In recent years, schools have increased their discussion and focus on social and emotional learning.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is characterized by the teaching, practice and implementation of social skills in the classroom as well as helping students with managing emotions, making decisions that are considerate of others, and building and maintaining positive relationships. Social and emotional skills taught in classrooms often include skills such as kindness, empathy, gratitude, resilience and fairness.

While all students can benefit from instruction in what these skills look like, English learners in particular will need support in what the skills sound like, including the words and phrases that exemplify the particular skill. Cultural considerations should also be discussed, as the particular skill may manifest in different ways in different cultures, especially in terms of how people appropriately react to them, and the gestures and body language associated with the skills.

What does SEL instruction look like?

When incorporating SEL into classroom instruction, a number of considerations should be taken into account, including explicit instruction in the skill, practice of the skill and reinforcement of the skill.

The first step in SEL in the classroom is identifying the particular skill you would like to teach and emphasize with students. While there are many skills that can be incorporated into instruction, it is advisable to begin with a skill from which you feel all students would benefit, or one that has become an issue in your classroom.

For example, consider beginning with a skill such as kindness in the primary grades, or resilience in upper grades or with secondary students. These are skills that all students can practice and benefit from mastering in their school career. As the year goes on, skills such as honesty or empathy might be included in your practice if specific incidents or attitudes arise that warrant explicitly teaching the skill.

Each classroom is different as it is made up of diverse groups of students. Choose skills that address a specific need, and/or benefit students and society as a whole. The following list includes social skills that can be taught and practiced in the classroom:

Once the skill is clearly identified, it will need to be taught to students. This does not necessarily require an entire lesson to define and discuss the skill. Rather, bringing attention to examples of the skill, sharing examples of what it looks like and sounds like is an important aspect.

A strategy from Dee Dishon's model of cooperative learning, the T-Chart for Social Skills, can be used for this purpose. In this strategy, teachers lead students through defining the particular skill being emphasized on a chart with a mind map at the top.

With the skill in the center of the mind map, students define the skill, and the teacher adds words and phrases from the students that accurately describe the skill. Under the mind map, a T-chart is drawn, with the words "See" and "Hear" written at the top of the two sections on the T-chart.

In the two columns, the teacher adds examples of what the skill looks and sounds like. Students can contribute to either side of the chart, sharing the actions that exemplify the skill as well as the words and phrases that are used when practicing or exemplifying the skill.

The section on what the skill sounds like is important for all students, as they may need the language of the skill being practiced, and is especially important for English learners. The language used to exemplify kindness, for example, may be unfamiliar to these students. This explicit language instruction also gives the opportunity to provide students with more formal language constructions.

An alternative to the T-Chart for Social Skills is to build the chart as a graphic organizer with three sections. This chart adds the benefit of having a section that lists feelings associated with the particular skill. In this way, students associate not only the actions of what the skill looks and sounds like, but also the feelings it invokes by the person implementing the skill as well as the person on the receiving end. This helps students to more deeply internalize the skill and understand the purpose behind the skill.

As either of these charts is being built, teachers can have students practice using the skill in simple scenarios. This may include practicing using the words and phrases that are a part of the skill, or demonstrating the posture, gestures and facial expressions that signal the skill. Although this may seem contrived, it provides students with a low-anxiety way to practice the skill before real-life scenarios come up where it can be implemented.

Once the chart is built, and students have had an opportunity to practice the skill, the teacher then uses these charts to reinforce the skill being learned while students are engaged in instruction. The teacher would first emphasize that during collaborative work in the classroom, for example, s/he will be watching for students who are practicing the skill that has been identified (kindness, resilience, patience, etc.).

As students work in groups in the classroom, the teacher can watch and listen for examples of the skill to reinforce to individual students, small groups or the whole class, or emphasize words and phrases that were heard during instruction and practice that can be added to the chart. The teacher can use this time to remind students, including English learners, of the words and phrases that exemplify the skill being practiced.

Cultural differences

In any given culture, there are specific norms of behavior that are manifested through social skills. Empathy, kindness and generosity, for example, may be perceived, emulated and received in differing ways depending on the cultural norms of the person or group.

This should be a consideration when incorporating SEL into a classroom that includes English learners. It is important to note that we do not necessarily need to change our practice around the incorporation of the skills, or what they look or sound like.

However, teachers can be explicit that the examples of what a particular skill looks, sounds or feels like are examples from the culture of the country in which the students are currently living. It is also important for students to understand that the ways others might demonstrate or react to these skills, although different, are certainly not wrong.

For learners in the 21st century, it is important to strive to not only understand but also to learn differing cultural values and practices. These skills will benefit students as the world continues to shrink and the job market becomes more global in nature.

Obviously, the words and phrases that are used to demonstrate social skills will vary by language groups. Even within regions of a country that speaks a particular language, differing phrases and words may be used. Other aspects of communication, however, may also be evident.

The use or lack of eye contact and how long eye contact is held, for example, can vary significantly from culture to culture. What is friendly and polite in one country might be considered quite rude and offensive in another.

Gestures, such as hand movements, can have differing connotations among differing cultural groups as well. Personal space and posture, including putting up one's foot while standing, for example, can be normal and innocuous in one cultural group and offensive in another.

These cultural norms should be shared with students as appropriate, either as part of the instruction and practice of the skill, or as a private conversation with particular students who may not be picking up on subtle social cues given by other students.

The incorporation of social and emotional learning is a worthy endeavor for all teachers. One of the goals of teaching is to help students to learn about the world, to learn the core subject areas, and to learn how to effectively learn. In addition, it behooves all of us to teach students to be kind, to have empathy, to be resilient, and to have social skills to be a productive and happy member of society.