Listen to the interview with Wendy Turner:
I’ll never forget the day when a red rubber bracelet was my most important accessory. After beginning our regular morning routine, I was confronted by an angry colleague in my classroom. We started to engage in a heated conversation—right in front of my students. I knew this was bad. I knew my students were watching, and I knew I had to get my social-emotional house in order, fast!
After a couple of minutes, we ended the conversation, but the issues were unresolved. When I shut the door, I didn’t go back to the morning meeting. I couldn’t, not the way my emotions were at that moment. I literally could not teach. So I walked over to a small basket that holds red, green, and yellow rubber bracelets. We all put one on every morning to share how we are feeling without words. I took off the green one I was wearing and put on a red one, while 20 pairs of student eyes bored into my soul. I simply told my students I needed to cool down, then went over to our breathing bucket—or cool-down area—and breathed deeply for several minutes while they continued.
I was then able to return to my students and my job in a much more productive emotional state. I modeled EXACTLY what I would want them to do in the same situation. I later realized that this moment was an incredible gift, a chance to show my students how to handle difficult emotions when they arise unexpectedly. It was my opportunity to model self-awareness and practice adult social-emotional learning.
Social-Emotional Learning: It’s everywhere in education today. From Twitter chats to professional development to team meetings, SEL is widely discussed, debated and embraced in different ways with lots of emotion (no pun intended). And rightly so, in my opinion: Social-emotional learning is the key to academic achievement; it is the fine art of being a successful human; and it is the ground floor of learning. I don’t believe any student can access and unlock their full academic potential without first accessing and unlocking their full social-emotional self.
So what is SEL exactly? CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, defines SEL as “how children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, set goals, show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” with five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. The graphic below illustrates this nicely.
What is the most effective way to teach and develop these competencies? Many have concerns about building in the time to teach SEL as well as confusion over exactly how to do it. Do we need a curriculum binder with lessons? Do we need an SEL skills block? Maybe. But I think a better answer is right in front of us. The better answer is us and it starts with modeling the competencies we wish to see in our students every single day. It means looking deep inside ourselves and identifying what we are good at and what we need to work on, and engaging in that work right before our students’ eyes.
Doing this kind of work right in front of our students is not for the faint of heart, but doesn’t it make sense? How can we ask our students to have a growth mindset or use empathy and get along with peers if we don’t authentically do it ourselves? To truly germinate and grow, SEL concepts must be embedded in the walls of our classrooms as well as the fabric of our daily learning experiences. We lead by example, modeling both successful and challenging moments.
One good place to start is to look at each competency, get really, really honest about where we are with each of them, then find ways to model them to the best of our ability.
Competency 1: Self-Awareness
This is all about setting goals, knowing the strengths and weaknesses you possess, and cultivating a growth mindset. To model this for your students, share the goals you’re working on, your plans to get there, and the struggles you encounter along the way.
I am great at a lot of things, but I’m a really bad cook. Knowing this, I routinely try to make food with success to grow my confidence and show my students and my family that I can and will try. It doesn’t help that my husband is a fantastic cook.
Last year my classroom was connected with a class in Nigeria using a tech tool called Empatico, so we learned about Nigerian culture as part of the process. One really cool fact we found out was that they eat a bean cake called Akara for breakfast. My class immediately asked if we could try it. No problem, I said. Except that I had to cook it myself.
Frozen with fear, I went home determined to make this food for my students. Full disclosure: my husband does all of the cooking in my house. It turned out it was SO much work to soak and peel beans and then fry the cakes. They were not perfect, but I was able to make them. I took pictures and videos of the process and shared them with the class. When students tried them, they cheered for the Akara and for me. Deep waves of happiness invaded my soul. I had shared my fear with my kids, showed determination by coming up with a plan to do something new, and got it done. Then I shared the end product with people I care about: my students. They told me how proud they were of me. I will not forget that moment.
Over the years, I have shared training plans for running half marathons, being nervous about big presentations and speeches, and my lack of confidence in braiding my daughter’s hair. This helps students see me as human and also models my work on self-awareness and my ability to embrace new experiences. A few times a year I assign growth mindset homework where students pick a new skill to learn. Over a week they log their time on the new skill and their results. This allows them to practice what I have shown them.
Another big part of self-awareness is cultivating a positive outlook. I use reframing thoughts as a way to find something positive or good in whatever is difficult. Reframing doesn’t mean we diminish hard things or dismiss them. Instead, we look at them another way to see something as not quite so bad. Each week I share with my class something difficult I’m going through, and then I reframe it. For me right now, one of those difficulties is playing ping pong with my family. We have two teenagers. Everyone is really good at it and I suck. I have to work on my emotional regulation while I get crushed in the games regularly, sometimes mercilessly taunted by moody teenagers. So I keep playing to get better. I reframe the experience as time spent with my kids and active time and access my growth mindset around ping pong skills. It’s a win and I am getting better!
