Modeling SEL for Students

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (1961)

I am quoting James Baldwin not only because he’s my favorite author, but because that sentence highlights the importance of modeling for children and youth. They trust what they see and what we do more than what we say to them. Thus, it is imperative for us to model social and emotional learning (SEL) competencies in order to be a positive influence on youth.

It’s all about intention.

Modeling SEL in our daily interactions with students and ourselves provides opportunities for youth to see and practice how to communicate frustration, navigate stress and difficult circumstances, be aware of the feelings and impact on behavior, and reflect on their actions. Furthermore, it influences learning by fostering mutual respect, a sense of belonging, and trust. Students feel welcomed to discuss their feelings and learn ways to handle strong emotions effectively.

As we process the impact of the global health crisis and protests over racial injustice, we must attend to ourselves and the social and emotional needs of the young people in our lives. Modeling SEL for students could assist us in ensuring psychological safety and nurturing emotional connections with youth. This is a crucial step in marching towards collective healing, which will impact positive youth development. 

Ways to Model SEL for Students:

SEL CompetencyModeling examples for adult staff
Self-AwarenessIdentify and name emotions in the moment: “I feel ___ when things like this happen.” Ask students for feedback on your instructional practices. Admit mistakes and say how you’ll make things right: “I’m sorry I was in such a rush that I forgot to greet you this morning. If you have a few minutes after class, I’d love to hear how your baseball game went yesterday.” Identify and discuss your strengths and limitations. Reflect on your own cultural lens and identify biases that may exist as a result of that lens. Build awareness of how your emotions impact students. Notice events and ideas and how your body responds to them. Notice personal behaviors, tone of voice, and personal affect that arise with various emotions/situations.
Self-ManagementDiscuss how you set and plan to achieve personal goals and how you improve your own practice. (“My teaching goal this year is to design lessons that let you have more opportunities to collaborate with one another. Will you help me brainstorm how I can reach this goal?”) Demonstrate self-regulating and calming strategies in age-appropriate ways (“I’m feeling a little frustrated, so I’m going to stop and take a breath before I decide what to do next.”). Ask students for help when appropriate. Approach new or unexpected situations as learning opportunities. Use and return school/program materials with care. Model respectful and restorative language when addressing challenges with students.
Social AwarenessConsider students’ perspectives and understand that everyone has their own set of truths and beliefs based on their own experiences. Actively support the school’s mission and goals. Model upstanding behaviors. Be willing to compromise. Model appreciation and acceptance of others’ beliefs and cultural differences. Treat students’ families and community organizations as partners who can support your work with students
Relationships SkillsGreet students by name daily. Build a connection with someone in your school/program with whom you do not normally interact. Take time to reflect on potential outcomes before responding to challenging students. Allow students to get to know you within your individual comfort level and appropriate boundaries. Get to know students within your individual comfort level and appropriate boundaries. Be willing to give and receive constructive feedback from students. Model fairness, respect, and appreciation for others. Acknowledge the efforts of others with encouragement and affirmation.
Responsible Decision-MakingModel problem-solving strategies, like gathering all relevant information before drawing a conclusion. Consider legal and ethical obligations before making decisions. Place the needs of students ahead of personal and political interests. Consider how your choices will be viewed through the lens of students.
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