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Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom

By Cultures Of Dignity | May 12, 2022

Introduction to Dignity and Social and Emotional Learning

As educators, we know that school is a significant part of our students’ social lives and where much of their emotional development takes place. We must help children learn how to interact with others and develop emotional intelligence to create a better learning environment for themselves and their peers. Promoting social and emotional learning can be tricky — students may react differently to a given technique or lesson plan or have unique learning needs. The Dignity Model is a framework that helps educators create safe, inclusive, and equitable environments in the classroom and helps create and implement social emotional learning activities. Building a culture of Dignity can help us teach our students essential social and emotional skills while also promoting respect for all classmates.

What is Dignity and how does it relate to Social and Emotional Learning

“Not teaching what to think – teaching HOW to think.”

The core of the Dignity Model (Dignity) is understanding that every person is essential because they have inherent worth, and nothing they do or say changes their value. Each interaction should lead to more effective conflict resolution, a better sense of self-worth, social awareness, and a safer, stronger community with Dignity in mind. Dignity is different from respect, which is earned admiration for someone’s actions, traits, or accomplishments. Unlike respect, everyone has the same amount of Dignity, no matter who they are or how they treat other people in a given situation. An educational foundation in Dignity is critical for implementing effective social and emotional learning. Treating students with Dignity should be the foundation of any social and emotional learning program, modeling the values and behaviors we want them to develop throughout their education.

Importantly – there’s no one way to teach students what to think regarding Dignity, respect, and social and emotional learning. Implementing these concepts is about teaching students HOW to think about their feelings and using social and emotional learning activities in the classroom to strengthen their ability to interact with their own emotions and others in the world.

What Is Social And Emotional Learning?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a process through which students learn skills and techniques that help resolve conflicts and build more secure relationships. Using a framework of emotional awareness and Dignity, students develop their own identities and affirm other people’s identities in a healthful and constructive manner. The emotional awareness and Dignity framework addresses conflicts directly and empowers responsible decision-making instead of bottling up feelings (emotional suppression), engaging in avoidance behaviors, or engaging in negative or counter-productive confrontation behaviors.

At Cultures of Dignity we view social emotional learning through five core competencies: Dignity, Navigating Social Dynamics, Emotional Awareness, Self-Regulation, Reasonable Expectations.

  • Dignity is the understanding that every person has inherent, inalienable worth. Treating interactions between every person as worthwhile and meaningful defines the rest of the SEL process.
  • Navigating Social Dynamics is the ability to recognize and work within the web of relationships present in a community and culture. In a school setting, these relationship dynamics can include teacher-student relationships, grade differences between peers, classmate relationships, and specific friend group or clique relationships. SEL helps people establish their own identity and role within and across the larger structure of their community without being intimidated or rejected. In other words, SEL helps people feel worthwhile and meaningful within a culture, group, or situational setting.
  • Emotional Awareness is the ability to identify and understand emotions within themselves and others that whom they interact with. At a basic level, SEL allows you to gain the emotional awareness needed to identify and name your own emotions. As your emotional awareness grows, it allows you to be able to anticipate how others might feel in a particular situation or after a specific interaction.
  • Self-Regulation is the ability to manage feelings and behaviors to feel better about yourself and others. Examples include the ability to identify your emotions while at the same time having the ability to calm down while feeling angry or excited or being able to engage in healthy coping behaviors instead of shutting down (e.g., repressing or suppressing emotions) in the face of sadness or fear.
  • Reasonable Expectations: Expectations can be a great way to set goals that may not be easy. At the same time, setting unattainable expectations may lead to stress and anxiety and worsen mental health. Understanding how to set boundaries for yourself and others through reasonable expectations can help you stay on track with goals while avoiding disappointment and lower self-worth.

Teaching styles and lesson plans that incorporate the five core competencies of SEL allow students to grow into more healthy, aware, and responsible members of the classroom and in the outside world. Again — these five core competencies are not what students must think to achieve a healthy life. Rather they are tools that equip students to learn how to think about their place in the world internally and externally. By building these competencies up through social and emotional learning in the classroom with a foundation of Dignity, we set our students up for long-term success in all aspects of their lives.

Why Teach Social Emotional Learning In the Classroom?

There’s no way to prepare for each unique situation that a student will face in their lifetime — that’s why it’s so important to leverage the classroom as a controlled environment to teach students ways of thinking that lead to social and emotional learning. Treating social and emotional learning as a set of principles instead of rules will help students learn to apply the five core competencies in many school, work, and life situations.

