SEL Essentials: What Do We Prioritize? Three SEL Essentials for Beginning the Year

The start of a new school year can be an exciting but daunting time. Where to begin with a brand-new class of students? How do we support students and families who are still recovering from the upheavals and traumas of recent years? How do we take care of ourselves as educators?

Climbing the Mountain

These are just a few questions you might think of—there are many more. Sometimes they can feel insurmountable. Preparing to scale a mountain is daunting when the terrain is so fraught with challenges that you can’t pick a route, when you can’t even glimpse the summit.

But as we sit with these questions, a big truth emerges: we can’t do everything—and certainly not in the first few weeks of the school year.

At first this may be difficult to acknowledge, but it frees us to plan intentionally and strategically, knowing that some things will be important and others will be de-emphasized or set aside for now.

As my co-author Kristy Rauch and I talked about this blog series, we realized that the question of “What do we prioritize?” is crucial for us to consider, as well. And so we challenged ourselves to distill the most essential learning from our decades of work in schools into this blog series.

For us, there are three essentials that guide our thinking about best practices for starting the school year. Your own list of essentials may be different from ours, based on the needs of your community. Nonetheless we hope that by sharing our thinking, we will help you zero in on your own short list of what is most essential for your students.

Essential #1 – Build Relationships

We think that building relationships is at the top of most people’s lists. However, saying that relationships are important is very different from actually doing the constant, ongoing work of building relationships. (And let’s be clear: doing a tidy set of team builder activities during the opening weeks of the school year only scratches the surface of this work.)

Authentic relationships are complicated and often messy. They require true listening, openness, and vulnerability. Robust connections are only forged when we acknowledge the hopes, dreams, fears, and weaknesses in one another.

Why are relationships so important?

Relationships are foundational for learning. When kids do not feel safe, connected, and intrinsically motivated, doing the hard work of learning is almost impossible. Relationships are crucial for creating the conditions in which students can fully engage and in which learning occurs.

We know from the groundbreaking work of researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan that for students to be intrinsically motivated, it’s imperative that three fundamental human needs are first met: the need for autonomy, the need for belonging or “relatedness,”[1] and the need for competence (the ABCs). We also know from our own organization’s research that a strong sense of belonging and connectedness is positively correlated to a whole host of positive outcomes for students.

Here are two other points to consider about the importance of relationships:

  • Relationships embolden students to take the intellectual risks that are necessary for growth.
    Learning involves taking risks. Taking risks means that we are making ourselves vulnerable and opening ourselves up to the possibility of failing, sometimes publicly. In order to take these intellectual risks, students need to feel safe and connected.

    When we are stressed and feel like we have limited time with students, there are twin temptations: first, to rush and cover a great deal of content, and second, to skimp on relationship building. Although covering content is obviously important, the content won’t be learned if we do it at the expense of making sure students feel safe and connected. Just because we cover the content does not mean students learn it; only the learner controls what gets learned.
  • Meaningful relationships between the teacher and each student help us transcend our biases and be responsive to our students.
    We all come with unconscious biases about race, ethnicity, gender, and class. When we only have surface level relationships with students, we have a tendency to use these biases to make judgements about them. Those biases shape how we see them and impact what we expect of them. But when we form authentic relationships with our students, when we take the time to learn about the families and communities they come from, we start to see them as individual people with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. The relationship provides a potential pathway around our biases, into a new space where students can thrive.

    Positive, healthy relationships play a central role in supporting students who have experienced trauma, according to the research. (In our next blog post in this series, we will look more deeply at the issue of trauma and explore how this impacts teaching and learning.)

How do I build and maintain relationships?

When you consider the most meaningful relationships in your own life, it’s likely they are the ones you actively nurture and maintain. Relationships with students are no different; a healthy classroom community also needs to be carefully tended and cultivated. Whether it’s your relationship with families and students, or the relationships your students have with each other, relationship building must be intentional: it can’t be left to chance.

Here are a few key research-supported structures that we have developed to help students develop and maintain healthy relationships in the classroom:

  • Class meetings –
    Class meetings are conducted with students gathered in a circle. Specific ground rules govern the discussion (e.g., talk one at a time, listen to one another, allow differences of opinion.)

    The teacher’s role in these meetings is to create an environment that intentionally fosters the ABCs of autonomy, belonging, and competence and that takes students’ learning, experiences, opinions, and concerns seriously.

    The student’s role is to participate as a valued and influential contributor to the classroom community. Class meetings might be used to solve whole class (not individual student) problems, plan events, or make decisions.

    To see examples of class meetings and get support for starting your new school year, download our free Reconnecting and Rebuilding Toolkit. The Class Meetings in this toolkit can be used to build relationships and provide a forum for students to come together and talk about some of the important feelings and issues they may be carrying with them.
  • “Morning Circle” –
    This activity forms the centerpiece of our evidence-based Caring School Community program. The Morning Circle is a daily gathering that provides a predictable, caring space for kids to connect with each other, refine social and emotional skills, and transition into the school day.

