Social and Emotional Learning for English Learners

Lessons from Colorado's Teacher of the Year
Blog Post
Aug. 2, 2017

At a recent Learning Policy Institute event, Colorado’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Leticia Ingram, reflected on the need to support students’ development more holistically.

“So many times we forget about social and emotional learning, and it’s crucial to academic learning,” she said. “You need to have that foundation for kids to learn.”

Ingram’s comments highlight an important reality for the field of PreK-12 education. It is crucial to examine how schools promote social and emotional learning (SEL) in their students as these skills are becoming increasingly necessary for employment in the modern economy.

So what exactly is SEL? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines it as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

A new report by the Learning Policy Institute outlines several benefits to integrating SEL with academic learning, including higher graduation rates, fewer instances of bullying, and lower teacher stress. Other studies note the economic benefits of SEL, while others outline the positive impact of it on the mindset, social behaviors, and academics of students. Data presented by the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) also point to the overwhelmingly positive effects of SEL on the academic achievement of English learners (ELs).

This growing body of research suggests that the use of SEL in classrooms has positive impacts on all students, teachers, and society at large. The needs of ELs, however, are not the same as those of other students.

According to the affective filter hypothesis, high anxiety and low self-confidence can cause an English learner to filter out language inputs and make it extremely difficult to acquire another language. All of the studies cited above note the importance of SEL in reducing student anxiety and promoting a safe learning environment. As such, SEL and its positive effects are of critical importance to EL instruction.

But how can teachers successfully integrate SEL into classroom teaching? Specifically, what does SEL instruction look like when it is geared toward EL students?

One suggestion for promoting SEL in these classrooms is to help ELs take pride in their cultures. Teachers can do this by integrating cultural aspects into curricula, labeling classroom objects in other languages, and encouraging parents to promote cultural affirmation at home. These techniques can reduce the sense of “otherness” that English learners often feel in classrooms. Another effective technique is to pair ELs with non-ELs in a buddy system. This encourages collaboration, mutual respect, and teamwork.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, teachers must provide realistic practice for students to test out acquired social and emotional skills. Providing opportunities for ELs to manage stressful situations using their learned skills prepares students to tackle them in the real world.

Several of these SEL practices are ones that Ingram, the Colorado Teacher of the Year, utilizes in creative ways at Basalt High School. The school is located about twenty miles north of Aspen, and 58 percent of students speak a native language other than English.  

In a recent interview, Ingram described to me the stressful situations her EL students encounter when they buy groceries in a store where a certain level of English proficiency is required. So, in her class, she sets out to teach them what she refers to as “survival language.” In the classroom, students study grocery terms in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. After they have learned these terms, Ingram takes them to the local grocery store in Basalt.

Once there, students must find everything on the teacher’s grocery list in a scavenger hunt. They can also practice their social skills by asking store employees for help. In this way, not only are these EL students learning to manage a potentially stressful situation, but they are also learning English and engaging with members of their small community. The class also participates in similar field trips to banks and hospitals.

Attempts by teachers like Ingram at supporting EL-specific social and emotional learning are crucial. Equally important is the need to track the impact of efforts to continuously improve SEL practices. As an example of this, Ingram visits each of her students’ homes at least twice a year to assess their social and emotional needs. She also relies on classroom observations along with student and family surveys, mindful to use multiple methods of evaluation. In this way, Ingram is constantly reflecting on the impacts of her SEL methods and looking to adjust when needed.

Ingram’s example illustrates what initiative and leadership for SEL with English learners can look like at the classroom level. But systemwide, in a new era of accountability under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, scaling and ensuring accountability in SEL instruction will not be an easy lift. Since SEL is not a required accountability measure, it is possible that SEL may be seen as a lesser priority in the minds of state and local policymakers. 

Nonetheless, given the overwhelmingly positive results of incorporating SEL into academic content, schools and districts should strive to integrate SEL into curricula and create methods to gauge the impact on student outcomes. All students, and ELs in particular, stand to benefit immensely.