With my students, we go through community building circles where we look at a scenario and students offer ideas around reframing it. For students who struggle to positively reframe, they are still hearing ideas from others on how to do it as they develop this skill. As with any other skill, practice builds competence and I can see students get better at this throughout the year.
Competency 2: Self-Management
Self-management is our ability to manage our emotions, plain and simple. How do we keep our cool and recover when we lose it as we experience anger, frustration or nervousness in everyday situations? We model it.
Despite my best intentions, I do not stay calm and steady every moment in my classroom. This is normal, so I make a point to show my students how to navigate these sometimes difficult emotions. And when I need to, I apologize for my inability to stay regulated, especially if it results in yelling.
In the example I shared earlier, I had physical signs appear that indicated I was going to lose it! Heat crept up my body, my ears turned red and my cheek started to twitch, a classic sign that I was about to get really upset. When I changed my bracelet and went to cool off, I literally had to wait until my internal body temperature went down, I stopped shaking, and the red left my face.
It is really important to model recognizing the physical signs that your body is going into stress mode. Then, when we see the signs, we can think about what we need to do to avoid the meltdown. Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, uses a hand model of the brain to provide a concrete way to monitor this change. A closed fist represents a regulated emotional state while an open fist shows what happens when we become dysregulated. Learning to notice the signs is incredibly valuable so you can work to try to get back to a regulated state. This video does a good job of explaining this concept of the upstairs or learning brain vs. the downstairs or “lid-flipped” brain.
As a trainer for Kristin Souers and Pete Hall, the authors of Fostering Resilient Learners, I teach adults about this concept so we can bring it to our kids and help support proactive emotional regulation.
I’ll be honest. I was incredibly proud of how I handled myself that day in front of my students. It was a teachable moment. It was the curriculum of real life. It was not in the lesson plan, but we all know that some of the most incredible and valuable lessons are unscripted, unplanned, interrupting what we thought we would do. But we must see them, embrace them and love them for what they are: valuable life lessons and a chance to model SEL authentically.
Competency 3: Social Awareness
This competency is all about empathy and appreciating diversity, people and perspectives different from us. If we can find opportunities to model this for our students, they will in turn get better at it.
On the seventh day of my teaching career, one of my students lost his mom to cancer. I just went home and cried. I was terrified about how to support this student as well as the rest of his classmates. I teach 2nd grade, so fears about loss and parental separation are very powerful. While my student was out with his family, we held several class meetings to express our fears and talk about ways to be empathetic. When that student returned, my class got to see me using empathy as he came back to the routines of school.
A few years later, when a former student showed up in my room dressed in the same clothes for three days, exhausted from sleeping on a couch every night, I let him sleep in the back of the classroom so we could get to a place of learning. My students saw this and they got it, stepping over him to put away their coats and backpacks. When I see students in the hallway or at recess struggling, I ask how I can help them and what they need. I do this with teachers too, all of it in plain view of my students.
Recently, we had apples for a snack. The extras were quickly claimed but one boy asked for some more; I had to tell him they were all gone. Another student got out some scissors and cut his bag of apples in half to share with the boy. That was empathy in action. When we model empathy authentically, it starts to show up.
I have an empathy meter in my room the kids can use to gauge where we are as a group. There is a round magnet you can slide around on it. Every morning I put it into the center on the area that says “Focused on Yourself Only” and kids move it a little or a lot to one side throughout the day based on what they are feeling and seeing others say and do. For instance, if someone gets upset and cries during a partner or group activity and other students comfort him or her, someone will slide it toward the orange side. If someone is hurtful, it goes the other way.
You can also make instructional choices that build this competency, like the partnership we have formed with the classroom in Nigeria. Diverse literature that supports empathy-building is another way to grow social awareness (try this social justice book list here).
Competency 4: Relationship Skills
This competency is based on our ability to get along with and forge connections with other human beings. CASEL tells us it includes cooperation, negotiating conflict and communication skills. Although it’s easy to hang with people who are just like you and share your opinions, I make a point to try to talk to and connect with as many people as possible in my school regularly. Our school community is huge with lots of very different people with diverse perspectives. I make sure my students see me engaging in positive and productive conversations with custodians, cafeteria staff, parents, tutors, other teachers, building mechanics, visitors from the district office and students from other grade levels and classrooms as often as possible.
