For instructors

SEL in the classroom as schools reopen

Key takeaways

  • Take opportunities to build Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) in the classroom, from quick check-ins to entire curricula.
  • Make equity part of the recovery process to address social-emotional needs of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) students.


As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, students have experienced the social-emotional effects of the loss of social support, disruptions to education, and health issues of loved ones. The long-term effects of these issues will not automatically resolve themselves as students return to schools.

The effects may also contribute to a cycle of academic issues and social-emotional issues, as schools and families across the country recover from the pandemic: Absenteeism is associated with social-emotional issues and lower academic performance, which may in turn lead to more social-emotional issues (Reference: Santibañez & Guarino, 2020).

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process through which people develop the skills and knowledge to live rich, resilient, healthy emotional lives. These skills include:

  • Managing emotions
  • Achieving personal goals
  • Maintaining supportive relationships
  • Making responsible and caring decisions (Reference: CASEL, 2020)

SEL education is linked to improved academic outcomes (Reference: Durlak et al., 2011). Social-emotional capacities, including self-control, are a key ingredient in health and wealth as well (Reference: Moffitt et al., 2011). SEL represents a significant area of investment by schools and teachers, with teachers in particular expressing interest in more SEL activities in their schools. (Reference: Krachman & Larocca, 2017). Given the known benefits of SEL in students’ overall well-being, SEL thus can be a key part of the pandemic recovery process in schools. It can help equip students with the tools to process the personal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It can also help prepare students for further uncertainty as schools navigate reopening.

Best practices & evidence

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) notes a trend toward embedding SEL objectives into academic curricula (Reference: CASEL, 2018). The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s RULER is one such framework to do so, using an evidence-based approach to school-wide SEL. It focuses on developing students’ ability to recognize, understand, label, express, and regulate emotions via a set of four tools. Importantly, leaders, teachers, staff, students, and families are all introduced to these tools in the RULER framework so that SEL can be emphasized in the classroom and in family engagement.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development highlights four easy strategies to start incorporating SEL in the classroom:

  • Modeling self-awareness
  • Growing student responsibility
  • Modeling kindness
  • Utilizing cooperative learning strategies (Reference: Knight, 2018)

This aligns with the CASEL roadmap for reopening school, which specifies that adults should connect around healing and building their capacity to support students, while also weaving SEL in the classroom throughout the day, such as through quick check-ins and reflections. For example, younger students can choose a “feeling face” to describe their current emotional state, while older students can assess how emotions are influencing their current behaviors (Reference: Reunite, Renew, and Thrive: Social and Emotional Learning Roadmap for Reopening School, 2020). The Harvard Graduate School of Education offers the 15-minute Everyday Gratitude Strategy that focuses on helping middle and high school students recognize gratitude, consider the intentions and costs of people’s giving, and practice giving back. See the Resources page for more classroom strategies.

Health equity lens

A combination of preexisting health inequities and occupational COVID-19 exposures have contributed to racial and ethnic disparities around COVID-19 (Reference: Hughes et al., 2021). This extra burden of COVID-19 can translate into an unjust burden of grief, loss of social support, and other social-emotional issues for students from communities hard-hit by the pandemic. Specifically promoting equity is a key part of addressing the trauma that Black, Indigenous, and other students of color have felt disproportionately as a result of the pandemic (Reference: Boudreau, 2020). However, it is important to develop SEL practices and curricula through a justice framework to avoid simply policing students along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality (Reference: Communities for Just Schools Fund, 2020).

Supporting long-term resilience

Incorporating SEL into schoolwide pandemic recovery requires coordination and resources beyond the individual school level. For example, the New York City Department of Education’s school reopening plan includes a focus on social-emotional wellbeing. This includes support for teachers to incorporate trauma-informed approaches into their teaching practices, as well as for schools to adopt a SEL program for their students (Reference: NYC Department of Education, n.d.). On one hand, this is a call to action for district leaders to support and promote their staff and their community in accessing mental health resources long-term. At the same time, this is also a call to action for requiring federal funding to ensure that schools in hard-hit areas have the resources to respond to student SEL needs long-term in tandem with academic recovery and long-term economic impacts of the pandemic. SEL after-school program partnerships may play a role in hard-hit communities. In such cases, a formalized curriculum, recurring professional development for school staff, and new institutionalized roles requiring SEL content expertise can help ensure sustainability (Reference: Schwartz et al., 2020). These efforts will require the whole community to play a part, as well as support from state and federal sources.


See all resources for incorporating SEL at school