We Don’t Need More SEL Lessons…

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Since the return of in person learning, schools have focused on SEL and trauma based instruction. This is a welcome shift away from the obsession of the past few decades on standardization and testing toward seeing students as humans.

Yet in many places this has meant checking off a box–“Yes, of course we teach SEL.” Districts purchase SEL curriculum that is taught in a separate part of the school day. For elementary classrooms it is often during morning meeting time; for secondary during advisory. Teachers lead a short SEL lesson and then continue on with the rest of the day; you know, the real learning.

It’s starting to feel like SEL is the latest education fad to pass through the continually shifting priorities in schools.

Canned SEL

There are several problems with this approach. First of all, canned SEL curriculum is often fake like a horrible math story problem:

Question: Ava goes to the store and buys 65 avocados. If five avocados are $8 each, how much does she spend?

Answer: Why in the world does Ava need that many avocados?

SEL curriculum can be the same way, artificial and not uniquely suited to the learners in front of us. Is it culturally appropriate? Does it match the context of our students? Does it honor the values of the families in the community?

What if instead teachers invited in elders in the community to teach SEL in culturally responsive ways? I love this example of how Hawaii is using indigenous principles and ideas as the foundation of their SEL programs.

In the typical Western way of thinking, SEL is compartmentalized into a certain part of the day to be taught through a specific lesson. Instead we know that the proper way to cultivate SEL skills in children is through adult modeling and embedding the practice of SEL skills throughout each day.

What if instead of a reading a character building lesson on teamwork written by who knows who, in a place far away from your school, you had a discussion about the current team dynamics in your class? Students could analyze how successful they are working together and what things they need to improve on. If you notice certain consistent issues popping up, you could design a reflection exercise around the specific SEL skill that is lacking.

Project Based Learning

A better approach to SEL instruction is for students to develop their skills through the natural interactions that are found in Project Based Learning. Every day students are working with their classmates in teams to solve an authentic problem. It is the ideal scenario for kids to practice all five of the CASEL competencies. Here’s just a few of the many ways to practice each one in PBL.

So we don’t need more SEL lessons…we need to cultivate SEL competencies through PBL experiences.


PBL offers a better approach than canned SEL curriculum as students discover their personal, cultural, and linguistic strengths through authentic projects. In ELA, it might look like a project exploring students’ identities tied to a novel or picture book. Students could wrestle with data around racism in math and propose policy changes. They could explore the history of marginalized people in social studies, and experience the thrill of discovery in science.

Through interesting and authentic work, students find out how their passions and strengths can contribute to the classroom and the community. PBL encourages a growth mindset as students use their talents to address needs in their neighborhood. Students develop pride and confidence, becoming self-sufficient leaders who know how to research and solve problems.


In Project Based Learning, students go beyond learning personal self-control to practicing project management skills. They manage their time, tasks, and team to meet deadlines with high quality work. Students use tools such as Need to Know lists, group contracts, and scrum boards to organize their teams and stay on pace.

Learning to successfully work with all of their classmates is a significant part of the PBL process. Students take on SEL group roles to actively practice the CASEL competencies daily. They reflect on both their project progress and their SEL skills, celebrating wins and progressing on areas of challenge. SEL is central to the daily work in the classroom.

Relationship Skills

In PBL students collaborate daily with their team, learning to successfully accomplish their goals. This does not happen naturally, but students are given tools and taught how to address conflicts and differences of opinion in democratic ways.

Furthermore students communicate and problem solve with local experts. They hone their oracy skills when giving and receiving feedback on their project ideas and prototypes. At the conclusion of their work, students proudly share their results with the community. They clearly and publicly articulate their thinking.

Social Awareness

A multi-faceted Driving Question forces students to dive into the nuance of an issue rather than seeing it as a narrow, two-sided choice. Therefore students must seek out diverse options for their project. Excellent design thinking requires empathy of the end users. In PBL students empathize with people of all ages and walks of life in the community as they research and propose solutions to a given problem.

Students can transform their communities by addressing concerns over climate change, structural racism, gentrification, or other forms of inequity. They can recognize injustice and work with the neighborhood toward solutions that benefit everyone.

Responsible Decision-Making

PBL is all about evaluating, analyzing, and solving problems. Every project presents open-ended challenges for students to exercise their problem-solving skills. The deep inquiry through research, community interviews, conversations with experts, and analyzing statistics demonstrates how to make informed decisions based on data rather than emotions or opinions.

Service projects in PBL are particularly powerful ways for students to positively make an impact. Students learn to see past themselves as individuals and instead as important citizens who responsibly contribute to the well-being of the community. They show leadership and demonstrate that kids can contribute positively no matter how young they may be.

Learn with me!

Are you interested in professional development for your school on how to integrate SEL or implement PBL? I would love to have a conversation on how I can help. I am now scheduling summer workshops and book studies. 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.

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.

Pulse of PBL

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