SEL for English Language Learners: What Educators Need to Know

Boy smiling at camera

Learn more about social and emotional learning (SEL) and how to engage English learners in SEL activities and routines in the classroom.

Photo by Allison Shelley for EDUimages

What is social and emotional learning (SEL)? And how can schools ensure that English language learners (ELLs) are fully included and supported through SEL activities in the school setting?

This article offers an introduction to SEL along with helpful resources from organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). In addition, this article also shares ideas on how to ensure that ELLs are able to fully participate in SEL lessons and activities.

To highlight those examples, we have mapped a few ELL considerations and strategies to CASEL's SEL framework. These strategies represent just some of the ideas that educators can try and they also detail important considerations when introducing new initiatives or ideas in a classroom or school community.

You will also find relevant examples and strategies in Teaching and Supporting English Learners: A Guide to Welcoming and Engaging Newcomers by Eugenia Mora-Flores and Stephanie Dewing.

What is SEL?

SEL is a process by which students can develop skills that help them thrive skills such as such as the ability to regulate emotions, form healthy relationships, manage stress, and contribute to a community. While many educators have incorporated SEL into their instruction for a long time, it has gotten more attention in recent years as schools and families continue to navigate the impacts of the long-term disruptions brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and also look for ways to help students navigate other changes or challenges in their lives.

CASEL describes the big picture goal of SEL in the following way:

"SEL can help all young people and adults thrive personally and academically, develop and maintain positive relationships, become lifelong learners, and contribute to a more caring, just world."

How does it do that? The CASEL framework focuses on developing the following core competencies, which you can explore via CASEL's interactive SEL wheel:

  1. self-awareness
  2. self-management
  3. social awareness
  4. relationship skills
  5. responsible decision-making

These are valuable skills that not only can help students today but set the stage for healthy and productive lives in the future.

Is SEL an "extra"?

While many schools may hesitate to "add on" SEL, the renewed focus on SEL offers an opportunity to reframe its role. In fact, schools who regularly incorporate SEL describe it as the foundation from which everything else grows. The more comfortable and secure students feel in the classroom, the more likely they are take risks, try new things, and contribute to the classroom.

For example, Principal Sue Stanley, whose elementary school has long prioritized SEL, writes, "We understand students cannot learn until they feel safe and connected." This is particularly true in schools where large numbers of students have experienced trauma, as in the case of her school where many students have experienced hardship and family separation due to the civil war in Yemen.

In addition, we have heard from multiple educators of ELLs in particular that the investment of time early on building relationships, getting to know students, and creating a welcoming culture and environment in the classroom pays off all year long.

Related resources

Related videos

SEL 101: What are the core competencies and key settings? (CASEL)

Looking at the whole child: Conversations with an award-winning social worker

Principal Sue Stanley: Why creating a calm, safe environment in schools matters

Teacher Christine Price: Showing students you care

SEL and ELLs: The CASEL Framework

What does all of this look like for ELLs? One way to share some concrete examples is by using the CASEL SEL framework. We have shared excerpts of the framework here and encourage you to look at the complete framework on CASEL's website. Please note that under "Examples," we have only highlighted a few skill sets that are particularly relevant for ELLs, but CASEL lists others as well.

You may also find it helpful to pull in free bilingual resources from Feel Your Best Self, a puppet-focused SEL program for children from the University of Connecticut that provides videos and related materials for educators and caregivers in English and Spanish.

Tips for lesson/activity planning

Before jumping in, we'd like to highlight some of the ELL recommendations that you will see throughout the rest of the article:

  • Look for opportunities to build relationships with students and get to know them.
  • Learn more about the unique experiences of special populations of students, such as refugees, unaccompanied minors, children in migrant farmworker families, and Indigenous students from Latin America.
  • Identify the key concepts and vocabulary words that will be the focus of your lesson or activity.
  • Pre-teach those concepts and vocabulary so that ELLs can engage meaningfully with the content.
  • Use visuals, hands-on objects, and other tools to make new concepts and words clear.
  • Look for connections to students' languages. For examples, English and Spanish share words that are similar called cognates. You can use these connections to support student understanding.

