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Putting Social Emotional Learning in All We Do: Reflections and Shifts Moving Forward


I was on a Zoom call with a student a few weeks to confer on her writing. I had a few tips to share and was ready to spend the next 15 minutes being so productive. However, when I greeted her with a “How are you?” she replied somberly, “Good.” Observing her tone, I asked her if she was okay. This time she replied with a whisper, “Yeah.” At that moment, I had to decide whether to move forward with conferring or continue to inquire about how she was doing. I read her emotional state as feeling sad and moved forward by letting her know she could talk to me if she needed. Softly, she shared two of her friends had a play-date without her, and she was feeling excluded.  

We spent the next 15 minutes talking about the feeling of being excluded and how it has also happened to me. I noticed by reading into her emotions. She left the zoom call feeling lighter and more peaceful. 

Maslow before Bloom

Educators have great responsibilities. This past school year and this year, those responsibilities tripled in size. Some of us had the added burden of navigating, engaging, and teaching on an online platform all year. Perhaps you’ve experienced hybrid teaching where some students were on Zoom while some students were face to face with you. We’ve done all this while developing and maintaining relationships with students first. 

As I reflect upon the 2020-2021 school year, I have found that it’s become necessary to put the students’ social-emotional needs in our classrooms first. 

I heard this phrase, “Maslow before Bloom” at the start of the school year, and it has been my inner voice when planning instruction. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs teaches if our basic needs of safety and belonging are not being met, it is difficult to meet other needs.

This hierarchy helps me understand what all humans, especially the students in our classrooms, need to thrive. 

In our classrooms, we have really highlighted the third tier, Belongingness. Author, Professor of Social Psychology, Brene Brown, defines true belonging as not changing who you are but requiring you to be who you are. 

Relationships among Teacher and Student

The research is pretty detailed and consistent that the relationship between teacher and student matters a great deal. It affects their sense of belonging, their relationships with peers, and affects their learning. Rita Pierson clearly stated in her 2013 TED Talk on Every Child Needs a Champion, “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.” 

To get kids to like and trust me, my colleagues and I used some tried and true methods during pre-covid teaching. The only difference this year was that it was done virtually. Below are some of them.

Lunch with the teacher: Each week, we invited 3-4 students in our classrooms to have lunch with us via Zoom. We learned their pets’ names, their favorite foods, met their caregivers and learned more about their cultures during this time. In turn, they also got to know us as people and not just their teachers. Time spent together built trust, and we hoped to bring them a sense of belonging, even on Zoom. 

Identity Webs: 

In Sara Ahmed’s book, Being the Change, she explains identity webs are personalized graphic tools that help us consider the many factors that shape who we are. At the beginning of the year, my colleagues and I shared our identity webs to students and asked them to create their own. Students placed their identity webs into their writer’s notebooks, and we explained that our identities shape who we are, and as we change, so do our identities.  

Identity Small Moments

In January 2020, staff developer Alexis Czeterko from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project demonstrated to a 5th-grade class how they could use identity websites to generate personal narratives ideas. She asked students to think of an identifier by citing Rene Watson’s “Where you From.” You can watch the video in its entirety here. Next, Alexis asked students to think of their identifiers and what experience or memory goes along with that identifier. In the fall, I will be spending more time having students use their identity webs to help generate ideas for their writing.

Relationship between Student to Student

Another reflection I have made this year is developing student-to-student relationships. In her course on Accelerating Early Literacy Development, Professor Nell Duke explained that the relationships between students are of equal importance and to a lesser degree than that of the teacher to student. 

Morning Meetings: My daughter recently returned to school for face-to-face instruction. While she slated the day as “Amazing,” she did share what she missed about pre-covid school. She longed for the time when they stood in a circle around the room and shared highs and lows.

 Morning Meetings allowed students to hear about what is happening in each other’s lives and helped cultivate relationships. 

