Around the world, educators are facing a wave of mental health concerns in their students. The rise of youth depression and anxiety is a trend that started before covid, but it has accelerated during the pandemic years, reaching crisis levels in many communities. Recent research shows that students at high-achieving schools are particularly at risk. For those of us in the international school world, the need to respond has never been clearer or more urgent.
As we grapple with this mental health epidemic, one key intervention has been the adoption of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) standards and programs, which explicitly teach vital SEL skills such as self-efficacy, stress management, and conflict resolution. This SEL curriculum is often delivered in Mentoring or Advisory programs and aims to help students build resilience, wellbeing, and strong relationships.
Embedding SEL into the curriculum is one important step, and it should be happening in every school. However, just teaching SEL skills is not enough. As the Institute for Social and Emotional Learning puts it, “the ‘how’ to bringing SEL alive is just as important as the ‘what’.”
In fact, in the absence of a reflective approach to “how” we teach SEL, simply delivering SEL curriculum can actually backfire. Teenagers are primed to react strongly to any whiff of hypocrisy. If students hear you say that your school values students’ wellbeing but then their day is full of yelling teachers, piled-on homework, and constant stress, they won’t believe you care. Instead, they will respond with cynicism and disengagement.
So, how can we build students’ wellbeing without being hypocrites? What does an effective approach to SEL look like in secondary school?
The following ten SEL strategies emerge from my experience developing and implementing an SEL program at International School Beijing. We based our work on self-determination theory, which posits that everyone has three basic needs in order to thrive: a sense of belonging, autonomy, and competence. In line with that research, each of the following strategies serves one of these three goals.
PART 1: NURTURE BELONGING
The first step toward student wellbeing is that they need to feel like they belong. The challenge for this is that many secondary teachers feel intense pressure to cover content. You might feel that taking time for building students’ sense of belonging in your classroom takes away valuable learning time. However, taking a few moments to make connections is well worth it. If students feel that they belong in your classroom, their wellbeing will increase, and they will be more motivated to work hard at learning. As Nick Haisman-Smith, director of the Institute for Social Emotional Learning, states, “SEL is the onramp to learning.” Students simply will learn more if they feel like they belong in your classroom. So how can you create that sense of belonging?
Strategy #1: Make check-ins a habit
Check-ins are a tool that we have adopted throughout our school, inspired by IFSEL. As you can see from this example, these can take just five minutes or so, or they could extend out and be an entire Mentoring lesson. Check-ins help you to get to know your students as people and give them a chance to get to know each other, building community within your classroom. Check-ins also give you a chance to model emotional self-awareness (“Today I’m feeling both stressed like #1 and also angry like #3 because....”), which is the foundation for the rest of the SEL skills.
An example “check-in” activity.
We find that check-ins work best with what Haisman-Smith calls “a light touch.” Don’t overuse them, keep the conversation moving, and a bit of silliness or humor goes a long way.
Strategy #2: Model emotional self-management when faced with frustrations
All the check-ins in the world won’t make your students feel a sense of belonging if they don’t feel safe in your classroom. You are the decisive factor in building that safety.
How do you respond when a student does something frustrating or disruptive? For instance, what if one walks in late? Do you tell them to hurry? Get irritated at the interruption? Of course, when a late student interrupts your flow, it’s normal to feel annoyed. But this one tiny moment speaks volumes to your students, whether you mean to or not. You have a chance to model for your students how to manage your own emotions and treat others with compassion. What about responding, “I’m glad you’re here!”?
With every small interaction, you have the chance to tell your students, “you’re important to me, you belong here.” Modeling patience and kindness when you’re under pressure sends powerful messages to your students of safety and belonging.
Strategy #3: Maintain a stance of humble inquiry about your students’ cultures and identities
The vast majority of educators have all the good intentions in the world to nurture and support all students. But despite our best intentions, SEL can be like “white supremacy with a hug,” according to Dena Simmons. She writes about a time when an instructor, well-versed in the importance of SEL, was dismissive and rude about her culture and heritage.
This happens far too often. International teachers sometimes bristle at the suggestion that we might harbor unconscious bias. After all, we are the ones who left our home countries to immerse ourselves in foreign cultures. It’s so easy to be blind to our own privilege and loudly complain about our host country or our students’ parents. Without humble self-reflection, we run the risk of doing harm to our students.