You can learn more tips from our article on lesson planning for ELLs.

    1. Self-awareness

    CASEL definition: "The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts."


    ELL considerations


    Identifying personal, cultural, and linguistic assets

    Reflect on the following for your setting:

    • Do ELLs' regularly hear the message that their languages, cultures, and experiences are assets and strengths?
    • Do teachers and peers respect ELLs' diverse perspectives and multilingual skills?

    Welcome students' languages and cultures by:

    • posting signs in their languages
    • inviting them to teach classmates new phrases
    • inviting families to share their traditions on a regular basis
    Identifying one’s emotions

    ELLs may still be learning:

    • vocabulary words for different emotions
    • nuances between different emotions (such as "annoyed" and "angry")
    • cultural concepts around emotions that may be new or different

    Teach ELLs vocabulary words for different emotions. Ask them how to say those words in their language.

    Give them lots of practice using emotion words, especially through check-ins like mood meters and feelings charts.

    Ask colleagues who share students' cultures if there are cultural nuances you should be aware of.

    Give young students or newcomers opportunities to draw pictures about how they are feeling.

    Having a growth mindsetELLs may be so focused on what they haven't learned yet that it can be easy to lose sight of what they have learned. It can be easy to become frustrated and feel behind and left out.Focus on what students "can do" and also teach students targeted strategies for adopting a growth mindset.
    Examining prejudices and biases

    This complex topic can go both ways. Students may have experienced discrimination and bias against them based on a number of factors.

    At the same time, students will likely have their own biases as well.

    Look for ways to create safe spaces for talking about identity in your classroom.

    If you note that additional support or communication is needed around these topics for your or your class, look for resources or colleagues that can support you in this work.

    Principal Nathaniel Provencio: The gifts ELLs bring to school

    2. Self-management

    CASEL definition: "The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations."


    ELL considerations


    Managing one’s emotions

    As noted above, a first step in helping ELLs manage their emotions effectively is identifying and naming emotions.

    In addition, students will benefit from:

    • learning how to manage different emotions
    • practicing new strategies they learn

    If you are introducing emotion management strategies, be sure to:

    • clearly name and identify the target emotions you are addressing
    • provide students with lots of different hands-on way to show and practice the strategies through puppets, role play, stories, and more
    Identifying and using stress management strategies

    Students may have a wide range of stressors during their days, whether at school or at home.

    You may wish to introduce the concept of stress and ask students:

    • how they currently manage stress
    • how they see other people manage stress
    • what helps them to calm down when they are upset

    Note: For students who have experienced trauma, these conversations may be triggering. Plan activities with care and stay attuned to the needs of your students. Stay flexible and seek additional support for students if needed.

    If you are introducing stress management strategies, be sure to:

    • clearly explain the strategy and show lots of examples of it in action, such as photos, videos, or play-acting with toys for younger children
    • talk about when you might use a strategy
    • explain that not all strategies work for everyone and it's important to find the ones that feel good for you
    Setting personal and collective goals

    As noted above, ELLs may be overwhelmed by what can feel like mountains to climb in terms of learning a new language, acclimating to a new culture, and keeping up in their classes. Reaching some smaller goals, however, can build confidence over time, as can doing activities related to their strengths.

    In addition, keep in mind that many ELLs may come from "collectivist" cultures that focus on the well-being of the group over the individual. Use this to your benefit in planning group work and setting goals for the class.

    • Help ELLs set small, specific goals that they can reach to build confidence.
    • Incorporate activities that connect to students' interests.
    • When talking with the class about goals, offer the options of "collective" goals along with individual goals and encourage creative thinking about how to reach those goals.
    • Share examples of success stories, such as immigrants, ELLs, or others your students may relate to.

    Jorge Bermudez, High School Math Teacher: How advisory periods are helping my students

    3. Social awareness

    CASEL definition: "The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts."


