5 SEL strategies that can help with behavior trouble

My first job in southern Oregon was in what is colloquially known as a “behavior classroom.” It was a self-contained special education classroom for students with emotional regulation struggles. Before I joined the school, the students had been isolated, working on packet-based lessons and spending most or all of each day in the same room. In my first month on the job, since I was new, I kept the status quo and dealt with myriad challenging behaviors: task completion issues, peer-to-peer conflict, disruption, refusal, and overt non-compliance. I handled these individually using collaborative problem solving. I would empathize, model, and give consequences, expecting the behavior to change. However, the same issues arose, and not just from the same students each time.

I eventually realized that I was treating my behavior-based procedures and my instruction as two separate entities, when what I really needed to do was combine them. I came to this conclusion when I noticed that the most successful days, or the days with the least challenging behavior, were days when my students were more interested in completing coursework. I realized that instruction and unit planning was behavior management. The more engaged in daily lessons and formative work my students were, the less behavior I had to contend with.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies were key to helping me connect the two. There are so many ways to use SEL in the classroom. It can often be an embedded element of regular content we already have planned. For example, during an ELA lesson, I can help promote students’ social awareness by asking questions that put them in the shoes of a literary character. I can promote responsible decision-making when I launch into a STEM engineering and design project to solve a complex societal problem.

Reaping the benefits of SEL in my classroom to bring instruction, unit planning, and behavior management together was full of trial and error. To streamline the process for you, I have compiled a short list of practical SEL strategies I’ve used successfully that I hope you can adopt or adapt for your own classroom.

Strategy 1: Mindful Minute

  • Adapted from page 34 of the CASEL playbook
  • Promotes self-awareness and self-management

Mindfulness, like SEL, is often misunderstood and oversimplified. I explain to students that our brains have the amazing capability to travel to the past (reliving and processing past experiences) as well as to the future (planning, making predictions). The problem is that when we dwell in the past or future too much, we usually feel a great deal of anxiety and stress. If we get into those patterns too often, we can get caught in a spiral that is not very helpful.

Mindful Minute is a way to use our breathing as an anchor to the present moment. Sure, our brains will veer off into many different past and future directions, but awareness of those mental patterns is part of the goal. Do you find yourself criticizing yourself for mistakes you made in the past? Do you find yourself worrying about things that might never happen or are out of your control? Noticing these thoughts and emotions can help you and your students figure out next steps to deal with them.

How to do it

  • Minimize distractions (yes, silence your phone).
  • Take a mindful position. Sit upright with your eyes closed or focused on an object, and put your hands in your lap or on the small of your back (this helps with breathing and posture).
  • Take two or three long, slow, deep breaths to get settled in. Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on the feeling of each breath as it fills your lungs and expands your belly.
  • Breathe normally for the rest of the minute, focusing on your breathing and noticing your thought patterns. Don’t judge yourself if you momentarily lose focus; that’s normal and part of the process. The goal is to note, not to judge.
  • Finish off with a few more long, slow, deep breaths. Take however many feel right.
  • Debrief the experience as a whole group. This is optional but recommended. Ask yourselves, how did you feel before you started the Mindful Minute? During? After? What patterns did you notice in your brain? What strategies can we use to address patterns that aren’t helpful? Consider using a reference that provides emotion words paired with images.

Here is a flowchart I use in my classroom to preview and review the Mindful Minute process.

Strategy 2: Emotional Check-In

  • Promotes self-awareness, self-management, and social awareness

Students (and adults) come into learning situations with a mixed bag of emotions, but we often don’t acknowledge them due to shame or embarrassment. Negative emotions in particular can really hinder learning.

An Emotional Check-In serves to take some of that weight off, while also normalizing conversations about the highs and lows that we all go through. Another benefit is that by acknowledging how we are feeling, we train the parts of our brain that carry out reasoning to regulate the emotion-centered parts. Naming emotions can actually rewire the way we respond to the more difficult ones!

How to do it

  • Sit or stand in a circle, if space allows, so that everyone is able to give their full attention to the person talking.
  • Being vulnerable is difficult. Set the stage (especially the first time) by explaining the activity and why it’s important. And don’t be afraid to model vulnerability throughout this process; it can go a long way.
  • Work with the group to co-create a short list of norms that everyone will follow (e.g., everyone participates, listens when it is not their turn, claps or snaps their fingers after someone shares, and keeps what is said in the circle in the circle). If your are a mandated reporter in your state, consider how you might acknowledge that.
  • Rate how you’re feeling. Taking turns, have each person give a number from 1 to 10 that captures how they are feeling. Along with that number, they can give at least one emotion word that describes why they picked that number. Consider using an emotion words list or similar age-appropriate reference tool. It can be an opportunity to practice more precise vocabulary.

If an individual is navigating really heavy emotions, pull them aside afterward to offer support, give suggestions for regulation, or connect them to resources.

Consider using the same circle-up structure to answer silly get-to-know-you questions that build relationships. In my class, we do this every morning after the Emotional Check-In.