Soft-Start: A colleague attended Ron Clark Academy a few years ago and shared about a soft start to the school day. In a soft-start school day, the first 15 minutes or so of the day is dedicated strictly to connecting and playing. For instance, students can choose an activity such as building blocks, playing a game or just resting before the academic rigor of the day begins. 

Effects on Learning

Relationships matter more than ever, and they have a direct impact on student learning. To ensure students feel connected and belong, I usually include the 3 Signature Practices; inclusion, engagement, and optimistic closure to all my lessons. You can learn more about these practices from The Collaborative for Academic Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) playbook and by clicking here.


It’s important to remember that SEL alone will not be the be all end all in what students need as we move forward. This year has given us time to really reflect on some of our practices. For me, it is ensuring that my practices are inclusive and I have put students’ social and emotional needs before the rigor of school.


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23 thoughts on “Putting Social Emotional Learning in All We Do: Reflections and Shifts Moving Forward

  1. Recently, teachers at my school were counseled against asking students to rate their feelings, citing regulations about only school counselors having the training to handle kids’ emotional lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in terms of social emotional learning, so your post was well-timed. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this post! I am also very interested in thinking about how SEL might look next year as we are fully face to face. I have been teaching online this year and have found so much joy from our morning meetings. Thank you also for entering us in to the give away.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciate all of the examples you provided. Although I’m not a classroom teacher, our kiddos enjoy sharing “good things” when I arrive for library lessons. That’s how they start their days with their teachers in the morning and I’m honored they want to share with me too. “Maslow before Bloom” is something I’m taking with me. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I appreciate the specific reminders to focus on connections. We’ve been face to face, but we’re still using soft starts in our secondary classrooms. Fridays are Celebrations. What if Wednesdays etc. Just thinking of ways to connect students as well as keep them talking. With our masks and plexiglass, we find that students need structured opportunities to talk/connect when they’re face to face too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for practical tips in addition to the “why” behind inclusive practices. Time to spice up my own toolbox and end the school year with an even stronger community of learners and friends.


  6. I love the idea of the soft start and especially identity webs to begin the
    new school year/kept in Writer’s notebooks. Thank you for the specific ideas and important priorities.


  7. Thank you for sharing specific examples in your post. We are beginning soft starts in 5th grade tomorrow. Identity webs is something we have dabbled in, but I love the thought of keeping them in our notebooks and see how they change as we do. Your reminder is so important “Maslow before Bloom,” and one we need to keep in the forefront as we transition back to normal.


  8. When I started reading the post, I was immediately compelled to read it in full. It did not disappoint my expectations. How important to be able to establish relationships with our students beyond the feedback of learning. True belonging is a powerful force that we have to cultivate as teachers. The teaching of writing is a privileged space to do it.


  9. This was a beautiful reminder of the need to invite students to share all (or what they want to) of them with us, not just the academics. Thank you for the post, I’m already taking notes for next school year. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No doubt, it is challenging. I do think we need to take care of ourselves first. I hope you get the respite you deserve on weekends and off hours.


  10. Your words and ideas are so important especially now. This year I have seen connections slowly whittle away. It has taken a great toll on children as well as teachers. I will share your post with my faculty. Thank for this!


  11. I am back to full face-to-face teaching. I wish I had had these ideas in my wheelhouse early in September when I was meeting with students on Google Meet for part of their day. Looking back, I think I could’ve been better. Hindsight is always 20/20. Thanks for sharing your reflections and ideas for moving forward.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Thanks for sharing your reflections. I appreciate you adding the video of Renee. I had not seen it and found it so inspiring! It’s pushing me to write where I’m from today and use as a mentor text come Fall.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I adored the writing lesson from Alexis. I hope to try it in the summer and have some reflections to share. I hope you’re well, Sally!


  13. Soft starts are great! Social distancing limits some of our usual choices, but it is so nice to ease into the morning and have time to chat (or settle in quietly). We do the same thing when we return from lunch.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Want to make sure next school year prioritizes SEL over academic rigors, after more than a year online. My students have now spent half their school life learning remotely.

    Liked by 1 person

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