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Applying Elements of SEL for the Busy Educator

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The Australian Curriculum was finally fully unpacked in 2014 not long after the UK’s own launch of its new national curriculum. Following this comes countless professional development meant to align with a school’s strategic development, where teachers are required to plan and work towards professional goal setting according to the professional standards outlined by their teaching college. Effective teaching is touted as lying in an educational practitioners a solid grasp of various skills including the implementation of The Essential Skills for Teachers, Visible Learning, Direct Instruction, Split Grouping, Reading Rotations and much more. Added to this is the gradual shift away from the inflexible delivery, point-by-point, of multiple, integrated unit plans, and a move towards using post assessment data to inform teaching and tune the focus to the content of the Learning Areas that students are facing challenges. Yet, of all the Learning Areas that demand attention, including Math, English, Geography, Science, Health, Civics, Digital Technologies, Design and Technologies, and specialist classes, one important subject stands out as a vital part of children’s educational experience: SELs or ‘Social and Emotional Learning.’ However, in my experience as a primary school teacher, this social and emotional development program often gets pushed to the side as assessment and reporting deadlines ensue, or the main or integral parts of the curriculum take higher priority. All these programs have valuable skills to impart to children, whether it is the Keys to Success in the ‘You Can Do It’ program, emotional resilience in Bounce Back or the shared discussions and team building games of ‘Circles.’ Teacher’s are often too time poor, or constricted by over-scheduling to commit to carrying out the program effectively each term.

I choose to delve into this topic not because academia should be made ‘more fun,’ or that teacher’s and schools need to redefine the way they teach, but because there is a growing issue that is endemic: the number of children suffering diagnosed anxiety is rising at an alarming rate. I use my own class data as an example of this. Of course children have their own fears and struggles, but from one year to the next, I noticed when compiling class lists for the next year, in which we had to record students who were diagnosed as having a behavioural disorder or learning difficulties, I scanned the whole of the year three cohort that were moving onto year four in 2017. What I found shocked me: I counted no less than around eight to ten children who had a medically diagnosis from a mental health professional that declared them as suffering from anxiety, two of which were my own students! I had never seen data like that before. I hear of studies into government funded programs that fail to give any real support and teacher attribution, describing the cost this has on the government. But when was academia more important that the human being? What about the human cost? I fear that we are teaching students to fear by launching the curriculum at the students at such a fast pace, that their young minds cannot compute what it is they are meant to do. I’ve seen girls with phobias of ‘correctness,’ young boys of eight with Dyslexia who panic when it comes to assessment, and in some cases, have an alarming dialogue with their parents which consists of such self-depreciating phrases I have heard like: ‘the world would be better without me.’  

I have learned through my own practise that children are much more productive when lessons are broken up, are given periods of rest or goals to look forward each week. Below I created four tips the busy teacher can use to implement SELs without needing to keep to the strict rules of ‘completing’ a rigorous unit.

1 Start mornings with some physical activity

Activity is great physical therapy. I often had students who were tired and unmotivated in the morning. There was a routine of calling the class roll followed by mental maths and then they would slump. It’s not just because some watch TV at breakfast or stay up late watching movies (which is another issue that can affect their energy and mental health), but because school is work. Teachers need young minds to be alert if what they teach is going to have any impact. Morning routines are still important to teaching students discipline or organisation, but a short burst of physical activity in the morning is a great mood lifter and fires up the brain into an alert receptive state. I like to start the day with some stretches, breathing exercises, Go Noodle Brain Breaks1 or Brain Gym exercises such as the cross crawl and hook up techniques.2 Afterwards, I finish by allowing students a fruit break as their young brains need some natural sugar to stimulate their energy.

2 Give Feedback Often

John Hattie included cited feedback as one of the strongest evidence of impacting student learning.3 It can be a lot of work, but in an educational age where students have ‘to-do lists’ that equal that of their teachers, it is worth committing time to this because by giving the children access to information related to their own learning, it demythologises those ideas that ‘above standard’ results are the only acceptable norm. It puts their learning into perspective and charts their progression based on their own goals, not anyone else’s. The more you share their results, which can be measured in personalised growth charts, the more you aid the students in the ownership of their progress and helps them to build their motivational, perseverance and resilience skills. There comes a time when the language changes from: ‘I got that wrong,’ and turns into, ‘I just haven’t learnt that yet.’

