Justin Riddle | September 2019

6 Practical Strategies to Develop SEL in the Classroom

One of my favorite moments in my classroom is when I feel the need to say, “Alright everyone, this isn’t working today. Let’s circle up and work this out.” Good teachers, like good stand-up comedians, know how to read the room: we see our lesson isn’t working or half the class is off-task and immediately change gears. My most successful strategy for an off-day is a quick group meeting. Other teachers prefer “brain breaks.” Either way, this sixth sense of teachers is the essence of Social Emotional Learning in action! Let’s take a closer look at some positive SEL strategies that could be used in any class.

It is essential that social and emotional learning be taught and modeled for students. The ways in which teachers interact with students, manage their stress, and even communicate with co-workers are great ways to model SEL skills. Not only that, social and emotional can be embedded in your everyday lessons and activities! The following tips are six practical strategies to support positive SEL in your classroom.


Student-Created Rules and Norms

Every successful classroom needs established rules, rituals, and norms to ensure a structured learning environment. Traditionally, teachers will create their own do’s and don’ts for the classroom right up front, with no input from students. What a bleak way to start off a school year. Instead, have students create their own rules and norms for the classroom!

At the beginning of every year, split students into small groups and, using poster paper, have them generate a long list of the rules and norms they want to see in their classroom for the year. Groups will share out with the whole class, which will then agree upon 5 or 6 of the most important classroom rules. At the end of the process, the teacher should create a final poster with the chosen rules-and have every student sign it! Students will have more ownership in the classroom and hold each other accountable.

Doorway Greetings and Handshakes

First impressions are so important in the classroom, especially when fostering a nurturing social and emotional learning environment. No student wants to enter a classroom with a teacher slumped at their desk or busily writing the day’s warm-up. Like anyone else, a student wants to know, right away, that they are welcome in the learning space.

Greeting students every day at the door with either a handshake or fist bump establishes a moment of respect even before class even begins. As in any walk of life, light physical contact with another person enforces togetherness and comfort. Some teachers even develop a special handshake for each of their students! Keep this up throughout the year, and students will always know they are entering a space that supports them socially and emotionally.


Team Building Activities

Meaningful and challenging team building activities help foster an atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration. What is great about these activities is that they focus exclusively on SEL-no grades should be given! The main objective of a good team-building activity is to grow and nurture a healthy social atmosphere in the classroom.

Here are just a few examples of excellent Team Building Activities to start your year:

Marshmallow Tower

Students work together to create a free-standing tower out of marshmallows and tooth picks. This activity emphasizes communication and teamwork. And students get to eat marshmallows at the end!

Egg Drop Challenge

Smalls groups of students must build a construction out of simple household materials to support an egg from a 6-foot drop. A great exercise that supports problem-solving, communication, and collaboration.

Exquisite Corpse Drawing

Students take turns drawing individual parts of a person, each one building on the next without knowing what anyone else has drawn. By the end of the activity, students will have created hilarious drawings of wacky creature that will make everyone laugh. Hang these drawings around the room to create a healthy, fun social atmosphere in the classroom for the entire year.

Brainstorming Sessions

A powerful tool to use to enhance social and emotional learning is group brainstorming activities. Brainstorming, whether as a whole class or in small groups, allows students the opportunity to present their ideas to peers in a non-judgmental space. A good brainstorming session focuses on all ideas, reserving judgement for a later period. In this way, the teacher emphasizes the importance of collective learning and discovery, creating a space where all ideas are valued.

Although there are many valuable brainstorming tools, Mind Mapping is the best method for fostering social skills like collaboration and communication. Students use large poster paper to create linking bubbles that build off a central question or topic. You may want to have students brainstorm individually before they share out with the entire group.

Class Meetings

The most essential strategy to embed SEL in the classroom is the regular practice of class meetings, either to discuss classroom issues or simply to monitor the social and emotional temperature of the class. Class meetings teach students positive and appropriate communication skills while enforcing the need for respect and acceptance. Students are able to practice many different SEL skills at once, such as:

  • Problem-solving
  • Collaboration
  • Impulse control
  • Considering different perspectives

To hold an effective class meeting, have students sit in a circle facing each other. The teacher should establish simple ground rules for the class meeting, such as only one person speaking at a time. Always start the meeting with compliments, both from teacher to student and student to student. After a positive atmosphere has been established, the class meeting can then focus on issues or problems occurring in the classroom.

Student Reflection 

An often overlooked aspect of SEL is the need for student reflection. By allowing students to reflect on their progress in the class, either academically or socially, students can learn how to monitor their social, emotional, and academic journey in your classroom. These reflections should never be given a grade-this is a low-pressure opportunity for students to internalize their personal development.

After students have reflected in a journal or notebook, ask for volunteers to share out to their peers. Doing this creates a sense of togetherness in students-they will probably find a lot of similarities in their reflections!

Positive SEL Strategies

Social and emotional learning should occur every day in the classroom. Implementing these positive SEL strategies will definitely help. Rather than explicitly teaching these skills, teachers can embed SEL in their lessons and daily rituals to promote healthy collaboration, respect, and positive communication skills. The entire school year will go much smoother if every student feels comfortable in your space. As I like to say to students, it is not my classroom. It is our classroom.

About the Author

Justin Riddle is the Lead STEAM teacher at Perry High School in Pittsburgh, PA. He focuses on project-based learning and cross-circular instruction through digital media, video production, and stop-motion animation. He has taught STEAM art classes in animation and teen filmmaking at Sweetwater Center for the Arts in Sewickley, PA. Justin holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, Philosophy, and Film Studies from Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, and is working towards a Master of Science in Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA. He lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife and two children.