Tag Archives: sel

The False Dichotomy of SEL and Deeper Learning

Image by hannahlmyers from Pixabay

A recent post from Dean Shareski, Are We Ready to Learn Again explores the false dichotomy between deeper learning and wellness. Dean accurately points out that many schools separate SEL from academic learning. This reminds me that there still exists lingering misconceptions of SEL, many of which originate from school wide SEL programs. Oftentimes these top down initiatives are introduced as a post-Covid reaction rather than by well thought out plan.

I see two main sources for educators mistakenly segregating SEL and content learning. First, SEL is usually taught separate from content. In elementary schools, it is a 15 minute slot in the already packed daily schedule. In secondary, it is relegated to an advisory period a few times a week.

The second reason that educators separate SEL from deeper learning is they have a partial understanding of what Social Emotional Learning truly is. Let’s explore each of these reasons and why this is more than just an exercise in semantics.


As a response to the student isolation of the pandemic and the visible trauma of Black Lives Matter Movement after the murder of George Floyd, practically every school added some sort of SEL instruction. (Note: to be clear, the trauma has always been there for students of color, but the events of 2020 brought it to the national forefront). The pendulum of educational priorities rapidly swung from Common Core and standardized testing to connecting and meeting each student’s wellness needs, seemingly from content to SEL.

The problem in many schools is that teachers were not prepared for nor trained in how to effectively model and teach SEL skills in their classroom. It was easier to “check the SEL box” by purchasing curriculum and making it a mandatory part of a student’s schedule. As might be expected, some teachers enthusiastically embraced this shift, while others quietly ignored it seeing SEL as the “flavor of the month” initiative that will fade away if they wait long enough.

It is no wonder that many educators separate SEL from deeper learning when it is siloed as a separate class.

SEL can not be limited to advisory time or a fifteen minute slot in the elementary schedule. While administrators may have the best intentions, a canned SEL curriculum compartmentalizes it as a “subject” that is separate from the rest of school. The students also perceive this disconnect between SEL and the rest of their classes. Therefore both teachers and students may view Social Emotional Learning as “fluff” and not pertinent to “real” school in any meaningful way.

A Better Definition of SEL

Another problem with SEL is a limited definition that only sees it as focused on students well-being. Many educators equate SEL with specific practices such as mindfulness, breathing, and yoga. It is seen as an individual coping strategy to deal with stress or strong emotions. Others conflate SEL with trauma informed instruction and focus on connecting and meeting each student’s mental health needs.

While all of this is helpful and important, it should not be defined as Social Emotional Learning. Mindfulness, breathing, and yoga are helpful tools to develop SEL skills, but are not the actual competencies themselves. Trauma informed instruction is a critical piece that our schools need but is also not synonymous with SEL.

SEL should not be limited to students experiencing trauma or who struggle to get along socially with others. That is deficit thinking. SEL skills need to be cultivated by everyone, including adults, over a lifetime. No one masters them all. CASEL defines SEL as:

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”


This more complete definition of Social Emotional Learning as a complex set of skills and characteristics demonstrates that coping skills and mental health are elements of SEL, but not the whole picture. SEL skills include communication, empathy, collaboration, and problem solving. SEL is not limited student trauma but encompasses many skills integral to deeper learning.

Why SEL Matters

Students need SEL in school, but not in the way that educators often perceive it. With an accurate understanding of how the SEL skills relate to core content exploration, students should be practicing them while engaging in deeper learning. Let’s go beyond SEL lessons in advisory to practicing skills all day long.

Rather than being separate from content instruction, SEL provides the skills that enable students to research deeply, discuss civilly, empathize, and apply learning to their world. In order to be effective, SEL skills must be taught, practiced, and assessed all of the time.

We know that effective SEL instruction must be modeled by adults and integrated throughout the day.

If you know anything about me, then you know that I wholeheartedly embrace Project Based Learning as the perfect structure to teach SEL skills and content simultaneously. We need to model SEL daily and practice its competencies throughout the class as students collaboratively work on structured inquiry solving complex problems.

Learn with me!

