I made a few promises to myself when I became an administrator: find opportunities to teach regularly, really listen to teachers to involve them heavily in the decision making process, and remember that education is a relationship business at its core. I had seen too many good teachers go into administration and forget what teaching was all about, and I vowed to not let that happen.

As a teacher, establishing a culture conducive to SEL came naturally even though I didn’t know what SEL was at the time. By taking time to get to know my students, asking them for feedback, and really focusing on their individual needs, I established a culture in my classroom where students felt safe and supported.

I’ll never forget the first time a student reached out to me as their trusted adult. She was a sophomore whose mom had abused her off and on for many years. We cried together as she told me her story, and I walked her down to the office where we made the report to get her help together. Her story had a happy ending, but far too many students suffer in silence through abuse, depression, anxiety, and countless other difficulties that they don’t feel comfortable sharing.

The research is clear that young people need at least one adult that they can trust in their lives in order to successfully navigate childhood. Ideally, they will have many, starting with their parents. However, schools should lead the way in creating safe places for students to form trusting relationships outside the home with appropriate, positive boundaries. By using a combination of everyday classroom strategies and leveraging flex time, schools can create sustainable SEL practices that help students navigate the difficulties of being a kid in the post-Covid, digital age.

Everyday Classroom Ideas

The best place to develop a school culture centered around the social-emotional needs of the students is the classroom. Teachers have an enormous impact on not only what students learn at school, but also how they feel while at school. This emotional response to school can be positive or negative, and it will profoundly affect the amount of impact that any SEL program can have.

For most teachers, relationship building and establishing a positive classroom community are a natural part of their jobs. For others, it can be a bit of a struggle. Here are some ideas to help teachers build a positive experience for their students:

  • Greet students by name everyday. There is great power in our names and in people knowing them. Learning to spell those names correctly for those inevitable tardy notes is a must too.
  • Model respectful interactions with students. Show students what safe, inclusive behavior looks like. They have to see it before they can do it.
  • Foster discussion. Use active questioning techniques to ensure that all students engage in the discussion, not just a few. I used to really leverage the think – pair – share for this, and my students often talked about how much they enjoyed that time and learned from it.
  • Include many opportunities for peer learning and collaboration. Much like including discussion, students will build a sense of community by working with each other, not just with the teacher. Along with promoting good SEL, this has the added benefit of helping students develop soft skills that they can take to the workforce.
  • Provide leadership opportunities in the classroom. Give students the chance to lead out in activities. Show trust in them and their abilities. Help them to build confidence as they navigate the educational experience.

This list is far from exhaustive, but if teachers will employ some of these strategies, their classrooms will become more safe and welcoming, which will have a profound effect on SEL in the school.

The Effect of Positive Classroom Culture on SEL

One of the challenges for schools in implementing SEL is identifying student needs. From my experience, that is why the above discussion on creating a positive, safe learning environment has to be the first step in any SEL program. Students will not share their emotions or challenges with people that they don’t trust, and gaining trust requires the work discussed above.

However, once that work is put in, students will be more apt to share, and they will begin to see their teachers and others in the building as trusted adults. Then, the important part is for those adults to listen and know the right way to get students help when they reach out. This might require some training or professional development on the part of the school to give guidelines on how to get students who need it professional support and help.

Working SEL into Flex Time

Flex time (or WIN time, as some call it) can be a powerful avenue for creating SEL opportunities for students. By its very design, flex time is tailored to individual student needs and choice. Because students have more autonomy during that time, they have increased ownership of what they accomplish, making it the perfect avenue for SEL. There are a lot of activities that can be used to promote SEL in flex time:

Self Reflection and Goal Setting

Students could use flex time to reflect on their strengths and to set goals to improve themselves. This could be done in any number of ways, and a guide, like this one provided by CASEL might be useful.

Peer Mentoring

Having students talk to each other and explore SEL topics can be a powerful way to engage them. Students have a level of comfort with their peers that they will never have with adults, and allowing them space to talk can have powerful effects. Schools can choose to have this be very structured or more informal. Either choice should yield good results.

Community Service

Being a part of and serving in a community has been shown to have positive effects on mental health and well being. Allowing students to not only perform community service, but also help to find opportunities and plan the experiences can have very positive effects on their SEL.

Stress Reduction

Stretching, breathing exercises, and coping skills could be taught to students to help them learn how to reduce and manage stress. These skills can benefit them long into adulthood!

Team Building

Finally, flex time could be used for team building activities that help students interact with each other and build relationships.

There are many other ways to use flex time to strengthen SEL in a school. The key is for administration, counselors, and faculty to look at what the students need and find what types of activities will fill that need the best.

A Relationship Business

In the end, SEL comes down to relationships. If a school wants to improve SEL outcomes, it needs to focus on improving the relationships in the building first. This relationship building will start in classrooms and radiate into the halls and all other areas. It will improve student well being, raise teacher morale, and aid in early identification of students who need more support.

Relationship building takes time. I believe that far too often schools look for a quick fix to a problem, a program or a policy, for instance. However, true change in a school, or anywhere else, comes with time, consistency, and work. Flex time can be a powerful tool to use in building an SEL program, but it can’t be the only tool.