The SEL Ties that Bind Us: The Connection Between SEL for Students and SEL for Teachers

Earlier this year, I was prepping a group of middle school students for a service learning trip to Thailand. I wanted to go beyond talking with them about just the practical/logistical parts of the trip, so I chose to do an SEL activity with them - The Intra-Personal Triptych. This lesson, from The Institute for Social and Emotional Learning, asks students to use shapes, colors, texture, and other drawings to represent how they feel before a big event. Then, they try to express how they want to feel after the trip. And finally, the center section guides them to navigate what actions and choices they can make to allow them to get from the “before” to the “after” feelings. The students were all so engaged; they were doing all the work I wanted them to be doing, and I was overjoyed. 

And yet…what I found  myself really thinking about, is my own emotional lens- what actions I need to be taking in my own life, regarding an unrelated personal issue. I subconsciously was doing the activity with them, and didn’t even realize it. I walked out of that session not only having kids ready to navigate their own unknown experiences, but having solutions for mine as well. 

This is what explicit SEL work does: It supports your students, and it supports you. It gives your students the opportunities to practice and work with their own SEL competencies in low-risk, high engagement situations, so that when they are in those unknown situations later, they’re more prepared in making those healthy, positive choices. But the unexpected, beautiful benefit is: it can seep into your own life too. It impacts how you navigate day-to-day life with students. It makes you pause and re-think how you are going to respond to that colleague. It helps you adjust to emotionally challenging situations. 

The core of what we teach, we truly cannot teach explicitly or well, unless we work to open up  ourselves, and make the effort to do the same work as well. It’s the same for any content or discipline area we teach and are experts in- math, science, English, or humanities. The difference: we all went to school to become qualified in those disciplines. We have a degree in them. We spent years developing those skills, becoming confident and competent in them. And yet, here we are, in 2023, and SEL has become a priority in many districts and  schools.   Teachers are being expected to simply know how to teach SEL, with little or no high-quality professional development.  if we truly want our students to be able to build their skills in these competencies….we have to start with practicing it ourselves.

This can be a daunting, uncomfortable reality for many teachers. “So you’re saying I need to get MORE training, and prepare more lessons outside of my content area?” And I get the hesitancy. So let’s reframe it. Teaching these skills is new to the majority, but it’s a win-win for both students and adults. It gives you the gift of the self-work yourself; it gives you the opportunity to model the activity with your students. And I promise- just like my own Intra-Personal Triptych experience- if you simply immerse yourself into the activities with your students, you too may feel and notice your own mindset change; you can get the same support from them as your students do. It’s the beauty of this work.

So my recommendation? Start small, and do what you are comfortable with. Pick a few activities that resonate with you, and that fit your comfort zone and content area. And that’s the great thing about the IFSEL resources: it gives you dozens upon dozens of activities that can be incorporated not just into advisory, but in your subject area. My go-to activities and practices from IFSEL are:

• Inter and intrapersonal questions: The simplest way to incorporate SEL into any discipline or activity. One to two questions to reflect every time. 

•Group or class ”Check-ins”, where you have students rate where they are on a thermometer scale; I also love having the students create their own rating scale.

•Of course, the Triptych

•And an additional tool I’ve found helpful:

• Emotion Wheels: I often have an emotion wheel up in my classroom, which serves to help students articulate what they’re feeling (which doubles for ELA narrative writing and analysis of character)

The more we practice it, model it, the more we feel comfortable doing it with our students. And that’s where our competence and confidence comes. And the reality is: the world’s changed. What our students need to know to thrive, flourish, and succeed in this world has changed. We aren’t preparing them for a set, particular work-force. We’re preparing them to be able to adapt, to be resilient, to be flexible. But…why can’t that be a way to be supporting our own social emotional competencies as well?

In Summary:

•SEL Skills and activities transcend both students and teachers, and there’s major benefits to our own social-emotional health in teaching it to our students.

•Starting small and picking a few activities that make sense to you is the best place to start. 

•Don’t be afraid to try them out yourself. I promise you’ll get something out of it.

Jessica is currently the Advisory Coordinator and a teacher at the American School of Dubai

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