Would you like to explore more deeply how to integrate SEL into daily classroom activities? Check out my book below for tons of practical ways that can be immediately implemented in any classroom.

The ideal way to improve SEL skills for students is to start with the adults. Districts should provide PD where teachers explore their own SEL strengths and weaknesses, modeling strategies that can be used in the core classroom.

Are you interested in professional development for your school on how to integrate SEL? Of course, I highly recommend PBL as the ideal framework to use. I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling workshops and book studies for spring and summer. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL

Unlocking the Power of Student Confidence

A Conflicting Gift

Before winter break I received an amazing gift. No, it wasn’t a teacher mug or Starbucks gift card, although I received several of those too. It was a heart felt thank-you letter from one of my students. I didn’t even place it in the “good feelings” file where I put things to read when I am feeling discouraged to remind myself why I teach. It currently stays right on my computer podium so that I re-read it often.

This is not the first time that I have gotten a student note of appreciation, but this one hit different. The student shared that they never believed they were good at math until this year. Part of me felt gratified for helping this student see what I see in them every day, but part of me felt very sad that none of their previous six elementary teachers had unlocked this student’s belief in themself.

My school has advanced math classes (which I do not teach), and I highly suspect that many of my students downgrade their mathematical self image based on the fact that they are not in advanced math. My classes are not remedial, just regular 6th grade math, but many students see this class as a negative academically, especially if they are highly successful in their other subjects. They believe that they are “bad at math” or in the “dumb class” (their words, not mine).

I was surprised because the student who wrote this heartfelt note is one of my stronger math students. They are not a struggling student at all. Many students in their particular class have much lower skills and number sense requiring extra support and re-teaching. But this student is attentive, a creative problem-solver, a leader with their group at whiteboards, and performs well on assessments. Honestly, they are easy to teach.

Developing Confidence

Middle and high school is a time when most students are constantly attempting to figure out themselves. It’s a time concentrated on activities such as sports, arts, or passions. Friendships are often centered around similar interests and goals. Students may not articulate it, but sub-consciously they are determining their strengths and weaknesses creating value in who they believe they are.

I believe that a critical part of my job is to teach kid’s confidence in who they are as a person. Maybe in math too, but definitely in how they see themselves. An integral part of growing into adulthood is developing a positive self-image. I refuse to accept students’ statements that they are “not good at math.” I reframe it to “you don’t know how to do this yet.” I cannot force students to love math as I do, but I reject any negative comments about themselves.

Academically self-image is a huge factor in how students perform in school, especially when it comes to math. So many students don’t see themselves as mathematicians. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Student struggles in math.
  • “I am a poor student.”
  • “I can’t do math.”
  • Lowers self-image.
  • Quits paying attention.
  • Quits doing practice work.
  • Fails next assessment.
  • Repeats cycle.

One of the most influential things that a teacher can do is to break this negative cycle and help students see that they can be successful. Of course one of the most powerful ways to do this is through the meaningful work of Project Based Learning. When students address real problems in their community, they begin to shift how they see themselves. They are motivated by work that is purposeful, instead of a worksheet. Students realize that they do have a voice and what they say matters, viewing themselves as powerful agents of change.

As students build their confidence, it leads to academic risk-taking, higher self-esteem, active goal-setting, and perseverance through struggles. They stop giving up easily but actively work through challenges. The self confidence of the SEL competency of Self-Awareness is the necessary first step toward self-efficacy. A student cannot be self-sufficient until they have a self belief in their abilities.

Building student confidence is hard work and takes time, effort, and building relationships with each student. It is probably unrealistic to expect to radically shift the confidence of every student in our classes, but we can nudge them incrementally on the spectrum toward self-belief.

How are you building confidence in your students? What meaningful work are they doing? How might PBL be the ideal framework for students to develop confidence on a path toward self-efficacy.

Learn with me!

If you are interested in how to use PBL to build your students’ confidence, I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling workshops and book studies for spring and summer. Check out my workshop page or drop me an email at mikejkaechele@gmail.com. I would love to chat and co-plan meaningful PD for the educators at your school.

Pulse of PBL