I held weekly spelling and math tests and recorded this data into my assessment or grade book. Additionally, I also held regular concept quizzes in maths and sometimes in Literacy if we were exploring tricky spelling rules. All of this data I kept and colour coded for my LA, MA and HA students. Every second week, I would open this information up to students to show how they had progressed or reached their own personal targets, taking care to hide the names and results of their fellow classmates in order to focus on the jumps in progress they had made since my last record. I also did this with reading levels which is such a huge thing to the children at this age. “What level am I on now? Am I fluent yet?” I’d often hear. At first, like with my year four class, some were utterly dismayed at how badly they performed, but as I kept teaching my year fours and consequently, my year threes, I would ask: ‘What does this score mean? If you passed it shows evidence you know some of your stuff. If you got everything right, you might need more of a challenge, and if you got most wrong? Well, it just means I have to teach you that concept again.’

3 Include Creative Thinking Skills

What surprised me about my new year three class at the beginning of 2016 was that they didn’t know how to think for themselves. It came as an eye opener during the second week of the first term when I was teaching writing in English when the students kept asking: ‘Is this right? Is this good?’ How did I get them thinking? Whenever there was a lesson gap or a task was finished earlier than expected, I would give them thinking exercises in the form of the Thinker’s Keys for Kids.4 This tool, first developed back in 1990 by Tony Ryan, can be integrated into a Science Inquiry lesson, ICT or used as a brainstorming exercise. Tony Ryan frames thinking activities in short micro lessons that can be used in the following ways:

  • The Question. Start with an answer for which they have to form a question. It can be as simple as: ‘ok students, the answer is dog.’ If you receive looks of confusion, you’re on the right track. A little non-structure or nonsense goes a long way to opening up the synapses. Challenge students to give you five questions that might result in that answer.
  • The BAR. Instruct children to draw a picture. When they have completed it, ask them to choose something to make Bigger, Add a new element to their design, and Replace a feature of their drawing. Often children who started out with a scooter or a car would end up with a vehicle with big wheels, rocket propellers and laser beam headlights!
  • The Variations. Pick an everyday object like a tea cup and task students with several ways that object can be used. Allow them to brainstorm together and present to the class. Some ideas my students came up with were: rain catcher, pencil/eraser holder, a ‘thing to juggle,’ and a drama prop.
  • The Picture. Draw an incomplete, simple or partial shape or picture and have students brainstorm what it could be. A simple circle with a protruding line could turn out to be a stick figure head with only a single hair, or a golf ball sitting on a tea.

4 Don’t Make SELs a Traditional Lesson

I loved SEL units. I did my best to teach them each term, yet I would struggle to complete them. What I started to do one year in 2015 is take out some of the ‘mix it up’ activities and cool down games and apply them in the afternoon after lunch or as an end-of-day. I set aside five – ten minutes each day. Sometimes it involved just bringing our chairs around in a circle for discussions on such as: why should we care about each other? Why is it important to learn how to cooperate? Some of the fun activities that encouraged students and at the same time lend much needed discussions and skills to deal with student issues such as perseverance and emotional resilience are as follows.

  • Give students opportunities to reflect. This is powerful and can not only reveal things about your students you didn’t know, but gives moments for shared bonding between students. Give students a statement and ask them to switch places, silently, if this is true. Some questions I asked where along the lines of: Swap places if you have tried to help others this term, or swap places if you felt bad or lonely at school/home, or even swap places if you felt you did your best at school at least once or twice this week. Students often like to share that they have or haven’t done such a thing.
  • Give students a question to discuss in small groups. Instead of sitting at the front of the class and go through every single answer, walk around and hear what students have to say while the rest of the class are buzzing and discussing. Such questions can centre around the theme of the term, such as accepting others, or how to be a friend to others, or may be altered for issues that arise in class such as: ‘what does being kind look like if a teacher came in and looked at the class?’ You can use this to refresh the classroom or school rules.
  • Give students cooperative learning games. It doesn’t matter if they are boys and girls, the children love it if they are given the opportunity to be loud and move around the class. A favourite game my class loved to play was called ‘Rescue,’ which I modelled after a game I played as a youth. In this game, students had sixty seconds to help all of the students out of a burning tree house. One student would be the rescuer, and the rest of the class lay on the floor. The rescuer had to help students back by walking to the designated safety point selected by the teacher. The students were saved once they tapped the wall, and immediately became rescuers themselves who returned to the ‘building’ to help the others. In not only was fun to repeat to see if they could beat their previous times, but encouraged students to teamwork.


1 Available at: Nashville: Tennessee; 1999. Accessed on: 27 Jan 2017.

2 Richards, B. Brain Gym Exercises for the Classroom. Available at: . Accessed on: 27 Jan 2017.

3 Hattie, J. Available at: Accessed on: 27 Jan 2017.

4 Ryan, T. Thinker’s Keys for Kids. Queensland: 1990.

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Applying Elements of SEL for the Busy Educator


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