“What’s Your Number Today?” A Practical Place to Start SEL in the Higher Ed Classroom

by Mary Michaels Estrada, Lecturer at North Carolina State University

On the first day of Academic Research and Writing for International Students at North Carolina State University, where I am a Lecturer in English as a Second Language (ESL), I stood in front of 16 international students from Syrian, Iran, China, and Vietnam. 

“What’s your number?” I asked. Students blinked. Someone coughed. I uncorked a blue marker with a squeak, and drew a long continuum on the whiteboard, writing the number one at one end and 10 at the other. I hit play on my Beatles playlist. I marked an “X” near seven. 

“I’m a seven. What are you? Come down and put a mark by where you think you are.”  

Here they began to glance sidelong at one another. Is she serious? A Chinese student who goes by Charlie bravely made his way down the auditorium stairs, limping a little. Later he confessed he couldn’t find our classroom, was afraid to ask anyone for help, slipped and fell on the brick stairs on the way in, and crushed his phone screen. It was his second day in the U.S. Charlie marked an “X” over the number one. Others made their way forward, adding a mark and grinning nervously on their way back to their seat. They giggled, they chatted, they relaxed. We all looked a moment at the powerful visual result: a modified scatter graph of our emotional wellbeing. 

Mary with her students Silvia, Hanyi, Xinru “Alysia”, Kourosh and Tram.
Credit: NCSU

While I strive to build an engaging course and pride myself on building a sense of belonging in the classroom, I was new to SEL. I was more reluctant than my students. Would I lose my credibility? Do we have time for this? My exposure to SEL comes from my daughter’s program in her elementary school. I knew my international students were isolated. “This is the only time I talk all day,” one student reported. Research shows that international students on college campuses have higher instances of depression and suicide. Mental wellness is a priority at my university and others. I felt SEL could be a powerful component of my higher education curriculum, but I didn’t know where to start.

Rush Sabiston-Frank, from the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning, gave me practical advice and a push: “Start with a mindfulness check-in!” Adding the simple, two-minute check-in has given a great return on our investment. Quantifiable results include: data visualization for me and the other students on how the group is feeling. Who needs support? Who can offer support? Unquantifiable results include: empowerment as students began to own the process (they chose the music---The Beatles was replaced by Post Malone), they drew the continuum, they began to ask each other about their number), and a feeling of the sum being greater than the parts. This simple act gave us that magic riverbed through which learning flows: community.

Mary, fourth from left, with students in front of Mindfulness check-in on whiteboard.
Credit: NCSU

What I did not expect was how important our community would be to my students after they could not return to campus after spring break. I scheduled a Zoom meeting, wondering if I would be waiting in Zoom for an hour alone. Hanyi joined us from her hotel in quarantine in China from a 12-hour time difference; Robin joined from his dorm room, where he was the only student left in the entire dorm (“I exercise in the halls!”); Charlie joined from his apartment; they all came. Synchronous class was not required, yet they showed up for themselves and one another.

“Check-ins with music really wake and cheer you up for an 8:30 class! You can also find out how your classmates are feeling or undergoing, which will always be an excellent topic to talk about when you try to make friends. All students in our class remained in a good relationship.” (Hanyi)

If you need a place to start with SEL in your higher ed course, begin with the mindfulness check-in. Trust your students’ desire to connect with you as much as you hope to connect with them. If you are practicing SEL activities as part of your higher ed course, I’d love to hear what you are doing!

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