Social and Emotional Learning

“I hate English. And I hate you.” A child named Tanner told me. “I’m droppin’ out next year. You can’t stop me.” This was not the outcome from his IEP meeting that I was looking for. I snorted at his words. Social and emotional learning challenge accepted.

A study found that 40 to 60 percent of students will become “chronically disengaged” from the learning process. This does not even include the students who have dropped out! Our students live in such an Insta-Culture that it’s no wonder why they struggle to stay with us on an extended lesson. 

Go ahead, take a “snapshot engagement moment” of your classroom in your head.  How many of your students are enraptured by the content, engaged in the process, and enthusiastic about how your content can help them get to their futures?

No, no, no, now be honest. There’s the kid you put up front to help him stay focused, but all he does is turn around and talk to his friend at the end of the row. There’s the class underachiever who has her head down again, even though you just handed out that paper and gave instructions. Ah, yes, and our ever-present class clown who is chucking cap erasers at the ceiling to see if he can get any to stick. Mine in particular is named Tanner. You’ll hear more about him in a bit. The rest of the students are working, making the marks, moving their pencils, doing what you asked them to do. Are any of them brimming over with excitement about it though? Gibbering about how this will help them in college or their career? Um, no, probably not. 

What do they work for?

Some work for grades, some work for fear of punishment, but very few are working for attainment, which is the driver of intrinsic motivation. Few are thinking of the future and the skills they will need to succeed. However, you and I both know that a goal is the cornerstone of success. We can’t let more students become “chronically disengaged.” Just the term itself is terrifying. Chronic, as in there will be no recovery or this disengagement will occur again and again–that is terrifying. What kind of citizens and employees are we sending out in the world? Ones who have learned to just go through the motions in order to keep someone from yelling at them? 

I have worked hard to keep my classroom from falling into the “silent compliance” zone. No bribery. No threats. I eventually reached a realization when I took an honest inventory of my own classroom. If I was going to challenge my students, it was pretty stupid of me to think that they are not allowed to challenge me. It’s called the “One-Up” relationship, and it honestly took me over half of my teaching career to just let it go. Even now, my students accuse me of “flexing on them” sometimes. In traditional education, the teacher says, “Jump,”and the student should ask, “How high?” If you’ll let go of what you think education is supposed to be and help students learn to channel anger and challenges into positive motivation, you’ll get much more bang for your buck.

Social-Emotional Learning is Not a Trend

Though social and emotional learning (SEL) have been the buzzwords in education lately, this is more than a cute grammar song or a pumpkin-colored folder for October. This is an entire research-based movement. SEL can be thought of as those “soft skills” that we develop as we mature; social and emotional learning relies on students knowing themselves and their own values and then making decisions based on those personality aspects. Their values–not ours. 

These skills are not academic in nature, but this type of learning is the byproduct of overcoming challenges and cooperative learning in the school setting. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning has been studying social and emotional learning for over two decades; during that time, a list of five areas of competencies has emerged:

  • Self-awareness- Students know their weaknesses, their strengths, their values, and their feelings, and this leads to self-confidence.
  • Self-management-Students are able to set and achieve goals by keeping a close eye on their emotions and dealing with stress in an appropriate manner. This can include handling challenges as they arise instead of crumbling under pressure.
  • Social awareness-Students are able to use empathy in social situations and understand the differences in school, family, and community settings. Competency in this area also allows students to seek out help from appropriate sources.
  • Relationship skills-Students know themselves well enough to resist peer pressure, hold on to rewarding relationships, are able to resolve conflicts, and have healthy relationships with others based on positive interactions. 
  • Responsible decision making-Students understand both the positive and negative consequences of actions and are able to navigate decision-making situations with a strong moral compass in both academic and social settings. Students contribute to society’s well-being rather than detract from it.

The Benefits

When students experience self satisfaction due to this social and emotional competency, there are several benefits. Factors such as motivation, empathy, and conflict resolution are cornerstones of success in a career, and so when we think of social and emotional learning in the classroom, we are actually preparing students for the future. Not the next research paper.

Even though it’s hard to measure, economy experts report that positive self-image leads to a startling 31% increase in wages over the course of a lifetime. Basically, we see a return of 11:1 on our investment into social and emotional curriculum programs, with an average return of $618, 380 per 100 students. All because we are willing to invest in our students’ well-being and not just their GPAs. 

What Works?

So what really happened when I let go of being the almighty, all-knowing teacher? Poetry through modern music. Characterization through Instagram photo albums. Argument through a Shark Tank-like assignment in which students took extreme pleasure in dressing up in business clothes and attempting to sell a panel their products that solved everyday problems.

And I must tell you, these were not my ideas. They were all generated by students. I got over this whole concept of “I own the classroom” and started actually talking to my kids. Well, sorta. I used Google Forms, which is probably cheating, but it made kids really open up about what they would like to do. After making a list of the the anchor skills from our state standards like “Make an argument that convinces someone with facts and figures,” I could see the excitement jump from student to student as they thought up ideas. I tried to take as many student ideas as I could and make them possible.

This was NOT the entire solution. Goodness, please don’t think I changed the world through some iTunes, fancy-schmancy technology, and a carrot on a stick. After all, the high school where I taught had one laptop cart to serve 650 students; we had to check it out from the library. Eighty-one percent of the kids received free and reduced lunch. High falutin’ technology did not solve my issues.