The classroom is a place where students come to learn not only facts about the world, but also how to interact and behave with a diverse group of friends, classmates, teachers, and other adults. The classroom offers the perfect setting and timing for students to learn how to consistently treat others with Dignity and respect and incorporate Social Emotional Learning into their development as a student and human being. With teachers as knowledgeable mentors, students can learn the basics of Dignity and why everyone deserves to be treated with a certain level of Dignity, and understand when someone either should earn or lose their respect. Practicing and understanding Dignity and respect allows students to be vulnerable, self-aware, and engaged within a supportive learning environment. Understanding the need for Dignity to be at the center of SEL helps ground the conversation and creates a shared language — teachers can educate from a place of Dignity, and students can continually interact and communicate with one another from the same foundation.

Implementing social emotional learning in the classroom allows students to develop habits that promote mental health and solidify their sense of self in a learning and supportive environment. In addition, this implementation gives students a structured way to learn skills that will help them months and years down the line as residents and citizens of an ever-changing and complex world. SEL is not just a program, but teachable moments that are implicitly taught throughout the day. From behaving well towards teachers and others during classes, to working on group projects and homework assignments, to socializing with classmates — there are many opportunities for teachers to reinforce SEL.

How To Teach Social Emotional Learning In The Classroom

There’s no specific “class for SEL” – but teachers can pass on concepts and skills to students that they can use in any setting and learning environment. School provides teachable moments every day that an educator can use as an opportunity to model the principles of Dignity and build connections with their students. Using your skills outside of class, such as learning about students’ interests, turning tantrums into reasonable conversations, or mediating the aftermath of a fight, can be even more effective at teaching social emotional learning to kids than a worksheet or in-class exercise.

Some educators may prefer to teach groups of students with social emotional learning activities for elementary schools, working on specific aspects of the five competencies throughout a homeroom or free period. Other educators may prefer to incorporate elements of SEL into other pre-established class times, like math, science or history. For example teachers can have students work through a group project using respectful interactions, or having students identify a historical figure’s actions and empathize with the reasons behind them. It’s important to remember that SEL is not about teaching students what to think; instead, they are learning a methodology of understanding their own and others’ emotions and acting in a way that treats everyone with Dignity. A strong mixture of dedicated and incidental materials is key to building out social emotional learning curriculum.

Why Is SEL important right now?

When educators implement SEL in the classroom, students tend to see benefits to their mental health, ability to build relationship skills, and career success down the line.2 Teachers will also see more engagement with lesson material from their students — when students are practicing empathy and Dignity, they may be less likely to ask “what’s the point of this?” or dismiss the teacher offhand, as well as being less afraid to ask questions in class or ask for help with problems2.

Studies show that:

  • Students taught by teachers who implemented learning moments that focused on the five core competencies increased student academic performance by 11 percentile points4. In the same study, about 27% of students who were taught by educators with an SEL framework program went on to improve their academic performance in school and 24% were better able to handle social situations and felt less distress.4
  • A 2021 Meta-Analysis showed that over hundreds of SEL: programs, students tended to show improved classroom behavior, better ability to manage stress, depression, and other mental disorders, and felt better about themselves while having a better attitude toward how they treated others.3

Additionally, State governments and the Federal government have increased available funding for SEL in public schools in recent years — the 2020 CARES Act following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic included over $13 billion of funding for elementary and secondary schools and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 included an additional $123 billion for K-12 state education agencies.5.6 According to these pieces of legislation, 5%-20% of the distributed state funds must be used to support evidence-based programs to offset the loss of learning due to the pandemic and help address student’s emotional, social, and academic needs.5

While the government distributed these specific funds through one-time stimulus packages, the structure of these funds lays out the groundwork for future educational funding.5 Future funding that follows this groundwork would require schools to use their budgets to accelerate learning to meet rigorous state and national standards, re-engage students with disruptions to learning from extenuating circumstances, and address the social and emotional needs of all students, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

As an evidence-based program that directly addresses these focus areas exacerbated by the pandemic, Dignity-based SEL qualifies for these federal and state funds and provides long-term benefits to students and stakeholders.5.6 As more students benefit from SEL, there will likely be an increase in funding for these programs. School administrators will need to be prepared for this expansion and implementation with well-trained personnel and the knowledge to teach in this way.

