SEL -The Basics and How to Apply It In Your Classroom

SEL students

SEL For Every Classroom

SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) is essential in any special education program. Teachers well know that many students in special education programs have difficulties with identifying and expressing their emotions, social skills, empathy, conflict resolution, and more, so often special education teachers are the experts when it comes to SEL in the classroom.

More and more though, general education teachers see a need to integrate SEL into the classroom. Many students come from homes where parents are unable or unavailable to teach social and emotional intelligence.


Depression and anxiety are at all time highs for children, so students in the general education classroom can benefit just as much as special education students can.


The integration of SEL is also an opportunity to integrate special education students into the classroom for learning that is meaningful for them.

Theory to Action

Knowing the whys of SEL is essential, but the hows- putting theory into practice- are a bit more difficult. Here are a few suggestions from Edutopia on how to incorporate SEL into your classroom, to meet the needs of all students.

The Basics

Class Meeting: Build classroom community with a daily morning meeting. Having a daily classroom meeting helps students ease into the day and get set for learning. Most teachers do some version of this already. Consider incorporating student spotlights, some fun games to build community, and opportunities for students to share what is happening in their lives. This short time (20-30 minutes daily) helps bond the class together and gives everyone the feeling they are on the same team. It allows you to set the tone in your classroom exactly how you would like it.

Emotional Identification: It is often difficult for students to branch out beyond identifying the feelings sad, mad, and happy in describing how they feel. Edutopia suggests some fun activities for teaching and identifying emotions: “Students see the name of an emotion (“sad,” “proud,” “frustrated,” “glad”) on a piece of paper and then act out the emotion to other students, who guess what it is. They look at pictures of people and “read” their faces. Or students might pass around a stuffed animal (for moral support) and talk about how they’re feeling that day.”

Further Application

Learning Together: Effectively working with others is something our students will need their whole lives. Teaching this skill is really almost selfish on our part because it makes our lives so much easier! No guarantees, but less tattling may even be a positive side effect.

Give Students Opportunities to Work Together: Assign group projects in many different subjects, but also assign some ‘fun’ projects for students to work on together. For example, if you have a class party, put some students on a committee to decorate, plan some games, or make invitations.

Teach Them How to Fulfill Cooperative Roles: Explicitly teach students that each role a group is important. Start by assigning roles with specific duties assigned to each student. With older children, or those more capable of independence, have them choose their roles.

Variety of Groupings: Teachers should let children choose their groups sometimes, as this is highly motivating. Other times, assigning groups is more beneficial because it gives them the opportunity to work with someone they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

Solving Conflicts:

Teach Children Effective Techniques: Teach kids how to manage their feelings. Our favorite proven effective strategy is the BeCool 3-step plan. This method teaches students that Cold (passive) and Hot (aggressive) responses to conflict have negative consequences. But a Cool (assertive) response has positive outcomes and can lead to negotiation. Learn more about BeCool here.

Another good calming technique is to teach students deep breathing. Going to their ‘happy place,’ and positive affirmations can help kids calm down to be able to deal with conflicts.

Teach Kids to Use I-messages: Edutopia defines I-messages as “A three-part statement that includes describing the offensive behavior, the feeling, and the effect of the behavior. ‘When you talk to me during class, I feel angry because it prevents me from finishing my work on time.’”

Active Listening: Teach kids to use active listening when solving conflicts with peers. This includes reflecting back what the other student is saying in a non-judgemental way. It also includes listening to truly understand rather than just to respond.

Peer Mediation: A problem solving structure that can be helpful for students on all sides to participate in. Edutopia explains:

“The two disputing sides agree to work towards a solution with a neutral party. All agree that what is said will not leave the room. They speak without interruption or insult, looking directly at each other. The peer mediator guides the discussion with clarifying questions and “active listening.” In seeking a solution, the peer mediators asks questions like, “What do you want things to be like?” “What would it take to make that happen?” They come to a written or verbal agreement, which is restated at the closing of the meeting.”

Decision-Making: As kids get older they need to learn to make independent decisions and the decisions they make become more and more consequential. Try teaching decision-making skills in the classroom through these activities.

Relate Stories to Real Life: Fictional stories, especially fables, provide concrete examples of good and bad decisions of the consequences that follow. Read stories together and make connections to real-life situations.

Buy Into the Classroom Environment: Students can help make decisions that affect them such as class rules, which science topic to study first, or where to sit.

Everyone Benefits

When you teach SEL in the classroom to all kids, they all benefit, and so will you. Your classroom will run more smoothly with fewer conflicts and happier kids.


Amy Curletto has been teaching for 12 years in grades K-2. She has a bachelor’s degree in Early Childhood and Elementary Education and also has endorsements in reading and ESL. Besides education, her other passion is writing and she has always dreamed of being a writer. She lives in Utah with her husband, her 3 daughters, and her miniature schnauzer. She enjoys reading, knitting, and camping.


Categories: SEL , Special Education , Teaching , Uncategorized
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