    To download a sample of a morning circle activity, click here.
  • Cross-age buddies –
    One of the key ways in which schools help students feel connected to the school community—not just the classroom—is through the intentional partnering of students with “buddies” from other classrooms.

    Typically, classrooms separated by at least two grade levels are paired together, which allows students to form a special relationship as an older or younger buddy with a student outside their classroom.

    Buddies activities can be simple partner interviews or more elaborate activities connected to content areas.

Essential #2 – Ensure that Instruction Authentically Integrates Academic and Social Development

Often when working with teachers, we hear a common refrain. Teachers will articulate their support for building relationships, but say, “I do team builders for the first few weeks of school; then I get to the important stuff.”

The “important stuff” usually means moving on to the academic content areas. But as we know, SEL and relationship building are just as important. In fact, relationships are the building block of academic development. In the absence of strong relationships, students will not be motivated to do the work or take the intellectual risks they need in order to succeed.

Why must academic and social development be integrated?

If we are to create and sustain authentic relationships with and among students, we can’t relegate the work of building meaningful relationships or practicing social and emotional skills to the beginning of the year or to a special SEL-themed block of time during the day.

Since our founding in 1980, Collaborative Classroom’s mission has been to equip teachers with effective practices that fully integrate social and academic instruction. Below are several structures that help students learn more about each other, explore their own identities, build meaningful relationships, and find real-life contexts for refining and growing their social skills, all while engaging in rigorous academic work:

  • Relevant and meaningful content –
    This is often overlooked, especially in the younger grades. If we are to build deep relationships in school and help students do high-level work, the content we cover and the topics we discuss must be relevant and meaningful. None of our other strategies or structures will work if there is no meaning to the work that students are doing. By honoring and including topics that kids care about, we ensure that the collaboration built into our lessons has purpose and meaning.
  • Random partner work –
    At the beginning of the year, we create norms that make it safe and expected for students to work with everyone in the classroom during instruction. Students might not be (and certainly don’t have to be) close friends, but they will need to develop strategies for collaborating with each other. This means working through sticky situations, solving problems, and advocating for yourself and others when necessary.
  • Reflecting on partner work –
    A key act of learning and community-building that is often overlooked in the classroom is providing students time to reflect together on their partner work during instruction. After students have talked with a partner about a book, solved a problem together, brainstormed a list, given feedback on writing, or conducted an experiment, it is essential that we provide time for them to reflect on their behavior. We might ask them:
    • How did it go working with your partner? What went well? What did not go well?
    • What strategies did you use to work through that together?
    • How did it feel when you did not get a turn?
    • Where did you get stuck?

These questions provide teachers with opportunities to hear what skills kids already have and what skills they might need. It sends the message to kids that we value this learning, that it is essential to our academic development, and that we can work through problems together. In fact, it is often the act of overcoming a challenge that brings us closer together.

  • Reading aloud and discussing the big ideas in books –
    There might be no better way to help students feel connected than to read a great book together. Books can make us laugh, make us cry, make us wonder, and fill us with joy. Rigorous book discussions open windows for students to look through and show them mirrors to see themselves. Reading books to students has the power to connect them with one another.
  • Choice and independence –
    Students thrive when they are given choice in their learning and are encouraged to be independent. Choice fosters autonomy, which, as mentioned earlier, is foundational for intrinsic motivation.

Essential #3 – Take Care of Yourself and Stay Connected to Others

As flight attendants always say when explaining what to do in case of a drop in cabin pressure, “Put on your own oxygen mask before assisting other passengers.” It is imperative that we take care of ourselves before we try to help the people around us.

We all need time to take care of ourselves, to make sure that we are doing OK mentally and emotionally. Self care will mean something different to each of us. It might take the form of exercising, meditating, praying, journaling, making art, gardening, connecting with friends and family, or all of the above. If you’re feeling burnt out or unsure of how to begin making time for self-care, we invite you to explore this blog.

Even if you are already well-versed in self care, the truth is that none of us can do this alone. We will need advice and a sympathetic listening ear. We will require hard feedback, and we may need shoulders to cry on. For all these reasons, it’s vital that we stay connected with our colleagues and keep those relationships strong.

Reflect: What Are Your Essentials?

These are our essentials as we begin the school year: building relationships, integrating academic and social development, and taking care of ourselves and staying connected to others. What will you prioritize? What will guide you? We hope that, through reflecting on our list, you have solidified your own.

As we return to the classroom, let’s do our best to look out for each other as we build and strengthen our learning communities. Our hope is that, as you climb your own mountain this year, you are equipped with the grace, patience, and flexibility that will allow you and your students to thrive.


In case you missed it, read the Introduction to this blog series, SEL Essentials: Reimagining Our Social and Emotional Learning Priorities.

[1] Relatedness or belonging “refers to learners’ experiences of positive and mutually satisfying relationships, characterized by a sense of closeness and trust.”