    ELL considerations


    Taking others’ perspectives

    ELLs bring a rich diversity of perspective to the classroom. The opportunity to learn from those perspectives can be lost if ELLs aren't encouraged to share their ideas as part of a respectful class community.

    In addition, ELLs have the opportunity to learn from their peers when classroom communication is working well.

    • Give ELLs scaffolds to support their participation in class discussions, such as sentence frames and sentence starters (e.g., "I agree that...because...")
    • Give ELLs lots of practice discussing informal topics so that they can become comfortable with using these structures.
    Recognizing strengths in othersELLs have numerous strengths, interests, and talents that may be overlooked. Provide frequent opportunities for all students, including ELLs, to share their talents and interests with the class and in personal ways.
    • Ask students to share special talents or interests as part of icebreakers early in the year.
    • Look for ways to incorporate students' interests in the classroom.
    Demonstrating empathy and compassion

    There are many ways to develop empathy in the classroom. Keep in mind that some of ELLs' life experiences will be shared, universal experiences; others will be very different from what their peers have gone through.

    Using culturally responsive materials that reflect students' experiences can also open opportunities for students to share and provide teachable moments that develop empathy in peers. While it's important not to put students on the spot or force a point, being mindful of how your students see themselves in the classroom can open valuable doors.

    • Introduce the concept of empathy and help students understand it before any empathy-focused activities.
    • Teacher Paul Barnwell describes an activity in which students write three statements about themselves. The teacher then reads them anonymously to the class and students begin to get an idea of the “range of intense experiences and perspectives (the) classroom community contains.”   
    • Regularly using questions such as, "What do you think that was like?" or "How do you think she's feeling right now?" can also help strengthen empathy muscles!
    Understanding and expressing gratitude

    There are so many ways to express and lift up gratitude in the classroom. Asking students to reflect on when and why they feel gratitude is a valuable opportunity for growth.

    You may be surprised at who in the school community or their own life is making a difference!

    • Introduce the concept of gratitude and help students understand it before any gratitude-focused activities.
    • Invite students to share how they say "Thank you" in their language and make a poster board with signs of all of their translations!
    • We have lots of other ideas in our article Making Space for Gratitude: 15 Ideas for Schools During Challenging Times, which include appreciation boards, thank you note campaigns, and writing prompts.
    Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones

    When it comes to social and cultural norms, there are a few different layers. First and foremost, students' own norms may be different, such as a cultural norm in which looking away from an authority perspective is a sign of respect, rather disrepect.

    At the same time, different social norms may come up in classroom discussions. It is essential to create a culture of respect when discussing diverse experiences and perspectives. You may also need additional support if topics that relate to justice or differing expectations around concepts like human rights or women's rights are part of a discussion so that everyone feels safe within the discussion.

    • Help your students understand that different cultures have different norms and that this is a reality around the world. Keeping that big picture view can make it easier to navigate discussions around differences.
    • At the same time, be sure to highlight areas of commonality and universality, such as the ways parents care for children.
    • If you need support or guidance in navigating these discussions, seek out advice from colleagues, community members, and families to broaden your own understanding.

    Teacher Omar Salem: My students' many talents

    You Are Welcome Here: Preview

    This preview of our award-winning film You Are Welcome Here highlights what culturally responsive instruction can look like.

    4. Relationship skills

    CASEL definition: The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups.


    ELL considerations


    Communicating effectivelyProviding ELLs with lots of opportunities to interact in all kinds of situations and in different settings or group sizes will build their skills and confidence in communication.
    • Pay attention to whether ELLs are able to communicate their needs and ideas to you and to peers. Give them lots of practice to do so in both informal and formal settings.
    • When grouping students, you may sometimes wish to put students who speak the same language together so they can have an in-depth conversations and then summarize to the group in English.
    Practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving

    Peer learning is a great opportunity to practice teamwork and problem-solving. Making sure that ELLs understand their role, the purpose of the activity, and the steps they need to complete to make these activities more successful.

    You can learn more in our related article 6 Strategies to Help ELLs Succeed in Peer Learning and Collaboration.

