English-Language Learners

4 Ways to Build Social-Emotional Skills for English Learners

By Alyson Klein — December 09, 2022 3 min read
Image of a child building a structure with marshmallows and spaghetti noodles.
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Weaving social-emotional learning into academics is hard. But schools with high populations of English learners have an extra challenge: They are working to build up students’ mastery of a second language, even as they are trying to teach them skills like persistence, collaboration, and stress management.

Londyn Lallavais is a dean of students at Metro Nashville’s McMurray Middle School, where 98 percent of students are English learners. Recent research has shown that SEL is particularly powerful for this population of students.

The school has gone deep on SEL over the past couple of years, with support from Kyla Krengel, the district’s director of social-emotional learning.

Lallavais and Krengel were featured guests for an online panel discussion about SEL on Dec. 8 that was part of an Education Week K-12 Essentials Forum. (You can watch the forum here.)

“Just from last year, to where we currently are, we have seen a decrease in our number of office referrals. We’ve seen an increase in student engagement,” she said. “We’ve seen an increase in attendance. And we’ve seen an increase in students wanting to be here and wanting to be involved in extracurricular activities, to be a part of band and all the different clubs that we have.”

Here are four tips from Lallavais and Krengel for helping English learners—and students more generally—develop SEL skills:

1. Make SEL both a regular part of the schedule and part of each academic class

Teachers may already be integrating SEL into academics, at least to some extent, Krengel said. But often “they need to be more explicit with their language and/or interactive pedagogy to connect what they’re doing specifically to social-emotional learning,” she added.

Teachers should ask themselves if they are “providing time for their students to reflect on the SEL skills that they’re learning as well as the academic skills?”

SEL integration can also happen in stages, Krengel said. “It is a process and takes time, so you don’t have to do it all at once. Some teachers struggle with where to start.”

Her recommendation? Start with helping students feel seen and emotionally safe with a “welcoming ritual” and end with an “optimistic closing” before moving on to deeper integration.

Lallavais’ school initially tried to pair SEL skills development just with language arts classes. Now, those skills are integrated throughout the day across academic subjects. Plus, there’s time set aside on Fridays just for SEL.

2. Provide more hands-on learning experiences

Students who are still working to build English proficiency need more than just to hear a word like “persistence.” They need to be able to experience the concept for themselves.

During the school’s dedicated time for SEL, “we try to make sure that we’re strategically integrating some type of hands-on, tangible ‘I can feel it, I can do it’ activity,” Lallavais said. That “helps our students make that connection” between the English word for an SEL skill and how it feels to put it into practice.

For example, when learning about persistence, Lallavais’ students were given a fun, but tough task: Build towers out of dry spaghetti and marshmallows, not exactly the world’s most stable materials.

3. Share relevant, human experiences

Relationships resonate for middle schoolers, Lallavais said. It never hurts to make sure that kids realize that their teachers and school leaders are real people with real emotions too.

For instance, Lallavais told her students that she sometimes gets so frustrated when she gets stuck in traffic that “I want to run a red light, but I can’t because I’ll get a ticket.” The kids responded with “Oh, you too!”

“I think the students feel like we’re so above them that we don’t have emotions as well,” and it’s smart to dispel that belief, Lallavais said.

4. Create opportunities for student feedback

McMurray Middle School regularly surveys students to see if they are getting what they need out of SEL instruction. The goal is to understand “how they’re feeling, do we need to change anything?,” she said. If the survey picks up that something isn’t working, then “it’s OK to go back to the drawing board and to change things up a little bit,” Lallavais said.

One of her favorite recent survey responses from a student? “‘I can tell you how I feel, and you listen.’”

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