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Unlocking Student Potential: An Introduction to Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

Learn how teachers can implement, execute and track the progress of weekly reflections in their classroom.
Rachelle Dené Poth
March 16, 2022

Learning can be a challenge and designing the right experiences that will best support students on their journey while helping them to develop essential social-emotional learning (SEL) skills in our classrooms is critical. What is SEL and why is it important for educators to focus on it in their classrooms?

What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

For educators just getting started with SEL, I recommend exploring CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning and their materials. There are five competencies of SEL:

  • Self-awareness: Students understand where they are in the learning process and become more aware of their skills and interests as they learn.
  • Self-management: Students develop the skills to deal with any emotions or stress experienced during the learning process.
  • Social awareness: Students develop an understanding of others’ perspectives and different cultures. The development of empathy is important for students.
  • Relationship skills: Developing supportive relationships to feel confident asking for help and working as part of a team will prepare students for future workplace success.
  • Decision making: Students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, learn to process information and find solutions.

Why does SEL matter?

SEL is important because research shows a direct correlation between competency in SEL and academic achievement and future workplace success. To prepare students with the skills that employers are looking for, we need to implement activities and tools to help students develop essential skills like communication, decision making, problem solving and teamwork, to name a few of those listed by the World Economic Forum. Research has shown that when we consistently address the five SEL competencies, it leads to increased student achievement and positively impacts student wellbeing. With these benefits for students now and for the future, it is important to explore the options available and leverage the right methods and digital tools to create spaces where students can build academic and SEL skills.

Building self-awareness through reflection

One way to focus on SEL and help students to build self-awareness and self-management is through weekly reflections. Weekly reflections can help students process what they are learning, identify any questions that they may have, and provide them with a way to process their thoughts in a different and more impactful way during their learning journey. When we think about how we process information and apply what we have learned to new experiences, learning is more meaningful, which leads to increased retention and student engagement in learning.

A student in SpacesEDU displaying self-awareness, self-management and relationship skills in their Weekly Reflections Space. 

What are the benefits of weekly reflections for students?

For many years, students in my Spanish classes worked on a daily writing prompt. We set aside time a few times a week for writing. I gave students an opportunity to write about topics of personal interest or focus on specific themes that we were working on in class. Students were given enough time to reflect thoughtfully, without feeling rushed or pressured. At the end of the week I collected and read their journals and would provide written feedback. Through this process I was able to better understand my students and their needs.

When students had their journals returned on Monday, they would read my comments, and take what they learned from their prior writing, and use it to think about areas that they could improve on in Spanish. By asking students questions related to what they have learned, how they can apply what they have learned, what goals they can set when it comes to their learning, we encourage students to build self-awareness, and to be better tuned into their learning journey.

Being able to look back to where we started, the progress made along the way, and then look at the whole picture of what we have learned is critical for our continued growth and development of our skills. Reflection is an essential part of learning and of life. By providing students with opportunities to reflect weekly, it offers a consistent means of assessing oneself and becoming better at setting goals for learning and seeing learning as a process.

As educators, we should consider these questions as a guide for creating activities for our classroom.

  1. In class, how can we create opportunities for students to drive their own learning?
  2. How can we provide a more interactive and collaborative experience, regardless of where learning is taking place?
  3. How can we provide real-time interactions and authentic and timely feedback?
  4. Which tools or methods will help students to build essential SEL skills, while more meaningfully engaging in the lesson which will lead to better content retention?

Where can weekly reflections live for students?

Having access to a journal or a notebook provides a consistent space for students to track their growth over time. Being able to flip back through the pages of what one had written, read the feedback, reflect on it and then continue to build skills, was possible with this method. However, with a digital tool like SpacesEDU available, we can provide more enriching learning opportunities for our students. Tools that facilitate and enhance communication and collaboration in that digital space while also being able to provide authentic, timely, and meaningful feedback to our students in real time are the most beneficial and essential.

SpacesEDU offers a digital portfolio platform that assists teachers to better understand students, their interests and needs in learning. There are many ways to use SpacesEDU for learning, whether quick reflections, a class discussion, individual check-ins, or for creating a digital portfolio. All of these options will help students to develop SEL skills of self-awareness and self-management as they reflect on their growth and set personal goals for their learning journey.

What do Teachers Do with Student Weekly Reflections? What happens at the end of the year?

For educators, it is important to be able to track student growth over extended periods of time. We need quick snapshots of their learning progress and to also be able to determine long-term growth. When we have a consistent space where students can track their growth and reflect weekly throughout the school year, we can use it as a prompt to further engage students in conversations to help them look back at their growth over the school year. Weekly reflections are beneficial for teachers as well to reflect on their teaching practices, for looking at the progress students have made, and evaluating the support used with students throughout the year. Reflecting on our learning and our work are essential for our self-awareness and serves as a good model for our students.

