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Published on: holistic education

How to Start With Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

The agenda for accelerating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has long been set. However, the levels of adoption amongst schools and educators remain continually varied. While some schools have proudly adapted their learning environments to focus on holistic wellbeing, others continue to scratch their heads over where to find the time and energy to fit SEL amidst a jam-packed school year. In his foreword for OECD’s publication on Social and Emotional skills, Andreas Schleicher summarises this phenomenon:

“Over the last years, social and emotional skills have been rising on the education policy agenda and in the public debate. But for the majority of students, their development remains a matter of luck, depending on whether this is a priority for their teacher and their school. A major barrier is the absence of reliable metrics in this field that allow educators and policy-makers to make progress visible, and to address shortcomings. “

Indeed, we have to acknowledge that it is not easy to measure, review and respond to the efforts of implementing SEL in schools. After all, SEL deals with abstract qualities that may not fit into traditional scales or assessments. 

Yet, at the same time, I do not think we can call this “a matter of luck”, or “depending on whether this is a priority for [teachers and schools]”. We need to realise that there exists valid concerns that can make SEL seem like a difficult journey for educators, and respond to these needs with empathy.

Therefore, it’s important that we ask: how do we start with SEL in every learning context? 

SEL can seem like a difficult journey

Let’s begin by thinking from the mindspace of an educator. Depending on which part of the world we’re in – I speak from my position in Singapore – we might wake up at 6am, dress our own kids for school, and be in class for attendance-taking by 8am. The next 6 hours are spent in the usual routine of wrangling with rowdy students, heaving multiple sighs of relief after the bell rings, or watching a printer print worksheets while our colleague waits anxiously behind us, 3 minutes late for her class. Some days are longer than others, and don’t even get me started on marking seasons. 

Now, every so often, we meet that gung-ho teacher, most times a teacher leader of sorts, who passionately delivers that speech about why we need to improve our methods to include Social and Emotional Skills. The same old “our students need to grow resilience, empathy and creativity” and “Ms. Abigail, do you remember that idea where we wanted to start a series of activities for mental health? Let’s get started on that!” 

For most of us, SEL can seem like a difficult journey. It often feels like an “added” component on top of an already stressful and busy school day. Mentally, we place it into the bucket list of things to do “properly” after the term ends, or only pick it up when serious conflict between students occurs. Internally, we’re all dissatisfied that such is the case. 

Yet, SEL can be a simple everyday experience

I’d like to make a not-so-radical proposal that SEL is really an everyday experience. You might exclaim – “There’s barely any time to take a breath ourselves, let alone guide our students through their emotional wellbeing!” Hear me out. 

The classroom as it is today is already a rich and stimulating environment for SEL. Classrooms are rich because of the diversity of conversations that happen daily. They range from the soft whispers between deskmates, to note-passing across the classroom, or an intentionally guided discussion over the history lesson. It is stimulating because, when we are intentional enough, we can notice that Angela is feeling extremely confident today from the ways she answers questions, or when Billy frowns at a snarky remark made by someone else. Yesterday, he might have thrown a punch in retaliation, but he exercised self control today. 

We notice these things on a daily basis. Yet, they go largely unacknowledged. That begs the question – does SEL only take place in a pre-planned 1-hour period in school, or that 1 school trip to the farm? Surely not. We teach in a goldmine of SEL-learnable-moments on a daily basis. When we are able to harvest – and by that I mean actions such as noticing, making sense and reviewing – these moments, we realise that SEL can really be a simple, everyday experience.

SEL can start with observations

How then, do we start with SEL in every learning context? I think it begins with supporting educators in being keener observers. It’s telling them “there’s something to find in every lesson! Let’s look out for them, and improve our ways in doing so over time”. When we intentionally seek to uncover traits of social emotional skills, we naturally become more attuned to the art of doing so. Today, I might see that Carl is paying attention to my class. Over time, I might find that Carl is not only paying attention in class, he is doing so diligently, or distractedly. The more I observe, or even converse with other teachers, I then realise that Carl is not only diligently paying attention, he is also doing so because mathematical problem solving gives him confidence. He even spends time helping his friends understand mathematical concepts. However, Carl does not do the same for language classes.

At HoloTracker, we call these “micro-observations”. Little things that may not make that much sense immediately, but reveal a lot when noticed and acknowledged over time. Having three different teachers observe different degrees of “empathy” in Carl over separate contexts allows for us to have a conversation: How and why does Carl express empathy? What is our evidence that he does?

When we deliberately and continuously log these micro-observations, we then have an abundance of evidence from which we can support SEL. We also grow our skills of being a keener observer, as we now have the vocabulary and confidence to unpack social and emotional skills. What’s even more impactful is what we can do with this evidence. We can use them to have more nurturing conversations with our students, or even as a prop to deepen our conversations with parents. Overall, each interaction contributes to forming a comprehensive picture of the well-being of each student, and that of ourselves.

To accelerate SEL, we need to make SEL a simple, everyday event. When we do so, we create a nurturing environment from which teachers, students and parents can thrive.

Ng Aik Yang
For the past 8 years, I’ve been inspired by educational innovations around the world and I write these pieces in spirit of sharing insights I’ve gathered in this journey. Hopefully, they can fuel the change in education to become more deeply meaningful and enjoyable. Get in touch with Aik at



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