Five ways to implement social-emotional learning in the classroom

By Kevin Dippold, NJEA Preservice, Rowan University

There are very few, if any, careers that require its employees to wear as many hats as educators are expected to wear. Many of the jobs teachers perform on a day-to-day basis go beyond what is expected of them. One of these more recent jobs is that of a mediator for students to develop not only academically, but emotionally as well.

The New Jersey Department of Education defines social-emotional learning as “the process by which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to do the following: understand and manage emotions; set and achieve positive goals; feel and show empathy for others; and make responsible decisions.” As teachers, SEL is another part of our responsibility and finding ways to incorporate it in the classroom can be intimidating for both novice and veteran teachers.

To help alleviate some of the fear behind including SEL in the classroom, here are five strategies to get you started.

1: Start the day with a morning meeting or check-in

Outside the walls of the school building, students lead a life comparable to teachers. They enter the building and come to the classroom with experiences and emotions unique to each of them. By providing students with a morning meeting or check-in, they have an opportunity to share these experiences and learn about their classmates and themselves. These check-ins can be as short as 15 minutes at the start of the day where they allow students to make connections and develop empathy for one another. In upper grades where students may be on a period schedule, check-ins may need to be modified to a weekly occurrence unless circumstances arise the require more frequent check-ins.

2: Teach students to solve problems with peer mediation

As educators, we know that our days with our students are seldom dull. There is always a scrape to take care of, a head that is hurting, or students that are struggling to get along. Instances such as these can be used as teachable moments. Take the time to address the conflicts that students are having, whether including the whole class or discussing it with a small group, and then model how to come to an understanding. Ask students to give each side of their stories and challenge them to find common ground. If we continue to model these behaviors for our students, then they will begin to use them without any prompting.

3: Use role playing activities

Empathy is a skill that even adults have a hard time mastering, so it comes as no surprise that students have a hard time being empathetic. Including activities that allow students to role play can really help them understand a new perspective.

Try this game the next time you feel your students need a reminder about empathy: Gather your students wherever you meet for whole group instruction, and pass out cards with different feelings (anger, sadness, grief, fear, etc.). Have students, one at a time, come to the front of the classroom and act out the feeling written on their card. The other students must correctly identify how the students are feeling. This can be followed up with a discussion about the best ways to navigate those feelings and strategies they can use to help them feel better.

4: Use anchor charts to teach social-emotional skills

Anchor charts allow teachers to have a discussion with their students and take live notes for students to look back to when they need a reminder. Anchor charts can be a great addition to any lesson, but they play an especially important role in SEL. By using anchor charts to teach children social-emotional skills, we are not only modeling behaviors on students’ behalf, but we are also providing them with a resource that they can feel free to look at whenever they are having issues.

Anchor charts can cover a variety of different skills, including, but not limited to various breathing activities, positive affirmations, the three A’s to be an active listener (attention, attitude, adjustment), the definition of peer mediation, and ways to own your learning.

5: Check out just as much as you check in

End your day with a quick discussion about how students felt throughout the day. As a class, discuss what went well and what did not go so well for the day. Sit down with the students and come up with goals for the next day. Send students home with the hope of a better tomorrow because, let’s face it, we are all looking for a little hope.


The following resources informed this column.

“Keeping Our Kids Safe, Healthy and in School,” New Jersey Department of Education.

Mulvahill, Elizabeth. “21 Ways Teachers Can Integrate Social-Emotional Learning.” We Are Teachers. Posted on 4 Oct. 21, 2016

“Social Emotional Learning (SEL) & Why It Matters for Educators,” National University. Posted November 2020