How to Build SEL into Secondary School Schedules

10-minute read

Increasingly, middle and high schools are looking to incorporate or increase time for social and emotional learning (SEL) — the process through which students “acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”[1]  Here we explore two approaches for integrating SEL into student learning at the secondary level:

Model 1: Integrating SEL Instruction into Regular Content

In this model, a school does not schedule SEL-specific instructional time separately into the schedule, but rather focuses on weaving SEL strategies and content into existing academic coursework.

For example, DMGroup worked with one high school which established a list of social-emotional skills they wanted students to develop and become proficient in by graduation. Some skills were assigned to specific grades (i.e. 9th graders focused on providing constructive feedback to their peers) while others spiraled across all four grades (i.e. students practiced speaking and listening skills in every grade). School leadership also provided a short training and list of strategies to equip teachers to infuse SEL skills into existing curriculum.

This approach enabled teachers to intentionally weave in both SEL mini-lessons of no more than 3-4 minutes and learning opportunities for students to explicitly practice and receive feedback on discrete social-emotional skills. The 9th grade Biology teacher, for example, would model how to give constructive feedback to students during her introduction to new material and then would ask students to practice giving feedback to their lab partner during the lab portion of the lesson.

Schools that take this approach often do so because they believe students benefit most when students can rigorously practice and apply social-emotional skills in real-world scenarios. The downside of this approach is that many teachers, already pressed for time with a packed curriculum, may struggle to effectively incorporate SEL learning into their classroom without regular support and training.

Model 2: Direct SEL Instruction

In this model, the school incorporates designated time for direct SEL instruction into the school day. Four common approaches to accomplish this are outlined below; each takes time from other parts of the schedule and has its own set of tradeoffs.

Option 1: Create SEL-Specific Period

Suggested Frequency: 1x/Week

In this approach, a school selects or creates a stand-alone SEL course and curriculum to teach students. The course is taught by a school counselor and provides students the opportunity to receive direct instruction in a safe and structured space to learn and practice different social-emotional skills and strategies. Schools that take this approach most often schedule an SEL-specific period to replace an elective or specials period roughly once a week.

Option 2: Create Split SEL Period

Suggested Frequency: 1x/Week

This approach is similar to Option 1, but instead of taking a whole period once a week, SEL instruction is provided for half of a period along with a content subject (usually social studies, a foreign language, or an elective).

Option 3: Create Advisory Period

Suggested Frequency: 1x/Day or 1x/Week

This approach involves reserving 15-20 minutes at the beginning or end of the day for teachers and staff to meet with a small group of students. Students are given the opportunity to opt in to the advisory group of their choice; teachers and staff are provided with a menu of activities and SEL mini-lessons to implement; students are surveyed on the effectiveness of advisory at least twice a year.

An advisory group should not be a full-sized class to which students are assigned at random and in which teachers and staff are responsible for creating their own activities. Doing so can result in students viewing advisory as nothing more than a study hall and teachers becoming frustrated or overwhelmed with planning SEL-specific materials they may not be well-equipped to prepare.

Option 4: Create Whole-Grade Community Circle

Suggested Frequency: 1x/week or 1x/month

Schools may also consider building in grade-level or school-wide SEL programming into the schedule instead of, or in addition to staff-led advisory time. This commonly takes the form of a grade-level community circle or assembly in which students, teachers, and grade-level leaders celebrate successes, build community, and share SEL strategies through stories or examples. Some schools that take this approach repurpose one period on a regular basis to host one grade level at a time while other schools repurpose time at the beginning of the school day.

To determine which of the approaches outlined above would work best in your school or district, consider the amount of resources you have to support SEL programming. If your school or district has limited staff and resources to devote to SEL, slowly integrating SEL instruction into regular instruction (model 1) may be preferable. However, be sure to collaboratively identify the SEL skills you want students to learn, give teachers explicit permission and encouragement to spend time on SEL topics, and provide adequate training and coaching to teachers to weave SEL skills into their lessons. While this approach requires fewer resources and no specific scheduling changes, efforts to integrate SEL in this manner can often go awry or be ineffective if adequate training and support are not provided regularly.

If SEL is a top priority and your school or district has dedicated staff to lead SEL efforts, then you may consider integrating one or more opportunities for direct SEL instruction (model 2) and structured relationship building into your schedule. It is important, however, to have staff who are experts in SEL either teach the SEL period or to be responsible for preparing instructional materials and guiding teachers and school administrators to implement SEL activities effectively. Scheduling time for an advisory period, for example, in and of itself is not enough; schools and districts must support staff to use that time effectively with students.

Whichever approach one chooses, effectively implementing SEL instruction takes effort, training, support, and resources to be done well, but is essential to helping students thrive.

Are you interested in developing your school or district team's capacity to plan, build, and implement a best-in-class schedule at the middle school or high school level? Join us for our Secondary Scheduling Institute and build your team’s capacity to build best-in-class schedules.