English 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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.’”

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
Navigating Modern Data Protection & Privacy in Education
Explore the modern landscape of data loss prevention in education and learn actionable strategies to protect sensitive data.
Content provided by  Symantec & Carahsoft

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

English Learners English Learners with Disabilities Lack Consistent State Support
An analysis of state education agencies' resources on English learners with disabilities found room for improvement.
4 min read
Photo of a young student solving a math problem with a notebook while watching a help video on a monitor and listening with headphones.
iStock/Getty
English Learners The Problem Schools Have Accurately Identifying English Learners
A U.S. Government Accountability Office report examines how states and districts are identifying English learners.
3 min read
An elementary student reads independently during class.
Allison Shelley/EDUimages
English Learners Students Nationwide Can Earn a Seal of Biliteracy. How It Can Be More Accessible
All 50 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation to formalize a seal that celebrates students' bilingualism.
4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at the agency's Seal of Biliteracy Summit on June 24, 2024 in Washington, D.C. The gathering celebrated the special designation on high school diplomas that recognize students' bilingualism.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at the agency's Seal of Biliteracy Summit on June 24, 2024 in Washington, D.C. The gathering celebrated the special designation on high school diplomas that recognize students' bilingualism.
Isaiah Hayes/Education Week
English Learners Why Teachers of English Learners With Disabilities Need Specialized Training
An expert discusses what comprehensive training works best for teachers working with students who are English learners with disabilities.
3 min read
Classroom materials show the days of the week and months of the year in Spanish in a dual-language class at UCLA Community School.
Classroom materials show the days of the week and months of the year in Spanish in a dual-language class at UCLA Community School.
Allison Shelley/EDUimages