Meet Them Where They Are: Developing the SEL of Students

By Michele Hill, Educator & Guest Blogger

In early November, teachers in New Jersey will flock to Atlantic City to attend the Annual NJEA conference for two days of growing and learning about their profession. This year’s theme is Social Justice and Education Justice = Student Success. Part of being “just” is ensuring that schools are developing the social and emotional well-being of EVERY student. It’s no coincidence that schools all over the country are adopting new curriculum that builds efficacy in student wellness — both emotional and physical. We have spent the last ten years making educational decisions based upon the data from high stakes testing, but what we lost sight of is the overall wellness of our students. So many of our students come to school with issues that can affect their learning. The role of educators is to meet the students where they are, and to help them to build life-long skills that shape them into successful individuals. Social and emotional well-being can be described in five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. What you do as educators matters — everyday! Here are some ways that your school/staff can help students be their absolute best!

It all begins with a relationship! Staff should participate in activities and professional development on how to build positive relationships with ALL students. Key strategies that promote empathy, understanding and restorative justice for inappropriate behaviors are essential to creating an environment where students feel safe and have a strong sense of belonging. Researchers have documented the effects of building positive teacher-student and student-student relationships that promote students’ commitment to school. (e.g. Blum & Libby, 2004; Hamre & Pianta, 2006; Hawkins, Smith, & Catalano, 2004; Jennings & Greenberg 2009; cited in Durlak, et al., 2011). The teacher-student relationship models appropriate relationship skills that can help students create healthy relationships with everyone that they meet. School-wide events that embrace and celebrate diversity help to create an atmosphere of positivity and inclusion.

Time outs and brain breaks. As adults, we know that when we get overwhelmed, anxious or angry, we need a time–out. We tend to remove ourselves from the tense situation and take a deep breath. Kids need this too, however they are often in a place (a classroom) where they may feel trapped. Educators and schools need a space or location that students can go to when they “can’t deal” with an issue. It’s important to have a procedure in place that all staff are familiar with and can support the needs of students. Ideally, professionally trained counselors can assist students in working through their issues and getting them back on track. Brain breaks can occur anywhere and everywhere, even in the classroom. Provide professional development to staff on the power of using brain breaks or mindfulness in their classroom to help students reduce stress and anxiety. The concept of mindfulness teaches skills of self-management that will serve students well into adulthood.

Teach them to Be AWARE! Self-awareness and social awareness are essential skills for successfully navigating the world. Build opportunities for students to engage in character education activities where they discover ways to become reflective of themselves and develop appropriate social skills for interacting with others. Most schools have a formal character education program, but staff should be encouraged to incorporate opportunities for self-discovery into their curriculum and classroom. Teachable moments are as important as the curriculum!

Hold them accountable! You can love your students AND hold them accountable for their actions and decisions; in fact, you must! Students who are held accountable for their actions — along with- counseling about making good decisions are, in my opinion, less likely to make the same poor decisions again; they learn from mistakes. The goal of discipline is always to change the inappropriate behavior, but it is the perfect time to teach skills on how to make better decisions in the future.

Being attentive to the social and emotional well-being of students is not a fad, it’s good ole fashion education! Educating the whole child creates positive student behavior and increased academic success, while reducing inappropriate behavior and emotional distress amongst students. It’s the “JUST’ thing to do!


Michele Hill is a passionate educator in her 25th year of teaching–students first, curriculum second. Throughout her career as an educator, Michele has been an advocate for struggling and impoverished students; she works diligently to create an environment where all students can succeed. On November 10th, Michele will be presenting at the NJEA conference in Atlantic City, NJ discussing “Creating a Culturally Responsive School & Classroom”. You can follow her on Twitter @HillMrispo or spiritededucator.blogspot.com.


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