SEL Relationships Played More of a Role

No, it was about the relationships I built with my kids. When I stopped talking and started listening–truly listening–I learned so much about what they wanted from their lives. I was able to teach social skills within my lessons and align my goals with theirs. The more confidence they built in themselves, the easier it was to get them to work. I used to tell other teachers I was “tricking” kids into doing what I wanted with all my student-driven assignments, but that isn’t true.

They finally had a say in what they were doing. Of course they could be assured of success…if a student could think it, then they could do it! And it was amazing. The things they wanted to do were authentic. They did not just want to read a book out loud in class; they wanted to read it on a local radio station in weekly increments to get people interested in reading. 

I never gave them anything other than a choice. 


Tanner watched me warily at first when I started. He rebelled. He told me that the work was too hard. That he was too stupid to figure it out. That he wouldn’t do it and I couldn’t make him.

“Suit yourself,” I would say. “Would you like something from the textbook instead?” Yet another choice. Don’t leave it open-ended. Give them a substantive list; the “or this” strategy is effective for students like Tanner. He didn’t have a third option, so he had to choose one of mine.

His eyes would search across the classroom where a few of his friends animatedly talked about how they could portray “Reluctance” in the character of Lenny from Of Mice and Men in just one Instagram post. I walked away and let him make the decision. I trusted him to make the right one.

And he did. He graduated two years after that. His stepdad made the principal let me hand Tanner his diploma since it was my class that got Tanner through his days–even though Tanner still swears he hates reading and writing until this very day. Yeah, he got frustrated. They all did. This hands-on style of learning introduced by their nerdy teacher was something they had never experienced. But because they worked towards a goal, they learned how to overcome those challenges.

Relevance Plays A Role

Tanner especially loved to solve problems that applied to the real world. He got it when it dealt with real people and real issues. Instead of shutting down, Tanner learned resilience through things he actually enjoyed, like music, art, and video. We had “team meets” where I would discuss their progress with them. Firstly, I asked them about their successes and their failures. Secondly, we talked extensively about how those failures could be turned inside-out, used as a stepping stone to their next victory. Interestingly, Tanner told me one time during these meetings, “Sometimes I feel like I can’t do it, but then I remember that it’s not like you’re going to chop off my head if I get it wrong. I just have to try again. You smell what I’m stepping in?”

Of course, I laughed then. He laughed, too. Thankfully, It felt good that he didn’t hate me or English quite so much anymore.  

I stepped into the facilitator role, provided skill-based mini-lessons and still kept kids on task. But I also coached them through their challenges instead of letting them give up.

There is no way I am going to sit here and tell you everything worked, or all students showed up each day with rainbows in their eyes. However, I can tell you that as soon as I approached this type of learning, it was very rare that I got the dreaded “Can I go to the bathroom?” when I asked, “Do you have any questions?” Everyone was too ready to get to work.

I implemented a SEL curriculum that addressed student needs instead of teacher wants. Kids learned teamwork, self-reliance, and problem solving. All of these skills are transferable to any other aspect of their lives. 

The Payoff

The research indicates that the investment in SEL looks something like this:

SEL Curriculum → Immediate gain in positive self-image and personal relationships → Long-term gains in academic success and stress management → Long-term gains in career success and positive attainment attitudes

I can personally attest that the shift from caring only about curriculum benefited my students.  The school had never seen higher test scores–and I taught the “low” students. Our growth gains were huge, and those added up to major points in the accountability scorecard. My kids even outscored the accelerated class for the three years I taught high school like this.

Tanner called me up last year to tell me that he has a baby on the way.

“I’m scared, Mrs. C.”

“About what, Tanner? You’re going to be a great dad. You’re so much fun.”

“What if he’s like me? What if he doesn’t like school? You don’t teach here anymore.”

I snorted. “Tanner, son, I am not why you succeeded. You are why you succeeded.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know how until you showed me.”

We went on to talk about a few more things, but that part of our conversation rocked me. Apparently many kids don’t know how to solve their own problems or feel good about the decisions they are making. Hence, we have a responsibility as educators to give our students the tools to go anywhere they want to go. Not all of them will go on to college, but all of them will need to understand who they are and what they want to attain. They deserve empowerment. 

In The End

Tanner didn’t go on to college. He became a lineman and he loves it. Every single day, no matter the weather or circumstances, he is there. He didn’t need college to get to his goal, but each and every day he uses critical thinking, self-confidence, and the ability to work as part of a team. Moreover, Tanner learned a lot about literature and communication byproducts of his time with me, but I am most proud of the skills he carried with him into his chosen career.

You don’t have to do this alone like I did. WhyTry has the resources and curriculum all in one place. SEL, when done correctly, affects every aspect of our students’ lives. I know you have a Tanner in your classroom just as sure as I know there is a nose on my face. That child is waiting for you to reach him or her in a way that no one has bothered to before.

Sources for Social and Emotional Learning

Belfield, C., Bowden, B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (n.d.). The economic value of social and emotional learning . Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education Teachers College, Columbia University, 1–64.

Mahoney, J.L., Durlak, J.A., & Weissberg, R.P. (2018). An update on social and emotional learning outcome research. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (4), 18-23.

Pachan, M. (2008). The positive impact of social and emotional learning for kindergarten to eighth-grade students: Findings from three scientific reviews. Chicago, IL: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Payton, J., Weissberg, R.P., Durlak, J.A., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., Schellinger, K.B., & 

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