What Is SEL and Why Your Young Students Need It

What Is SEL and Why Your Young Students Need It

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 20,849 views


The English as a second language field is full of acronyms. If you’re like me, you have days when you feel you just can’t cram another one into your head. I hope today isn’t one of those days because I have another acronym that doesn’t get mentioned in the ESL classroom very often. SEL. It’s useful for all English teachers to know, but it’s especially important for you if you teach young learners. Here’s why it’s worth making room for three more letters in your mind.

What Is SEL?

SEL is otherwise known as social and emotional learning. It means developing socially and having appropriate responses and feelings inside the classroom. Since young learners are still developing in this area of their personalities, it is important that teachers include SEL in their classrooms, and that includes ESL teachers.

Don’t panic if you don’t have a column in your lesson planner for SEL. Today some schools put in place a specific curriculum for SEL, but historically good teachers include these aspects in their classes without thinking much about it. It’s no surprise that the best teachers connect on an emotional level with their students without making it a big deal, and that’s really what it takes to address SEL in the classroom.

Emotions in Class

We all know that students bring emotions into the classroom at times. In some cases, they have big emotions that they are dealing with at home. They might be stressed about the dynamics of their families. They’re sometimes sad because of struggles with parents or friends. And for ESL students, they can be struggling through culture shock and sometimes, leaving their home cultures behind. As teachers, we take it upon ourselves to help our young students deal with these emotions in appropriate ways. No teacher is just going to brush it off when a student has clearly been crying before class.

Sometimes the emotions come up in the classroom. This is especially true when culture clashes rear their ugly heads – either between students in your class or between students and you. There can also be a great amount of stress connected to learning a language. It’s not an easy process. Students deal with big feelings of success and failure and every step between them. When these emotions come up, we help students deal with them. SEL again.

5 Ways to Include SEL in the Classroom

  1. In some cases, just talking with your students can help them develop strategies for dealing with emotions. At other times, you’ll have to help them come up with the right ways to deal with them. But generally speaking, you can include activities to help develop SEL in class (and you probably already do). Here are some ways to put SEL to practice in your ESL class.

  2. 1


    Discussions are great for helping students develop socially and emotionally. This is true for young learners as well as those learning English since customs are often different from one culture to another. During discussions, encourage students to share their thoughts and feelings and give their classmates room to share theirs too. Teach students that it is okay to agree to disagree. This shows emotional maturity and may not come naturally especially when opinions are strong.

  3. 2

    Allowing Students to Choose

    Giving students a choice when it comes to their own learning assists them with SEL. You might let them choose the subject of their next research project. Keep the assignments the same across the board (for example, write an outline, read a magazine article, give an oral presentation, etc.) but let each student choose what area he or she will learn more about. You can give the same assignment to students but let them choose how they will present their information at the end of the assignment. You might let them perform a skit, write a mock newspaper, create a brochure, develop a slide show, or any of many other projects that use the English language. However you do it, the key is letting your students have a say in what and how they learn.

  4. 3


    Maybe you already include this in class, but if you don’t it’s great to include some time for self-reflection. Let your students think about how well they did or where they struggled on a particular assignment. A very basic way to do this is to list the good, the bad, and the ugly. After completing a unit of study or a large project, have students think about their performance. What went well or what did they do right (the good)? What went wrong (the bad)? If they were to do this same thing again, what would they do differently (the ugly)? Give students an opportunity to share, but don’t force them to. The real value comes from the thought process and not from sharing thoughts out loud.

  5. 4

    Think, Pair, Share

    Activities like think, pair, share are great for SEL as well. Before having a class discussion, give students some time to think about the question on their own and make some notes for themselves. Then have each person pair up with another to share their thoughts. Finally, take time as an entire class to discuss the question together. Giving students time to think things through on their own increases SEL.

  6. 5

    Celebrate Accomplishments

    Celebrating accomplishments is great for giving students confidence and an emotional boost. It also helps them develop SEL. Celebrations don’t have to be a big deal, and they don’t always have to involve pizza. (But who doesn’t love a good pizza party?) Give students a chance to toot their own horns by sharing something they did well, and make time for it on a regular basis. Even little accomplishments can feel big, and they are worth celebrating too.

In the world of ESL instruction, SEL may not have a prominent place in your planning, but maybe it’s time to change that.

As teachers, we care about the emotional development of our students. That’s the good news. The even better news is that caring about them is an important part of addressing SEL in the classroom, and odds are you are already doing things that encourage students on that level. But with every day comes a chance to get even better at what we do, so think about ways you might include SEL in your class particularly if you teach young learners. And you might find that every day is even better than the last.

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