How SEL Affects Young People And Teachers Outside the Classroom

In addition to the impact of social emotional learning on improving academic performance and classroom behavior, there are many lasting positive effects on young people outside of school.1 Students exposed to SEL in the classroom are more capable of managing their emotions and setting boundaries with their peers. These outside benefits allow young people to stay focused on problems and solve social issues without getting upset or distracted by how others act.

One key benefit that students that undergo SEL see is that they are less likely to experience emotional hijacking, where our brains bypass our ability to remain calm and collected, and we react suddenly and without control to upsetting situations. An example of emotional hijacking would be if a friend is talking over you or distracting you while focusing on work or homework. You suddenly snap at them and say something that you may regret immediately after. SEL can teach students self-awareness and social skills that allow them to interject with more reasoned and calm interactions with their peers and family, leaving them more in control and emotionally stable. This stability can lead to long-term improvements in mental health and reduced chances of suffering from anxiety, depression, and substance abuse behaviors.3

Young people who learn SEL techniques are often in better control of their own emotions, whether reacting to something they did as individuals or reacting to something that someone else did to them. In other words, these students can regulate their emotions within a dynamic and varied set of circumstances, leading to less emotional turmoil. In turn leading to higher energy levels and improved ability to focus on work, homework, hobbies, and leisure activities. In addition to more energy and focus, students also report improved attitudes towards themselves and others, leading to a more positive outlook on their lives and social interactions.1

Any educator knows that relationships between students can change with no warning – kids who are best friends today may be arguing and fighting tomorrow for no discernible reason. You can’t know everything that happens in a student’s life outside of school, but using SEL practices can help you develop an understanding of why a conflict may exist and what you can do to help resolve it. Giving each student a chance to explain their perspective and experience away from the other parties and having them reflect on how their actions affect others will lead to more peaceful conflict resolution. Valuing the input of each side and framing the conflict in a way that doesn’t place the blame on any one side is a great way to model SEL for students, and they are likely to learn more from the experience than they would from a formal SEL lesson. This also reinforces that SEL is a set of principles and not rules.

Not only does SEL help students when they come home from school — these outside benefits can last through their lives as they grow older.1-4 Those exposed to SEL are better able to plan everyday tasks like going to the store, knowing when to work and when to take breaks for meals, and making time to do the things they enjoy. Dignity-based SEL specifically can help with joining the workforce and growing one’s career, for example by knowing how to treat others with Dignity and respect, understanding how to work and communicate with peers and those with authority, and knowing how to manage conflict and set reasonable expectations for goals and outcomes. Teaching Dignity-based SEL in school shows young people how to think about themselves in the world, and provides lasting positive effects outside the classroom.1-4

Dignity-based SEL isn’t just for students — social and emotional learning for teachers involves integrating Dignity into their daily practice and language. Teachers have an exceptionally hard job — they need to be steadfast role models to a group of impressionable children. It’s hard to be calm and collected all of the time with so much going on in the world as an adult! Lessons from SEL can show us how to use Dignity and deal with conflict outside of the classroom with family and friends — and can help “check your baggage” before teaching to avoid emotional outbursts or anger towards your students. A teacher’s role in social and emotional learning goes beyond the classroom and young people’s personal lives — they must deeply understand and be involved in Dignity-Based SEL every step of the way.

Think back on your own experience in the classroom — how much were you taught about emotions when you were your students’ age? Reflecting on this question, one can see how learning more about Dignity-based SEL can benefit students, young people, and teachers in a positive, lasting way!

How to get started and learn how to teach Dignity-Based SEL in the classroom

Young people and teachers benefit greatly from implementing Dignity-Based SEL both in and outside the classroom, leading to long-lasting positive outcomes in their lives. To learn more about Dignity and SEL, visit the Cultures of Dignity website to find more information and social emotional learning lesson plans. Feel free to reach out to the Cultures of Dignity team with any questions or comments!

Works Cited

  1. CASEL. (2008, January). Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Student Benefits: | Education in Crisis and Conflict Network.
  2. CASEL. (2021). What Does the Research Say? CASEL.
  3. Clarke, A. (2021, July 21). Adolescent mental health: A systematic review on the effectiveness of school-based interventions [July 2021]. Early Intervention Foundation.
  4. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.
  5. Trust, E. (2021, May 18). Recommendations for State Leaders to Advance Equity Using Funds from the American Rescue Plan. The Education Trust.
  6. Worley, S., & Palmer, S. (2020, April 23). The CARES Act: Five Things That School and District Leaders Need to Know Now.

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