SEL: Getting Started Without Getting Overwhelmed

Kecia McDonald

by | 10.14.20

Kecia McDonald is an educator in Hawaii. Follow her on Twitter @mcdonald_kecia.

As a former classroom teacher, I know that if you’ve just started exploring social emotional learning (SEL) strategies, it can be easy to feel like you have a mountain of information to climb and no trailhead in sight. 

Sometimes the best advice to ourselves is the advice we share with others. When our students feel like they’re facing a mountain, we encourage them to remember that finding their path is just a matter of taking it one step at a time, trusting their ability to learn – and remembering they don’t have to go it alone. The same is true for us educators exploring social emotional learning strategies. As a student support services coordinator, I provide SEL guidance and resources for my school community in Hawaii, and every teacher I collaborate with is bringing these resources to their students in their own way. 

More than ever, our students need us to care for them – as learners, and as people living through an anxious, complicated moment. Prioritizing SEL will help you foster deeper connections and be the teacher your students need. I wanted to share what I’ve learned about SEL, both in the classroom and in my role supporting teachers.

Start with core competencies. 

For me and the teachers I collaborate with, CASEL’s core SEL competencies provide a great framework for bringing these strategies into your instruction. As educators, we “get” standards and skill sets, so we can find a natural starting point in CASEL’s breakdown of the five competencies, why they matter and how we can teach them. 

Let your school’s culture and your students’ identities inform your plans.

When our classroom activities feel personally and culturally relevant to our students, they feel affirmed for who they are – and that gets them excited about learning. In my district, we rely on a culturally responsive framework called Nā Hopena A’o, from the Polynesian tradition of greeting one another by exchanging breath. That exchange is a powerful community practice, so we express our school culture through the acronym BREATH: Belonging, Responsibility, Excellence, Aloha, Total well-being and Hawaii. I always return to that framework to make sure each activity I share will feel culturally relevant and responsive to our students. 

Every school community is different, and I know what it’s like to feel uncertain about how to reflect your students’ cultural identities in your lesson plans – so if you’re not sure how to begin, I encourage you to seek out resources provided by organizations like CASEL. Stay true to your community and yourself, and turn to colleagues and organizations as guides.

Build a growth network with teacher friends.

Group learning isn’t just for our students! Conversations with fellow educators can help me clarify my goals, test out my thinking and bring my ideas to life. Colleagues with experience in trauma-informed, culturally responsive teaching can be a great source of guidance and inspiration – in your school community, professional learning network and beyond. And I encourage you to collaborate with fellow teachers who are tackling new SEL learning, too. By growing and innovating together, you’ll be making a difference not just to the students you teach, but throughout your school community.

Explore opportunities for local PD and mentorship.

I love exploring new ideas, but I know that if I can’t make a tool feel relevant in my school community, it isn’t the tool for us. Figuring out what will resonate with our students is an ongoing process for every educator, but we can learn a lot by “localizing” our SEL approach: balancing what we take from the wider world with what we take from our own communities. To build up my understanding of my students’ backgrounds – which include Native Hawaiian families, families from Micronesia and the Marshall Islands and families of Filipino and Japanese descent – I seek out local PD opportunities and mentors. For example, I’ve benefited greatly from a course on culturally responsive instruction taught by a kumu (the Hawaiian word for “teacher”) and a course on Micronesian culture. And I’ve gained so much by simply immersing myself in relationships with students, families and colleagues. The more deeply I invest in my school community, the more fully I understand the cultures that inform my students’ lives – and that helps me center their identities in everything I do. 

You have a foundation for all of this: You know your students. As teachers, we know our communities. If we let that knowledge inspire and guide us, we can create the shared sense of well-being our school communities need to thrive – in these complicated days, and always.

(If you’re diving in to learning more about SEL, remember to check out CASEL’s core SEL competencies and culturally responsive toolkit!)

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