For some ideas on different ways to approach check-ins, read “6 ways to check-in with teens.”

Strategy 3: Movement Brain Break

Movement can help us control impulses, manage stress and anxiety, and find motivation to persist through difficult tasks. There are tons of ways that movement can break up learning and give brains a much-needed break.

How to do it

  • Offer movement choices. Give students a table of four movement options to choose from. You can do a round two by having them pick a different one. Pick any of the options below or try something like a simple stretch, a jump, walking in circles, or jazz hands.
  • Play the 5-4-3-2-1 game. Do five of one thing, four of another, three of another, etc. A fun combo: Five jumping jacks, four opposite-toe touches (left hand, right foot), three hops on one foot, two hops on the other foot, one reach for the sky.
  • Try face gymnastics. Contort your facial muscles and make all sorts of funny faces. The sillier, the better. As a bonus, have students freeze from time to time so they can look around and see the goofy faces.
  • Take imaginary selfies. Pair or group up students, and take a “photo” with an imaginary camera. This goes well with face gymnastics.
  • Shake ’em all about. Everyone stands and the teacher leads them in shaking out all their limbs one by one. Start with eight shakes of the right arm, counting the number aloud with each shake. Encourage kids to count along as they shake. Then do eight shakes of the left arm and each leg. Repeat the same process all the way down to one. This works especially well if you keep a quick (but not too quick) pace.
  • Create an art gallery. Make sure everyone has something to draw with and on. (Bonus points if you are that teacher who lets students use dry-erase markers on the desks.) Give students a drawing prompt (e.g., “Draw a picture of an animal of your choice”) and give them one minute to doodle. Then have everyone stand up, stretch, and take a walk around the art gallery to see what was created.

Strategy 4: One-Word Whip-Around

  • Adapted from page 43 of the CASEL playbook
  • Promotes self-management (could have elements of other competencies, depending on the question)

This one is so useful because you can use it as a starter, a mid-lesson break, or as an exit activity. It is great for when you need a small activity to bridge between two pieces of learning, or when you have just a little time left over at the end of class. When considering personalities, it works really well to get the shy individuals to say something meaningful while helping wordy individuals (like myself) to control the impulse to steal the show.

How to do it

  • Think of a prompt or question. It might be related to the content your students are learning (e.g., “What is one word that describes your reaction to the chapter we just read?”), or perhaps it has an SEL focus (e.g., “Give one word to describe how you’re feeling right now”). The possibilities are endless with this one!
  • Form a circle if space allows.
  • Tell students the prompt and give them enough processing time to come up with an answer. Emphasize that they can only use one word, and remind them that they won’t get to explain why they chose that word.
  • Take turns going around the circle until everyone has shared their word.

Strategy 5: Appreciation, Apology, or Aha

  • Adapted from Edutopia
  • Promotes self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship skills

I usually use this strategy at the end of a lesson as a way to wrap up. It works especially well after small group activities where relationship skills are required.

How to do it

  • Form a circle if space allows.
  • Give students a choice. Let them know they can express gratitude, ask for forgiveness, or share something surprising or interesting.
  • Give students a minute to prepare a response.
  • Do a whip-around to share out.

Don’t go it alone

Adding something new to your practice can be challenging. These strategies are geared toward helping you gain information about students’ strengths, interests, funds of knowledge, and more at the beginning of a unit or lesson to help you plan the unit or lesson. Here are some ways to get the most from these tips at the beginning of a unit:

  • Partner with a teacher. Select four strategies that you’d like to try in your classroom. With a partner in your professional learning community or core team, or with another teacher who has many of the same students as you, divide the four strategies—two for you and two for them. This way, each of you is taking time out of your regular classroom activities to experiment with only two strategies, but you will get a wealth of knowledge from all four. This can inform your prep and shift learning materials on the front end, saving time during the unit.
  • Communicate with families. Reach out to families about their preferred medium of communication. Use a give-one, get-one strategy in home communication to get to know them better. For every score or grade-based necessity, for example, ask caregivers about their cultural background, their student’s learning preferences, and the home learning culture. When relying on school-based communication—e.g., conferences, meetings to discuss individualized education programs, and back-to-school nights—set aside time to discuss each student’s background and interests with families, instead of just scores and grades.
  • Check for supports. Many students in your classroom will have legally required supports. These may require additional prep time, but remember that many of the legally required supports can assist all students in your class. Create a universal learning supports toolkit that all students can access. This will enable a student to receive support in line with unit design, instead of requiring an additional support need that’s revealed during assessment.

It’s all about struggling, productively

As educators, we want to engage our students in productive struggle, that spot where students are at the edges of their zone of proximal development and building the next conceptual bridge. But just like adults, they will need a break in that struggle.

Without SEL breaks like the ones suggested above, students may quit before they reach the end of their productive struggle and before they’ve learned everything you’re teaching. So give these strategies a shot. And have fun!

Nathan Breeden, project manager at NWEA, coauthored this post.


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