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Changing the Conversation: How Educators Can Support Social and Emotional Learning by Creating a Positive School Climate

By Lauren Bates and Karyn Lewis | December 12, 2018

Lauren Bates
Lauren Bates is a senior advisor at Education Northwest. Her work includes project management of large, multiyear evaluations; qualitative data collection and analysis; and quantitative data management and analysis.

In an ideal world, everyone’s physical well-being would start strong and then be on a continuous upward trajectory, only getting better over time.

Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. The health of most people tends to fluctuate from year to year, month to month, or even week to week. This is true even for people who take care of themselves; we all get sick or injured from time to time.

The same goes for our social and emotional well-being, which is often referred to as social and emotional learning (SEL). This term is imperfect because it implies social and emotional development is just a matter of learning some skills.

But SEL is not like academic skills, which are relatively stable once mastered—after we learn our letters, we usually keep knowing them.

Even adults don’t achieve some ideal level of SEL in which they no longer struggle to manage difficult emotions or need to check themselves against biases they unconsciously carry.

Instead, SEL is a process that develops over time yet remains in flux based on the situations and stresses we encounter in our day-to-day lives.

Karyn Lewis is a senior researcher at Education Northwest. She works on a diverse range of projects related to science education, educational equity, college access, and social-emotional learning and development.

Put another way, SEL is an ebb and flow of how we experience and react to different situations.

And the context really matters (for example, imagine the difference in how well you would cope with negative feedback delivered in a one-on-one conversation compared with being called out in front of a large group).

For students, their relationships with adults, their home life, and their attitudes about the specific academic tasks they are doing can all influence their SEL capacities in a given moment—and schools play a critical role in setting students up for success in those moments.

What Adults Can Do

SEL is not something educators need to add to their plate or start doing instead of other initiatives; it is already happening. Regardless of whether they intend to do so, educators are influencing young people’s social and emotional development all the time.

How educators decide to respond to mistakes, give feedback about student behavior, and reflect students’ cultures and backgrounds in classroom materials, as well as the importance they place on getting to know each student (among many other subtle factors), all influence students’ SEL. And of course, educators can promote SEL development by modeling it themselves. Along those lines, instead of asking "Why do these students have poor social and emotional skills?" educators should pose this question: "What can we do to make school feel safe, welcoming, and more engaging for each student?"

A Good Starting Point

Climate permeates everything that happens in schools, and a positive climate promotes belonging—which is the foundation for social and emotional well-being.

When people in a school treat one another with respect and cultivate a welcoming physical and emotional space, students are more likely to feel like they belong. This sets them up for both SEL and academic success.

A recent infographic from REL Northwest describes both schoolwide and classroom-level actions that adults can take to foster a positive environment that supports a sense of belonging.

These include:

  • Offer training to teachers and students on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, and resilience
  • Use culturally responsive practices
  • Engage in perspective-taking
  • Strive to find common ground with all students

The infographic also underscores how creating a good school climate can benefit teachers by reducing their exhaustion and stress, which can lead to positive ripple effects and prevent burnout.

It boils down to this: Adults set the tone for school climate—and seemingly small things they do can make a big difference in students' social and emotional well-being.