July 6, 2018 by

Think SEL Takes Too Much Time? Integrate It!

The evidence of the impact of social and emotional learning (SEL) is compelling.  A groundbreaking meta-analysis on SEL by Durlak and colleagues (2011) examined hundreds of programs involving more than 270,000 students in kindergarten through high school. In their findings, the authors noted, “SEL programs significantly improve students’ skills, attitudes, and behaviors,” on six factors:

  • Social and emotional skills such as goal setting, conflict resolution, and decision- making.
  • Attitudes toward self and others such as self-efficacy, school bonding, and helping others.
  • Positive social behavior such as getting along with others.
  • Conduct problems including bullying, noncompliance, and aggression.
  • Emotional distress including stress, anxiety, and social withdrawal.
  • Academic performance as measured by reading and math test scores and grades.

But here’s an important detail that might be overlooked. The effect was not as strong when delivered by non-school personnel (e.g., researchers and outside consultants). In fact, only three of the six factors had significant outcomes, and “academic performance significantly improved only when school personnel conducted the intervention.” In other words, it mattered most when it came from teachers. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? Best practices in education suggest that learning happens when a two-pronged approach–processing and applying–is used. When it comes to SEL, students need opportunities to put these skills into action in real time. And the best place to do just that is in your classroom.

Integrate SEL Using Literature

Use character analysis to shine a light on the social and emotional lives of protagonists and antagonists in literary and informational texts.  These imaginary and real-life characters offer a template for how to manage struggles and adversity. They wrestle with feelings and have to figure out how to respond. The circumstances they find themselves in are not always within their control. Readers can safely witness what can go wrong within the pages of a book before they are similarly confronted by their own challenging circumstances. Biographies about heroic figures like Nelson Mandela shine a spotlight on courage in the face of adversity. A deep dive into Greek and Roman mythology presents ancient lessons that ring true today about the foibles of gods and humans. The interior life of the young girl in Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Eleven” opens up the opportunity to discuss the importance of being able to label one’s own feelings.

Integrate SEL Using Collaborative Learning

Sound SEL programs build students’ skills for engaging in teamwork. Productive collaborative learning requires that group tasks are engineered to ensure that students need one another’s ideas and efforts in order to be successful. The goals for a team engaged in productive collaborative learning are too, as we noted in our book Better Learning for Structured Teaching:

  • resolve a problem, reach consensus, or identify solutions;
  • consolidate their understanding and knowledge use argumentation; and,
  • hold themselves accountable individually and as a group.

Collaborative learning offers a multitude of opportunities for students to put SEL principles into action. Communication is a big one here, as students must figure out how to disagree with one another without being disagreeable, to ask questions of one another, and to reach agreements about the content and the workload. Jigsaw is an exceptional collaborative learning structure for accomplishing these goals (Aronson, 1978). Hattie (2017) has calculated an effect size of 1.20 for jigsaw, tripling the rate of learning. However, it isn’t always implemented correctly, thus muting its effectiveness. Here’s how to do jigsaw right.

In a jigsaw arrangement, students are members of two groups: a home group, and an expert group. The jigsaw lesson is completed in 4 steps. The home group, which is the first step, consists of 4-5 students who will synthesize the information each member gathers. For instance, the homegroup is responsible for gathering information on natural disasters in science. In the second step, the students then move to expert groups to learn more about one natural disaster: hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis. The expert group works together to build their expertise in the assigned topic. When finished, students return to their home groups (step 3) to share their knowledge with one another. After each expert has presented on his or her assigned topic, the homegroup discusses commonalities and differences. Step 4 is the final step, where students return once more to their expert groups to discuss how the information learned about the other topics links to their own, and what might be other things to consider. In one class period, students face many opportunities to utilize their SEL skills and dispositions, with you right there to help them when they falter.

Integrate SEL Using Teachable Moments

Every effective teacher knows that the classroom and school climate influences the content learning that happens in within it. Teachers who are themselves skilled in social and emotional learning recognize those teachable moments when a student is being challenged to apply what she has been learning about herself. Those same teachers are responsive and assist the student in working through a challenge, thereby further strengthening relationships.

One of the most impactful influences is the quality of the relationship between teacher and student. Hattie’s findings suggest that positive relationships have an effect size of 0.52. You’ve undoubtedly experienced this yourself as a learner of a difficult subject but taught by a person with whom you had a strong positive relationship. Teachers do a lot to foster these relationships. Bondy and Ross (2008) call them “warm demanders” because they skillfully couple caring with high expectations. But these relationships are a two-way street. They are affected by the dispositions, attitudes, and beliefs of both people. Socially and emotionally skilled students are able to seek help and feedback, ask questions, and regulate their own emotions.

Skills such as relationship building can’t be effectively learned if they aren’t applied in every corner of the school. The opportunity to seek feedback happens during science labs and writing workshop. Offering help occurs during physical education class and in algebra. The need to regulate one’s emotions can arise suddenly on the playground and when a practice test didn’t go as expected. Teachers and other school personnel assist students in processing and applying SEL skills, behaviors, and attitudes in the authentic ways. In doing so, they model how these methods are utilized by adults inhumane and growth producing ways.

Teachable moments can occur when a class is faced with a problem or dilemma. It may be due to a conflict between students, or because a classroom procedure has broken down. Class meetings reinforce how SEL principles are used by a community to reach a solution. In our book, Better Than Carrots or Sticks, we use these five questions to frame problem-solving class meetings:

  1. What is the problem our class is having?
  2. Why is this a challenge for our class?
  3. How does the issue make you feel?
  4. What can we do about it? Brainstorm solutions.
  5. What is our best solution?

Integrate SEL to Make the Most of Instructional Time

An integrated approach to social and emotional learning amplifies program effectiveness because students receive lots of opportunities to apply it to their lives. The insights they gain about themselves and through the lives of those they study about provide them with a window to a world they might not otherwise know. An integrated approach fosters the kind of so-called soft skills valued by employers (we have a career counselor colleague who reminds us that  “soft skills pay the bills”). The time dedicated to infusing SEL in meaningful ways into academic content isn’t time lost—it is an investment in young people to maximize their capacity to learn with and from others.


Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Dominique Smith are ASCD authors and teacher-leaders at Health Sciences High and Middle College in San Diego, CA. Nancy and Doug are also professors of Educational Leadership at San Diego State University.