Teaching Students to Be Their Own Boss: Applying SEL to Optimize Executive Functioning in Your Classroom

By Christina Cipriano, Ph.D. and Susan E. Rivers, PhD

Ready to learn. Natural leader. A role model for peers. A pleasure to have in class. Most likely to succeed.

These statements reflect parents’ wishes for their child’s report card and teachers’ hopes for students in their classrooms. The skills underlying these qualities are learned and can be intentionally taught. Scientists have identified evidence-based skills that promote success in school, work, and life. Children can develop them over time through quality interactions and experiences in their schools, homes, and communities. Teachers and schools can intentionally embed practices that support their development into daily interactions.

That means that every student has the potential!

As educators, we can foster these skills for success by adopting a social and emotional learning lens. By integrating key strategies of SEL competencies, including self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision making, teachers can effectively support student success. By helping students become aware of their thoughts and feelings (self-awareness), they become better able to understand and manage their behaviors (self-management). Having self-awareness and managing behaviors helps students make responsible decisions (e.g., how will this behavior allow me to reach my goal in this situation and long term?). Creating and maintaining supportive relationships also matters for student success and is dependent on skills of social awareness and relationship management. Teachers who help students develop social awareness, guide them in becoming aware others people’s experiences, thoughts, and feelings, understanding other people’s perspectives, and feeling empathy. These skills help students maintain supportive relationships and engage in behaviors like active listening, cooperating, managing conflict, and being kind, considerate, and respectful to others. Students are more likely to excel when they have self and social awareness and when they manage their behaviors effectively and responsibly to meet their personal and relationship goals.

This isn’t just about the students.

Teachers have the opportunity to model these strategies to for their students effectively through direct instruction and global modeling. Teachers need to authentically model regulating their emotions, being aware of their feelings, showing compassion, and understanding that feelings impact learning and decisions. Teachers need to authentically acknowledge their strengths and those of their school community, be cognizant of their biases, and demonstrate resilience in the face of obstacles. Teaching the practices without modeling them consistently is ineffective- students of all ages will see right through you! Teachers can’t simply teach it, they need to be it!

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