The SEL On-Ramp: Easy to Do Strategies to Remove Non-Academic Barriers

It’s never been “easy” to be a teacher. This year is no different, to say the least.  I’ve traveled to more than 20 schools since August of 2021, from Fort Myers, Florida to Spokane Washington, and the sentiment is shared.  Students are still reeling from being home, being back, being with masks, then without, then being with them again.  From new expectations (even when they weren’t necessarily meeting the old ones), to feeling varying levels of uncertainty and safety.  Here’s what I’ve been hearing teachers and counselors consistently say and see: there’s a discernible uptick in student behavior issues ranging from lack of motivation, lack of respect, increased confidence in rule-breaking, a stark increase in mental health issues, and more.  Not to be selfish, because we got into this for the kids, but this makes the job harder than it already is and it doesn’t feel fair.

What’s the solution you ask? Yay!  Another acronym’ed initiative! I’m a former middle school teacher and counselor, so I understand the apprehension when your school’s admin team or counseling department tells you at the staff meeting that you’re going to be “starting a school-wide focus on SEL or Social and Emotional Learning.” You can feel your already-fleeting planning time slip away.

Since founding my organization, In Control SEL, it has been my life’s purpose is to help busy middle school leaders and teachers with tips and tricks that help them to easily implement SEL Strategies with little to no teacher-prep. To make a long article short- I’m going to give you a few easy ways to dip your toes into the magic that is SEL.  Before I do, allow me to clarify what SEL is:

SEL is a philosophy that says, “If a human’s social and emotional competencies are increased, they will be happier, healthier, and higher performing.” Makes sense right?  Think about when things aren’t going well for us socially (friend problems, problems getting along with others, being bummed out by the state of the union), it makes it harder for us to perform at our best. How about when we aren’t at our best emotionally? Work stress, home stress, or when we’re grieving a loss, we sure-as-heck aren’t at our best.

So SEL helps students (and adults) to combat the negative effects of the issues that the world will inevitably throw at us.  Oh yeah, and there’s 25+ years of practice and research documenting it’s positive effects.

Here’s the good news: I’m going to show you how to do that, and it’s easier than you think.

Build a Strong Foundation for SEL

Oftentimes, well-meaning schools fail at their first crack at a Tier 1/School-Wide Approach to SEL due to having a scattershot approach.  What this usually looks like is the admin reads an article or hears about SEL in a meeting, believes in it, and then tasks their staff to research “an SEL Strategy” and implement it, sometimes during a walkthrough.  Sure, that’s better than nothing, but what happens is that it stresses teachers, puts more on their plates, and is next to impossible to sustain.  Building a Strong Foundation for SEL means taking a methodical approach that is manned by a group of people in the building (usually called the “SEL Team”).  The focus of this team should be to ask themselves at weekly or bi-monthly meetings: “If the goal is to increase the social and emotional competencies of the students and/or staff, what should we be doing and how do we do it?”

The answers will vary, but in a report published by CASEL (The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) in August of 2020, their Theory of Action was to “Prioritize adult learning and critical reflection about their own social, emotional, and cultural competencies.”  And I would trust them, they’re kind of a big deal.

So start by building an SEL Team who shares the burdens of making things happen, and target adult learning first. That’ll go a long way.

Find and Spotlight the Practitioners

The second thing you can do to “On-Ramp” your school into an effective SEL initiative is to find and spotlight teachers who are already implementing research-based SEL strategies (don’t worry, I’ll explain what to look for in my third point). By doing this, you are showing other teachers in the building that these things are doable, easier than they thought, and other teachers might already be doing those things too.  This adds fuel to the SEL fire you’re hoping to build. Cheerlead these people.  Have them talk about the strategy and its benefits.  Have their colleagues walk through to see it for themselves. Great teachers are already “doing SEL” and sometimes, they don’t even know it.

Talk About and Model Strategies

The third thing you can do to “On-Ramp” your school into an effective and excellent SEL initiative is to talk about and model research-based strategies at every given opportunity.  Teachers need the tools.  If you are the quarterback, it’s your job to provide them.  Here are a few:

  • Address each young person by name
  • Use positive teacher language
  • Affirm students’ efforts, not results
  • Post student goals and have meetings about their habits
  • Learn about students’ backgrounds and cultures
  • Post student work that reflects students’ identities
  • Have very predictable classroom routines
  • Allow students time to self-reflect after assessment or daily
  • Have 60 Seconds of Silence at the beginning of every day
  • Teach students a deep breathing technique
  • Set high expectations and communicate your confidence in their perseverance.

Teaching IS hard, but so is being a kid.  We have the information, research, and ability to help this generation be much more than the generation that “survived 2020-20…” They can be the generation that has the ability to be happy, healthy, resilient, and high performing.  And we can be the educators that were responsible.  When we do that, I think we’ll have a higher level of job satisfaction than ever before, too. I hope this helps.

Jeff Becker, M.Ed., is the founder of In Control SEL and can be reached at


  1. I thought this article was very informative for up-and-coming teachers like myself to see how to help not have the barriers in the classrooms!