It’s vitally important that we approach our students’ languages, cultures, and gender identities with a spirit of inquiry and humility. Building a true culture of belonging in your classroom requires you to ask hard questions about your own assumptions and to be willing to change. This internal work is vital for building a welcoming community where diverse students can feel they belong.
Strategy # 4: Utilize inclusive language
One way you can live out this stance of humble inquiry is to continue reflecting on your use of language and being willing to change when you learn that your language might make your students feel like they aren’t a real part of our classroom community. It’s very easy to make comments that hurt our students without ever realizing it, without meaning any harm at all.
For instance, when I was a teenager, we would say “that’s lame” for anything we didn’t like. Now I cringe at how ableist that term is, how dismissive and demeaning it is to those with disabilities. Was I trying to be rude and biased? No, not at all! But my intent didn’t matter nearly as much as the negative impact I had on people who are disabled.
Using inclusive language can manifest in all sorts of ways. Fortunately, it costs us teachers very little to update our language, just some research and humility. Linked here are some great resources on reducing your use of racist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist language.
It might feel awkward to change our long-embedded speech patterns. But the payoffs are huge for your students, especially those from marginalized communities. Being intentional about your language can help ensure that your classroom is a place where all students can feel that they belong.
PART 2: FOSTER AUTONOMY
According to self-determination theory, after belonging, the second prerequisite for wellbeing is that we all need to feel some sense of control over our own lives. In the same way that you don’t like it when your supervisor micro-manages you, preteens and teenagers have an intense psychological need to exert their autonomy. This is a need that is rarely honored in some schools, as students are told how to dress, what to learn, and even when they can go to the bathroom.
No wonder students check out! The good news is this, you can prioritize community over compliance. You don’t have to choose between chaos and rigid authoritarianism. Our next two SEL strategies build up students’ autonomy in the classroom, with positive ripple effects both for their wellbeing and their learning.
Strategy #5: Co-create classroom norms with your students and uphold them with dignity
There’s nothing less inspiring on the first day of school than a list of rules and consequences. In fact, as Alfie Kohn’s research shows, a focus on rewards and punishments can undermine students’ intrinsic motivation for pro-social behavior.
Instead, try asking your students, “what kind of classroom do we want this to be? Therefore, what classroom norms should we agree to?” Display the agreements on the wall, then refer to them when someone breaks them. Here is a great lesson plan that guides you through these steps.
When you do need to have disciplinary conversations, try to have them in ways that avoid shame and show the student who broke the norms that you know that they can do better. At the same time, permissiveness is not the goal. Classrooms that are too permissive are also not emotionally safe. Students need to be able to trust that you will uphold the group norms and that you won’t let mean behavior slide. The goal here is to combine high support with high expectations. In a way, your approach to classroom management needs to thoughtfully balance students’ need for autonomy with their need for belonging.
Strategy #6: Value student voices in your curriculum and instruction
How often do students have a chance to influence what you’re studying, or how they’ll show their learning? Embedding more student voice and choice sends students a powerful message that you respect them and what they bring to your classroom. Maybe it’s incorporating a “Genius Hour” where students can work on projects of their choosing. Maybe it’s giving them opportunities to choose how to share their learning. Or maybe it’s simply small opportunities to share their thinking, ask questions, and reflect in your classroom, like these optimistic closures.
Whether in large ways or small, students will thrive when they feel like they own their own learning, rather than feeling like it’s something that’s happening to them. What’s more, adding in more student voice and choice tells students that you value them and their voices, that they aren’t simply vessels to be filled with knowledge. When students gain some autonomy over their own learning, both their motivation and their wellbeing increase.
PART 3: BUILD COMPETENCE
After belonging and autonomy, the third psychological need we all have is competence. Humans have an innate desire to work toward mastery. When we have some choice about our learning, the learning itself is intensely rewarding.
Often, we educators think of assessment and grading as something totally separate from SEL. However, for teenagers, especially those in high-achieving schools like international schools, assessments and grades are sometimes the most stressful aspects of their lives. Think about this, sending your teenager to a high-achieving school increases their risk of anxiety and depression. I must wonder if the way we approach grades is at the core of this disparity.
If we say we care deeply about students’ wellbeing, we need to take a hard look at our homework, assessment, grading, and reporting policies. What might an SEL approach to assessment look like? The next three strategies, which come from the field of standards-based grading and reporting, are a few starting points.