    Peer learning

    • Review any peer learning activity carefully with ELLs and ensure they understand their role.
    • Give students practice with different phrases they might use, such as "What if we try...?"
    • Allow ELLs to try different roles in different activities so they can practice skills.

    Problem solving

    • Encourage students to try lots of hands-on activities and clubs.
    • Make sure ELLs know about enrichment activities where they can focus on problem-solving, such as robotics clubs, Maker space, Odyssey of the Mind, quiz bowls, and games clubs.
    Resolving conflicts constructively

    Students will need practice not only with new conflict resolution strategies but also with the language they need to use those strategies.

    There may also be some cultural nuances in how students approach conflict and you may wish to ask students for ideas of different conflict resolution strategies before introducing new strategies.

    In addition, it's critical to make sure that all students and families have a shared understanding of what bullying is and why it is not acceptable under any circumstance.

    • Introduce the concept of "conflict resolution" and any related vocabulary as needed.
    • Show students models of any strategies you are using through videos, photos, or role playing.
    • Give students practice with new strategies through role play or stories.
    • Review the tips in 8 Tips to Protect ELLs from Bullying in Your Classroom and School.
    Showing leadership in groups

    ELLs often have hidden reserves of leadership potential. Many ELLs are resilient, resourceful, and creative students who have navigated many challenges in their life and bring a big picture view of the world to their classroom. If the teacher isn't looking for those qualities and experiences, however, they may remain hidden.

    Note: Every spring, we read about high school valedictorians who started off in U.S. schools as ELLs and have achieved great things in a short time within a supportive school environment.

    • Encourage ELLs to take leadership roles in pair or group work once they feel comfortable doing so. (Some may be ready to try it even if they are newcomers, while others may want a lot more practice!)
    • Also ensure that ELLs have opportunity to participate in any clubs or activities that foster leadership. Don't limit their options by assuming they won't be interested!

    5. Responsible decision-making

    CASEL definition: The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.


    ELL considerations


    Identifying solutions for personal and social problems

    As noted above, ELLs can show great resilience and resourcefulness when given the chance. They also understand the impacts of big social issues that may have touched their lives. For example, many ELLs were caregivers for younger siblings and relatives during school closures in the early months of the pandemic and continue those responsibilities now outside of school.

    Having lived through a range of situations (often in other countries) provides ELLs with different lens and perspectives that can enrich the class.

    • Give students choices to pursue topics that interest them where possible.
    • You may wish to try a project-based or inquiry-led approach where students can dive deep on a particular topic of interest.
    Anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions

    As with the other topics above, it's essential to ensure that students have the vocabulary and language they need to engage in conversations or activities related to sophisticated conversations about topics like consequences. Like their peers, ELLs will likely have meaningful examples to share when taking about the consequences of one's actions.

    Note: An example of an English/Spanish cognate, or word that's related in two languages, is "consequence/consecuencia."

    • Preview any important language or concepts before starting an activity focused on consequences.
    • Provide examples as needed.
    • If the discussion goes in a serious direction, evaluate whether the class as a whole and individual students can handle it; they may be up for the challenge. If it is too serious or even triggering, it may be time to take a break and offer students some additional support if needed.
    Reflecting on one’s role to promote personal, family, and community well-being

    As noted above, ELLs may come from cultures that are focused on the well-being of the group, whether it's the family, community, culture, or country.

    Exploring these perspectives not only can provide interesting insights -- it can help your classroom run more smoothly and even improve family engagement, such as in the example of a teacher who switched to group parent teacher conferences with her ELL families and increased attendance dramatically.

    • Be sure that students have opportunities to share how they are contributing to their families and community. Those activities and responsibilities may remain hidden otherwise.
    • Students may be caregiving, working for a family business, actively participating in a community or faith institution, and supporting their family through employment, translation help, and other ways.

    Closing Thoughts

    As you can from the examples above, considering ELLs' experiences and perspectives beforehand can go a long way in ensuring that they can fully participate in all classroom activities. Along the way, they and the rest of your class will also benefit from increased collaboration and communication around SEL and so much more!

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