope.

And so, in social-emotional learning, what does this look like? How does one ‘teach’ social-emotional learning? Or teach through social-emotional learning? Do we dissect it and teach students the vocabulary of social-emotional learning and promote reflection and metacognition and use Maslow’s Hierarchy to prioritize and help them meditate and use team-building games and make learning feel good?

Should we be rational in order to teach through and for emotion? Ideally, the projects and units and essential questions and lessons and activities are each themselves a cause and effect of social-emotional thinking and behavior. Ideally, this is where social learning and emotional learning and critical thinking all converge.

In the The Two Minds Of An Educator, I wrote “…if we are “considerate of whatever is present” and want to “to leave nothing out,” we can now see that pure Rationality isn’t fully a ‘mind,’ but an instinctive reaction to the scale of our task.”

I continued, “But your Rational Mind is servant to another kind of thinking—in fact, is roused and spurred by a kind of insecurity that realizes that unmistakable importance and coinciding impossibility of what you’ve made it your life’s work to do: Teach dozens and dozens of other human beings what they need to know to about (insert your content area here). The Rational Mind (the same mind that drives policies and standards) wants to parse that task–to respond with logic. Preemptively, strategically, and analytically.”

There is an art and science to everything but these are each simply ways of thinking. These ‘ways’ are truly countless. So let’s think about it like this: Social-Emotional Teaching that intends to result in Social-Emotional Learning necessarily requires analytical and rational thinking.

Rationality is like light while emotion is like color. Rationality is the waveform of the sound while emotion is the sound itself–a note of music played on a piano in a quiet room waiting to be heard. And between the two lie humility, empathy, and critical thinking.

What Skills Are Learned In Social Emotional Learning?

In Social-Emotional Learning, students can learn cognitive skills like metacognition and self-management, psychological ‘skills’ like empathy and compassion, or competency-based skills like collaboration and discussion.

Other skills include de-escalation, collaboration, flexibility, rational thinking, and while not explicitly a hard ‘skill,’ understanding the relationship between thoughts and feelings.

What Does Teaching Social-Emotional Learning Look Like?

So how do you teach social-emotional learning? Emphasize relationships with students? Have a welcoming classroom atmosphere? Have a ‘parking lot’ for questions where students can ask whatever they want whenever they’d like free from anxiety or ridicule or fear? Throw out letter grades? Teach them what emotions are and where they come from and help them practice meditation–or at least mindfulness? A little cognitive behavioral therapy?

Maybe all of that, yes.

But maybe the best to start to ‘teach’ social-emotional learning is to first honor that classrooms aren’t necessarily built for it and it’s not a significant part of any academic standards you’re paid to promote the mastery of.

Honor that you can only do so much and they can only do so much and sometimes less is more.

And to whatever degree you are able, start to think about teaching and learning not from standards first or even ‘students’ first but each student first: to help students learn to think and learn what’s worth knowing and what they might do with what they know to, little by little, create the life that they each deserve.

Social-emotional learning is part of the bedrock of critical literacy: helping them care enough to change themselves and realize a world better than the one they were given.

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