At the end of the year, students have access to see what they have learned and can use it to build upon their skills in the next year. Having this evidence or artifacts of their work is something that they can share with others later on in their high school career or refer back to and push their thinking about different topics perhaps that were covered in their classes and learning experiences.

Who will weekly reflections be shared with? Should families have access?

When it comes to learning, it is important that students share what they are learning, express thoughts and ideas with others. Building confidence in expressing ourselves is important. Being able to self-assess is important but also being able to help others assess their own work is equally as important. There's so much power in feedback whether it comes from a teacher or a peer in the classroom. Sharing weekly reflections with classmates can be quite valuable as we all learn from one another. Learning of additional perspectives and feedback can help foster a sense of community and collaboration within the classroom - however, it is important to ensure that students feel comfortable sharing their reflections, and understand that any feedback received is meant to be constructive and supportive.

Providing access to families, also helps to foster a more collaborative home to school learning community. Giving families a look at the learning that is happening by inviting them to see and question or learn about student experiences is important. Digital tools make it easier for us to exchange information, provide more support for students while also focusing on the development of essential skills like self-awareness, relationship-building and decision-making. Being able to communicate the learning progress of students with families is critical so that we can provide the most support for students as they are learning throughout the year.

In our work as educators, it is important that we help students to build their skills over time and focus more on the learning process rather than the end product. The idea behind weekly reflections or using digital portfolios is providing a space for students to build a narrative of their work and learning experience. Students are better able to track the work that they've done, to find it when they need it and share their work with their family, classmates, and the school community.

Students focus on setting goals and decision making when it comes to deciding what to put into their digital portfolio. As they explore the evidence of the work that they have done, their focus begins to shift to the process of learning itself and encourages more self-reflection. It is essential that we help to guide students as they prepare their portfolios by engaging them in conversations and self-assessments.

The use of portfolios promotes a culture of learning in the classroom. As students prepare their portfolio, they can share their work with peers, reflect on their own growth and seek feedback from one another. Through these experiences, students develop a greater awareness of their interests and skill sets. Students can curate their work and the access to authentic evidence of learning will help students as they plan their next steps after high school.

How can a teacher get started bringing weekly reflections into the classroom?

To get started, there are lots of possibilities when it comes to the courses that we teach. We can use the start of the week to have students reflect on their learning from the prior week. We can have their selections be something that we engage in on Friday so students can process information covered during that week. Providing students with a prompt or giving them the opportunity to write a free response and then using that perhaps as a prompt for the next week's reflection are some possible ideas. There are many ways to do this and depending on the grade level and content being taught, providing a sentence starter, a topic or theme to get students writing, or providing different options for students that will help them to reflect are just a few recommendations.

Students can write or record their reflections in a variety of formats - such as a journal entry, blog entry and video diary - within an Individual Space within SpacesEDU. This allows students to reflect in a way that suites their learning style, in a way that feels authentic to them, all while gaining confidence in their communication skills.

What are the benefits of weekly reflections?

The benefit of having students do weekly reflections is that they help students to build self-awareness. Being able to identify strengths and areas of need when it comes to learning is important. Building confidence in learning is an essential skill that all learners need now and in the future. Through reflections, students can work on self-management as they learn to manage emotions, set goals, work through stress and challenges that come with learning by using the weekly reflections as a space to process their experiences, the information they are consuming, and even ask any questions or share uncertainties that they have.

Writing reflections also helps with responsible decision-making as students consider the information that they are sharing, how to include or properly cite information if that is relevant. It promotes relationship-building as students share reflections with teachers and when opportunities are presented for students to provide peer feedback, it helps students to develop those essential skills of collaboration and communication that are vital for 21st century and workplace success. And finally, social awareness enables students to consider different perspectives, to learn about their classmates and different ideas. Depending on the topic of the weekly reflection, students can also develop empathy in the process.

SEL is important for educators to intentionally create opportunities for students to build their skills in the five competencies. SEL is not meant to be something extra that is added onto the curriculum or that needs to be time-consuming as there are many ways to bring opportunities for students to build SEL in and out of the classroom. There are simple activities that can be done, through writing a weekly reflection, we have many ways to leverage our classroom space and the digital tools available to us to truly enhance the learning potential of students.

Designing a lesson that engages students and motivates them for learning means understanding individual student needs and interests. To do so, leveraging some of these spaces where we can ask the right questions, have access to and provide feedback to their responses, will definitely make a difference for their personal growth and academic success. Here are some SpacesEDU Lesson plans to foster social emotional learning within the classroom!

Rachelle Dené Poth

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