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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com.

Student Well-Being Opinion

Here Are 3 Top SEL Strategies That Can Help Improve Student Engagement Right Now

By Alex Kajitani, Tom Hierck, John Hannigan & Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan — December 21, 2020 6 min read

Today’s guest blog is co-written by Alex Kajitani, Tom Hierck, John Hannigan, and Jessica Hannigan.

The No. 1 need we have heard and addressed here in helping schools improve since the start of the pandemic has been how to improve student engagement. Collectively, we have over 100 years of experience improving student engagement within our own schools and supporting educators across North America, so we wanted to provide three key elements and an SEL strategy for each that are tried, tested, and known to work.

Do any of these comments sound familiar? “My students don’t care.” “My students aren’t logging on.” “My students won’t turn in work.” “My students are distracted.” “Even when they are logged in, my students are not paying attention.” “My students are overwhelmed.” How can we shift our mindset from these deficit-based problem statements into actionable skills students need opportunities to learn and master.

Student engagement isn’t a binary skill. It comprises what we refer to as the three high impact elements (SELements) of student engagement. SELement 1 (S1): connected, safe, and welcomed; SELement 2 (S2): choice, voice, and agency in their learning; and SELement 3 (S3): connect what they are learning to real-world meaningful application. Now more than ever, we need to teach SEL strategies as a matter of purpose rather than banking on the idea that things will quickly return to normal.

Before reading further, please take this short Student Engagement Opportunity Quiz (Teacher Version) from the teacher’s perspective. You can also access the student version of this quiz, which may come in handy as you reflect on your own practices through a student’s eyes.

This is a sample of a quiz teachers can take to understand their level of building SEL in their classrooms.

Below is one SEL strategy for each of the three key elements to serve as a guide as you get started with ensuring the SELements of student engagement are in place.

1. SELement 1 Strategy: D.N.A. The best way to build relationships with your students is to know their D.N.A. (their Dreams, Needs, and Abilities) and then base their experiences in your classrooms around this information. Using this skill of relationship building allows teachers to take the next steps in designing high-quality instruction for ALL students. The more teachers can tap into what motivates students and what each student brings to the classroom each day, the more they can target instruction to those needs. Successful learning environments are all about the choices teachers make, so it’s important to question your methods and try new approaches for learners who aren’t ready “yet.” Knowing this information about every student and applying it in various ways throughout the school year builds a sense of community within your classroom and allows teachers to meet student needs in a whole new way. To assist students in identifying their D.N.A., teachers can offer the following prompts:

Dreams: What do you think deeply about? Where do you want to go in the future?

Needs: How can I help you? How can I be a better teacher for you?

Abilities: What are you amazing at? What could you teach others?

2. SELement 2 Strategy: CONDUCTING EMPATHY INTERVIEWS with your students can improve student engagement and specifically help teachers demonstrate evidence of SELement 2: Choice, Voice, and Agency in their learning. An Empathy interview is designed to help teachers understand the experience(s) of the user (i.e., student); you have to allow for a safe opportunity for students to share their thoughts, emotions, experiences, and motivations to help meet their social and emotional needs. This four-step process includes: Step 1: Introductions. Introduce yourself/role (e.g., teacher, counselor, admin) and have the student introduce themselves. Step 2: Purpose. Explain the purpose of the interview/check-in to the student and let them know their input is valued. Tip: Actively listen to the student and be authentic. Step 3: Questions. Ask neutral questions. Tell me about the last virtual learning classroom session you experienced that was very interesting? Why was it interesting? (i.e., encourage story) Tip: Avoid asking binary questions that can be answered in a word. Ask, “Why?” Pay attention to nonverbal cues and observe body language and emotions. Step 4: Wrap Up. Thank them, wrap up, validate their input, and set up a follow-up to share the actions taken based on their input.

3. SELement 3 Strategy: Connect students with REAL people. We can help students gain a true sense of real-world, meaningful application of what they’re learning in class by connecting them with real people from their community. With distance learning, there has never been an easier, or better, time to bring in “special guests” (via videoconferencing) who can share with students about their jobs and lives and how they’ve applied their experiences in school. The key is to invite guests who live in the same neighborhood as students and who reflect their ethnicity and experiences. Studying square footage? Invite a local contractor to join you in your next class meeting. Studying story plot? Bring in the local reporter. (Be sure to have the students read some of the reporter’s stories in advance, to provide context.) You won’t need to go far to find people—start by asking your students or colleagues if they know someone who fits what you’re looking for.

When students meet living examples of people from their community, they connect what they’re learning in class with what they need to know for the “real world,” all while helping them create a clearer vision for their future.

These three key elements (SELements) are a must in order to improve student engagement. We have provided an example SEL strategy within each key element to serve as an example and to model our approach. Part 2 of this three-part blog series will focus on the SELements for the teacher, while Part 3 will focus on how a school/district can support these 3 SELements schoolwide/districtwide.

More about the authors:
Alex Kajitani
Alex Kajitani is the 2009 California Teacher of the Year and a top-4 finalist for National Teacher of the Year. He is the author of several highly acclaimed books and a leading authority on training teachers to teach online. During the COVID-19 shutdown, he created “Wacky Math Hour,” a free, weekly online class that attracted thousands of students, and created the wildly popular online program, MultiplicationNation.com. Alex was featured on “The CBS Evening News,” where then-anchor Katie Couric exclaimed, “I LOVE that guy!”

Tom Hierck
Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grades and many roles in public education. His experiences as a teacher, administrator, district leader, department of education project leader, and sessiona lecturer have provided a unique context for his work. His belief that “every student is a success story waiting to be told” has led him to work with teachers and administrators to create positive school cultures and build effective relationships that facilitate learning for all.

John Hannigan
Dr. John E. Hannigan is an executive leadership coach for the office of the Fresno County superintendent of schools in California. He has published numerous books on implementing effective behavior/SEL systems in schools, such as the PBIS Handbook series, Building Behavior, Don’t Suspend Me, Behavior Solutions, MTSS Start-Up Guide, SEL From A Distance.

Jessica Hannigan
Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan is a professor of educational leadership at California State University, Fresno. She has published numerous books on implementing effective behavior/SEL systems in schools, such as the PBIS Handbook series, Building Behavior, Don’t Suspend Me, Behavior Solutions, MTSS Start-Up Guide, SEL From A Distance.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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