Integrating SEL into Our New Normal


By Wendy Baron, MA


Yesterday, a colleague shared that a 5th grade student began to cry during their synchronous distance learning session. “I HATE Coronavirus!!! I miss my friends! I need a hug!” At that moment, the teacher and other students in the class offered comfort. “I’m hugging you,” said one student. Others commiserated that they are feeling the same way.

One thing we know for sure…when students return to school in the fall—whether in our classrooms or distance learning—they will be returning with stress and anxiety from uncertainty about health and safety, and with the need to connect with peers and teachers after months of isolation. The big question is:

“How will we create safe, trauma-responsive classrooms and schools, where all students feel connected, included, and supported—
emotionally, socially, and academically?”

Experts are predicting a “mental health tsunami,” yet, many educators may not be prepared to handle all the emotions that are likely to bubble up. If we open the door to feelings, depression, sadness, fear, and anger may all come pouring out. So, how can we create space to hold our students’ emotions AND transition back to academic work?

First…it’s important to note that stress impacts learning. When we perceive a threat, our amygdala sounds the alarm, and our ability to pay attention, process new information, think flexibly, creatively problem solve, and regulate our emotions is impaired. Secondly, when we keep our emotions bottled up, they can build up, eventually exploding out more fiercely than before. When we understand the underlying causes of our emotions, label and express them, we are better able to regulate them. Thirdly, when we are listened to deeply, offered compassion, and support, we feel better!

Here are three (3) ways we can cultivate an emotionally healthy climate and support students in reducing stress and anxiety so they are ready to learn.


Build Relationships and SEL with Community Circles

“In this classroom, I always feel comfortable to share my experiences. It’s an opportunity I have to be able to share what I’ve felt in the past, so it wouldn’t be stuck inside me any more.”

-7th Grader

There are so many creative ways for students to explore their emotions in safe and structured ways. Community Circles—virtually or in person— help students develop positive, respectful, and trusting relationships through authentic sharing. Community Circles cultivate students’ ability to listen with understanding and empathy and respond to one another with kindness and support. The foundation for successful Community Circles is establishing community agreements. At the outset, ask students to discuss the meaning and importance of each agreement, and then, refer back to them often.

  • Listen and speak with respect, empathy, and understanding
  • Be kind
  • Speak from the heart
  • Honor confidentiality

Using open-ended questions will cultivate reflection, connection, and social-emotional learning (SEL). During each Community Circle, pose a question for consideration. Students can journal first or you can dive right in. Encourage students to listen deeply to one another, value various perspectives, and communicate clearly and precisely. Here are some examples of open-ended questions, sorted into five core SEL competencies.


  • If your feelings were a type of weather, what would that be? Why?
  • What is one thing that you are grateful for at this time?


  • When you are feeling stressed, what is something you do that helps you feel better?
  • When you’re struggling, what is the kindest thing you can do for yourself?

Social Awareness

  • What is something you can do in the next 24 hours that could make someone else feel good?
  • How do you think [character in a book, family member, someone in the news, etc.) is feeling? What might be causing that feeling?

Relationship Skills

  • What demonstrates respect?
  • Who is someone who has helped you this week? In what ways?

Responsible Decision-Making

  • If you were an animal, what animal would you be, and why?
  • If you could be a superhero, what super powers would you choose, and why?

At the secondary level, a school-wide approach prevents the use of the same prompts in multiple classes. At one middle school, teachers utilize their advisory period twice a week for Community Circles. A local high school uses a scope and sequence with questions related to weekly themes such as resilience, connection, and self-care. Additionally, at any level, integrating social-emotional related open-ended questions within the context of academic instruction builds community and SEL skills.

  • When you encounter a difficult problem, what helps you persevere? (Math)
  • What emotions might have contributed to this conflict? (History)
  • What values do you think guided [character’s] actions? (English)
  • What is something you learned from this project that you can apply in your life? (Science)
  • What is good sportsmanship? (PE)

Diaphragmatic Breathing

When we are stressed, our heart races with the release of adrenaline and cortisol, and we are ready for fight, flight, or freeze! We are likely to be more emotionally reactive than measured and calm. To counter the stress response, and reduce impulsivity, teach students to pause and breathe. The 4-2-6 breath pattern, with longer exhalations than inhalations, stimulates the “relaxation response.”

Begin by inviting students to lower their gaze or close their eyes—whichever feels comfortable. Guide them to inhale, expanding the diaphragm to a count of four, hold the breath for a count of two, and exhale to a count of six. Continue this 4-2-6 breath pattern for five cycles.

Afterwards, ask students to check in with how they are feeling. Most likely, students will be feeling calmer, more settled, and ready to transition to academics.

Crack the NUTs (Negative, Unwanted Thoughts)

This emotion regulation strategy, also called “reframing negative self-talk” teaches us to shift from a self-critical to a more self-compassionate voice. We begin this practice with self-awareness—noticing the words and tone of voice we are using with ourselves.

During a Community Circle, you could pose a question such as, “When you make a mistake, what is something harsh you might say to yourself?” or, during a particularly challenging academic assignment, stop, and ask students to share what they are saying to themselves. Then, take some of the critical self-talk comments, and with your students, reframe them into more positive, optimistic, and self-compassionate talk.

This practice will cultivate patience, persistence and resilience. Plus, as we offer kindness and compassion to ourselves, we are better able to offer empathy and understanding to others.

Habits of Heart and Mind

“I am no longer afraid of storms, for I am learning to sail my ship.”

Louisa May Alcott

When we return to whatever is our “new normal,” a healthy, safe, inclusive emotional climate coupled with stress relief and emotion regulation strategies will be our best bet in ensuring students have the physiological and psychological equilibrium to engage in academic learning, develop new friendships, and experience success in school and life. Interdependence, compassion, the willingness to be cooperative and take care of each other will become the new normal. Uncertainty, confusion, and fear may still be present, yet, within a supportive community, students will be able to see challenges as adventures and develop the self-confidence to take intellectual, emotional, and social risks. This new normal will take schooling to a new level!


Wendy Baron, MA, is a teacher, author, researcher, coach, and leader in the field of social and emotional learning (SEL). Wendy co-founded the Santa Cruz/Silicon Valley New Teacher Project and New Teacher Center after 13 years of classroom teaching. Wendy facilitates professional learning, produces webinars, engages in research, and writes about mentoring, leadership, and social, emotional, academic development (SEAD). She currently supports teachers, school and district leaders in SEL, teaches restorative practices and conscious communication classes at 1440 Multiversity, and presents at national conferences with a focus on improving health and wellbeing through connected relationships.

Read more posts from Wendy Baron.


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