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“Beyond Hugs and High Fives” by Krista Leh

“Beyond Hugs and High Fives” by Krista Leh

September 16, 2020

Last week, a district administrator shared a question a teacher asked, “So, how do I integrate SEL? Just hug the kids when they are upset? High-five them as they walk into the room?”


Over the last fourteen years working as a consultant on social emotional learning (SEL), I’ve been asked similar questions many times. The concept of SEL can seem very vague and obscure. What exactly does it look like and sound like in practice? How does an educator “do” SEL? 

Social emotional learning is more than creating relationships with your students:

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified five SEL competencies. The first two components, self-awareness and self-management,  involve developing intrapersonal skills. By developing an awareness of our emotions and strengths, we can build a more accurate self-perception and trust in our ability to achieve success. In turn, this allows us to better manage our impulses and stressors, thus becoming more motivated and disciplined to achieve our goals. 


The next two SEL components focus on social awareness and relationship skills, the interpersonal competencies. The fifth competency, responsible decision-making, connects the first four together. By growing in our self-awareness and self-management skills, we expand our ability to become socially aware and build healthy relationships. As we understand others’ perspectives and appreciate the uniqueness they contribute, we treat them with respect and demonstrate empathy for their journey. We engage socially using appropriate communication methods to build healthy relationships and sustain these relationships via teamwork, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. When our students feel emotionally and physically safe in our classrooms, they feel included, valued, and accepted.

Moving Forward:

  • Educators need to develop a full awareness and deep understanding of all five SEL competencies and ensure that all components are evident throughout the community. Your community should have a shared vision for social emotional learning. What specific skills and dispositions will students acquire to prepare them for success beyond graduation? What are the roles and expectations for staff and students in developing these SEL competencies? How will a common language and skill development be infused into all aspects of the physical environment, social interactions, curriculum, and instructional practices?
  • SEL becomes who you are and what you do every day. The five SEL competencies and their descriptors should be the foundation of everything you think, say, and do. When this occurs, SEL integration becomes sustainable and part of your educational culture. If we want our students to develop these five SEL skills, we have to make a concerted effort to consistently model what we want to see from students. In doing this, we demonstrate that these competencies are developed over time, deepening in complexity and scope. This requires that we engage in the challenging and sometimes uncomfortable work of assessing our own SEL strengths and growth areas. As my mentor, Thom Stecher says, if you engage in this learning, “Everything you do will have integrity.” As life-long learners and mentors of youth, SEL must become who we are and what we do every day. The competencies must remain at the forefront of our thoughts and behaviors each day, keeping in mind the goal is not perfection – the goal is transparency, authenticity, and growth.
  • SEL is not a program that you implement or morning meetings you facilitate. SEL is not a one-size-fits-all, “give me the strategies, and I’ll do it” approach to learning. An SEL strategy that works authentically for one teacher may not work for another teacher. The goal is to identify methods most aligned with your SEL strengths, students’ needs, personality, and context. Once your learning system has a shared vision, paired with a deep understanding of the five competencies, it becomes clear that there are many ways to integrate SEL! 

Final Thoughts:

When we understand that “doing” SEL goes beyond building relationships with students, we can begin to ensure that all SEL is integrated throughout our teaching and learning environments. We pay particular attention to ensure the five competencies are reflected in our social interactions with students and colleagues, visually displayed throughout our schools and classrooms, woven into all content areas within the curriculum, and explicitly integrated into instruction via debriefing social interactions and creating purposeful partnerships.  

By making a personal commitment to authentically and transparently growing in the five competencies, SEL becomes part of who we are and what we do. Social emotional learning becomes a comprehensive and sustainable part of the culture of our educational communities.

Learn More:

This SEL Institute is designed to provide you with step-by-step assistance as you examine each of the five competencies and determine how to integrate them into your learning communities. Through activities that encourage self-reflection and conversations with colleagues, you will develop SEL activities, ideas, and strategies that work specifically for you, your students, and your context. 


If you are interested in an SEL professional learning opportunity for your school or district, contact us.

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