Strategy #7: Use formative assessments to build trajectories of success
Building students' sense of competence leads them to the belief that their hard work can pay off and that they will continue to improve. To build competence, students need to be working in a “goldilocks zone,” not too easy, not too hard.
Use formative assessments early and often to ensure that every student is working within this magic zone. Keep formative assessments low stakes by sharing with students that the grade doesn’t “count,” these are “practice.” These messages lower the stress and allow students permission to try new things, and even be creative.
Note, this doesn’t mean that your class should be easy! Think of video games. No one ever marketed a video game by calling it easy. As humans, we relish a challenge, especially if we experience early wins in tackling that challenge. Using formative assessments, you can provide students with a string of wins that are both rewarding and challenging. Once again, using this strategy is great for learning, and great for student wellbeing.
Strategy #8: Don’t use grades to try to motivate students
There’s often nothing more distressing to students than grades and assessments. It’s easy, as adults, to forget just how stressful grades can be. We might have a performance review or walkthrough a few times a year. We forget what it feels like to constantly be evaluated. It’s stressful! How teachers communicate to students about grades matters deeply to student wellbeing.
One easy tweak you can make is to ask yourself, “are you docking points for late work?”. Stop! Penalizing students for lacking responsibility is not the same as teaching responsibility. The consequence of not completing work should be to have to complete the work. Keep academic grades out of it.
Instead, separate out achievement grades and keep these pure, untainted by behaviors such as organization and responsibility. Give students separate grades for behaviors that interfere with their learning.
Strategy #9 Be flexible with deadlines and sparing with homework
And since we’re talking about late work, how would you like your boss to treat you if you didn’t get something done on time? Treat your students the way you would want to be treated. Be as flexible as you can manage, offering extensions and reassessments when students need them. You simply don’t know what else might be on their plate at the same time.
What about homework? How would you like it if your boss gave you assignments to complete every night after a full day’s work? The levels of homework that international schools regularly assign students can be off the charts. Some teachers feel pride in being the “tough” teacher. There’s a satisfaction that comes with being the one who really pushes kids to excellence. But there’s a right kind of “tough” and a wrong kind. The best teachers master the art of being a “warm demander,” spurring students to excellence while also providing accommodations and support to prevent toxic stress and burnout.
These three best practices in assessment and grading are just a few of the ways that you can bring your assessment policy in line with your deepest values as an educator and build your students’ sense of competence. Assessment and grading do not have to be so painful to students. You can have high expectations and give high levels of support.
PART 4: PRIORITIZE
Strategy #10. Prioritize Your Own Wellbeing
The final SEL strategy on this “top ten” list doesn’t happen in the classroom at all. To be fully present for your students, you need to make your own wellbeing a priority.
I have had several conversations with teachers recently where they mentioned prepping or grading all weekend and every evening, running themselves ragged to give their very best. I know how easy it is for my own work habits to get out of balance. We all care so deeply about students; it’s easy to burn ourselves out if we never take time to unplug from work and recharge.
So, what can you do to make sure that you get the rest that you need? Here are a few suggestions:
- Establish “off hours” with your administrators and students, times when you will not be checking email. Then stick to those!
- Spend more class time giving feedback and taking fewer piles home to grade.
- Prioritize your curriculum to cut the busywork- less homework for your students, less grading for you. Focus deeply on fewer topics, rather than trying to cram everything in.
These three habits can go a long way toward making sure that you can prioritize your own wellbeing. After all, teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.
Just like student wellbeing is the onramp to great learning, teacher wellbeing is the onramp to great teaching. The reason for this goes beyond preventing burnout. Teaching is an intensely relational job, you simply can’t be present and responsive to your students’ SEL and academic needs if you are exhausted and overwhelmed.
These “top ten” SEL strategies are just a smattering of the myriad of ways that secondary teachers can show their care for their students. SEL doesn’t have to be complicated. At their core, these strategies are simply ways to treat students like full human beings, the way we ourselves would want to be treated.
Together, we can meet the wave of student depression and anxiety. Together, we can build schools with wellbeing at the center, where all of us, students and faculty alike, can flourish and thrive.
If you have more SEL suggestions for secondary teachers, feel free to add them in the comments! --------------------------------------------------------------
Ruth Poulsen is the middle school assistant principal at the International School of Beijing, China.