When our custodian comes in to change the morning trash after we eat breakfast in the classroom, we say good morning to her and I ask her how her baby girl is doing instead of silently letting her slip in and out of our room, unseen every day. When team members plan field trips or special events for us, we all genuinely thank them. Last year we wrote and delivered letters of kindness to one of our Deans of Students after a rough patch, cementing the strong relationship we have with him and showing appreciation for everything he does every day. As we travel through the school and I come across students who I need to interact with, sometimes to compliment them, sometimes to redirect them, I always introduce myself to them first with a handshake and a smile. I compliment hair, shoes, and ideas all around me. We look for connections and then do nice things for people.
My earlier example about the teacher who barged into my room yelling is a great example of negotiating conflict successfully. The teacher and I recovered from this incident and continue as respectful colleagues. This is the work of developing strong relationships with the people around us. It’s the small everyday moments and gestures. It’s swallowing unhelpful remarks and snarky comments. It’s noticing and not judging. And it’s really, really hard. There is no magic to this work, rather a desire to engage in the continuous, sustained effort that yields personal and professional relationships that matter, work and last. And of course, we have to make sure our students see us do it daily. Relationship building is built on listening and connection. This article is one of the best I have seen about how to foster connection at all ages. And here’s a great video, made by kids, about how to listen well:
Another powerful way to support relationship skills is to engage in teamwork. When a group comes together around a project, particularly a service project or one that will benefit others, the rewards are incredible. People develop a sense of purpose as one larger unit and relish the good feelings that such a project can generate as they make a positive impact. This also strengthens our relationship with the community and the world at large.
I am a member of a team of global fellows who work to bring ideas to our students around building global competence and social good. I share this teamwork with my students and then work to create action with Team Turner (nickname for our class) in the same way. Some ideas to consider are setting up a school garden, supporting a local animal shelter, planning and executing a community event around helping the environment, and collecting items for those in need. In the past, we have convinced our district nutrition leader to change breakfast delivery from single-use plastic bags to reusable plastic caddies.
A great framework for projects like these is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. These goals outline 17 huge and important problems in the world; students can come together and act locally on any of these goals to make a positive impact. Another benefit? This work with a real-world connection and impact is highly engaging and can complement any core curriculum. Check out the graphic below and click here to learn more.
Competency 5: Responsible Decision Making
Growth in this competency centers on our ability to make good choices as we work to solve problems and navigate everyday challenges in our lives. The most powerful tool I possess to develop this competency and share it with others is my personal reflection.
About a year ago, I engaged in some really poor decision making that went against everything I stood for. I was unhelpful, rude, mean and negative when our admin team was asking teachers for help when faced with a substitute shortage. I had an opportunity to help and I blew it while others were stepping up to the plate. I violated the version of myself that I worked to put out there every day; someone who is positive, helpful and strong enough to do difficult things. When I analyzed the situation and looked back on my decision-making process, I realized I had not done one critical thing. I neglected to have empathy for our admin team. They were trying to solve a problem on a busy morning. I entertained only my perspective instead of that of others. I realized this looking back, not forward.
The key to developing this competency is creating the time and headspace in order to learn from past failures. It is really hard. I do this by getting up early and sitting quietly reflecting on the day before and the day ahead before speaking to another human, checking social media, or responding to an email. I am an early bird, so this works for me, but everyone can work to find that headspace in a place that works for them. The shower, the car, the kitchen, in a journal, or with music.
In the moment, we have to remember to ask a few questions as we get ready to act. Some are: What am I really trying to do? Is this helpful? Is this necessary? When you are working on longer team projects and have the luxury of planning and time we can add: Is this feasible? Is there a better way to do it? Is this morally sound, ethical, and safe? Building in questions at checkpoints and reflection after acting can aid in more responsible decision making. So often when we are impulsive, we later regret our actions. Building in that deliberate questioning to slow things down can help.
With kids, I use a protocol called “STOP. THINK. DECIDE.” for everyday moments and common problems. A simple visual in the classroom is a simple and helpful reminder. Holding weekly community-building circles where students share about a time they made a poor decision and how to do better next time works to keep these ideals front and center.
I truly believe the most powerful person in our classrooms to support SEL is us. It just is. Every year during the first week of school, I show my students a presentation called “How to Be a Great Human” (you can access it here). I know that there is absolutely no way I can expect my students to embrace the ideas in it without doing that in a very visible way myself.
One of my favorite quotes of all time is a well-known one from Haim Ginott, a child psychologist from Israel, long since passed away. He says “I’ve come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather.” We are the weather.
With great intention, focus, practice, and extremely hard work, we can create better weather in our classrooms when we pursue social-emotional excellence, embracing these competencies as real, raw, complete human beings, showing our students how to do so along the way. We don’t need binders of curriculum or hours in the day, rather the desire and ability to embed SEL into every nook and cranny of our classrooms by being authentically human, committing to doing better and sharing our work along the way.