Stop the Hot Potato! Imagining An All-Hands Model for SEL Skills in Schools | Liza Garonzik | 7 Min Read

March 1, 2022

For months, headlines have been screaming that today’s students are in crisis. As districts close for mental health days and schools navigate Covid learning loss on top of eye-watering rates of depression and anxiety among students, everyone is rightfully tired and scared. The reasons behind this crisis are infinitely debatable—blame Covid, Instagram, politics, parents!—but here’s what’s not: when it comes to supporting the whole child, schools need an all-hands-on-deck strategy, starting now. 

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) can feel like a hot potato in schools. Adults across campus lament Gen-Z’s deficits in what feels like “basic social skills,” yet, few faculty have the time or tools to course-correct consistently. Generally, teachers teach courses and engage in student support on an as-needed, highly individualized basis. Student Life staff—like counselors and grade deans—are responsible for the “SEL program” within a school. But too often, they don’t have time to do much more than 30-minute presentations during advisory, with glitchy videos and an emergency phone ringing in the counselor’s pocket. This isn’t fair to anyone. 

Today’s students need adults across campus to take an All-Hands, not Hot-Potato, approach to teaching SEL skills. That begins with building buy-in among faculty and ends with a divide-and-conquer strategy where teachers are responsible for instruction in the skills that align with their curriculum. Sounds nice … but what could that actually look like? 

As a former Humanities teacher and grade dean, and an unabiding pedagogy nerd who believes all teachers have what it takes to teach students these SEL skills, I’ll zoom in on an area I know well: how to integrate SEL into a rigorous high school English course. 

Build Faculty Buy-In

As a starting point, combat the misconception that SEL skills are “just touchy-feely.” CASEL, the leading authority on SEL, is actually called Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning: SEL skills set students up for success in learning as well as life. Teachers intuit this, even if they don’t name it. So, try asking them to! You’ll find they have clarion anecdotes about the academic impact of the SEL deficit. 

Take my teacher-friend Maggie’s example:

“I used to be able to assume that students came to class with basic social skills: the kind cultivated around the family dinner table. Students showed up in high school English already knowing *how* to engage in a group conversation, so, as the teacher, my job was to focus on the content (the subject of my graduate work!). Not so, anymore . . .”

Maggie’s insight exposes an authentic opportunity for English teachers to offer instruction in SEL skills—while also advancing their content objectives. Fundamentally, the skills students need to engage in a group discussion are the same skills that foster strong relationships, in and beyond the classroom. Put differently: discussion skills are SEL skills. 

CASEL defines SEL skills in terms of five core competencies: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. An activity like class discussion handily hits all five. For example: 

  • When you decide whether to speak, you practice self-management
  • When you choose how to frame your idea so it lands well, you show self-awareness. When you see someone struggling to get heard and make space, you use social skills. 
  • When you ask a thoughtful follow-up question, you demonstrate active listening: a critical skill for relationship building
  • When you facilitate through a tense moment, you weigh present actions and future consequences: a sign of responsible decision making.

With such clear alignment, it’s tempting to think that we are just asking English teachers to re-brand and buzz-word-ify what they already do. But, true integration of SEL skills and academics is about more than that: it’s about recognizing that English teachers are actually better positioned than, say, a counselor or advisor, to create meaningful and rigorous contexts for students to road-test these skills. If we don’t ask students to name and practice SEL skills in places that matter to them (i.e., where they are graded!), we rob them of an opportunity to build self-efficacy. When it comes to discussion skills, Humanities teachers are uniquely positioned to do this well. 

Offer Teachers Tools That Actually Fit

This is where the best teachers get skeptical. They agree that these skills are useful, and that naming them helps students recognize their power; but they do not want to make any trade-offs in terms of content. There’s a sense that when you teach “soft skills” in class, rigor softens too. This concern does not have to be reality, but it is a sign that we need new tools. 

Humanities teachers need tools to teach SEL skills in the context of their curriculum. In the case of an English teacher like Maggie, that means: a framework for students to learn how to lead equitable, rigorous, and relevant discussions about content she has chosen. Ideally, this discussion method needs to also be flexible enough for Maggie to adapt it to her teaching style.

When it works, the horizons are limitless. One teacher I admire recently noted that R.E.A.L. Discussion—the tool I designed to empower teachers to teach communication skills in the classroom—has turned class conversation into “a collaborative intellectual adventure we forge together.” I love that language, because it is “soft” (collaborative! together!) and rigorous (intellectual! adventure!). 

Before you ask: teachers cannot be expected to build these tools themselves, for at least three reasons. First: faculty already do too much. This year, many teachers are already spending extra energy revising the content of their courses to be more inclusive. Rather than reinventing the wheel, give teachers permission to adapt existing tools to their classroom’s needs. Second: consistency across classrooms matters, from a school-wide SEL perspective. You want your students to be using the same words to describe the same skills year after year. This also empowers support staff and parents with a common language. Third: consistency across classrooms matters, from an equity perspective. There is no research more compelling than Joe Feldman’s on this topic.

Celebrating Impact

When it comes to both SEL and school, Gen-Z needs some wins. Modern life has conditioned them to be feedback junkies! The power of making growth visible is a topic for an article of its own, but for now, it’s worth considering: how can you make this SEL + Academics integration visible—and valuable—for students and stakeholders?

Shared language + an all-hands approach will make it possible to track the metrics that matter most to your community. To return to the English class example: Do you want students to feel as if their classmates listen actively when they speak… as if they see the utility of their learning … as if they have the tools they need to express respectful disagreement They can use text-based evidence to prove a point? 

Students—and school communities—are hungry for indicators of growth and utility. Asking students how they have used their new skills in life outside of class can offer another easy win. For example, in the context of R.E.A.L., we ask students where they see the four skills—relating, excerpting, asking, and listening—in real life, and they come to class brimming with examples: I related and used R.E.A.L. on a date! I used it in a student council meeting! My mom asked a clarification question that brought about defensiveness from my grandma because she didn’t sound curious enough at dinner! I made space for a teammate to speak in a soccer huddle! My Dad told me that he uses REAL skills all the time in meetings. Each of these examples helps students see and own their learning, which in turn helps schools and parents trust in the whole-child education happening in classrooms. For what it’s worth: in my experience, parents love to hear about their child’s growth in these “real life” skills!

Zooming Out Again

Turning “Hot Potato” into “All-Hands” when it comes to teaching SEL skills in schools will not only create better learners, it will create life-ready leaders. This article offers one example of what that can look like—how Humanities teachers can use class discussion to teach communication skills—but that is not enough.

Schools need to get tactical and team-oriented about where and how SEL skills are taught, practiced, and assessed across all academic departments. Teachers deserve the space to learn about SEL, the confidence that they can teach parts of it, and the tools to close the gap and measure growth in a way that’s relevant to their discipline. The stakes of this work are high—not just because students are in crisis today. Today’s students are also tomorrow’s citizens, professionals, and parents. We need them to be ready for real life.

Liza Garonzik

Liza Garonzik is the Founder of R.E.A.L. Discussion, a program that trains faculty to (re)teach Gen-Z students the discussion skills they need for success in learning — and real life. Her work is informed by an interdisciplinary research base and experience as a student, teacher, administrator, and trustee in diverse independent schools. Get in touch at [email protected] — there's little she loves more than a great conversation!

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