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Social-Emotional Learning

How to Take a "Both And" Approach to SEL and Academics This Summer

Nick Woolf
Nick Woolf
How to Take a



This summer, we can holistically serve all students in ways that both address unfinished learning and improve their overall well-being. 

Social-emotional learning can help us create safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environments that increase students’ agency, build self-efficacy, and improve academic outcomes.

As districts begin to welcome students back for summer school, it’s important that we empower educators with the flexibility to choose activities that engage students academically while tending to their core social and emotional needs.

Although adopting this “both and” mindset when it comes to SEL and academics is a daunting task, doing so is crucial to ensuring that our students feel validated, affirmed, and celebrated as they engage in rigorous instruction this summer. 

In this post, we’ll share three strategies to embed SEL within summer school initiatives in your community. If you’re a Director of SEL or an SEL Coach, share these tips with your teams to make sure that social-emotional learning takes a front seat in summer programming.

Download our toolkit of SEL resources for supporting student and adult well-being [includes trauma-informed activities]. 

6 Strategies for Embedding SEL into Summer Learning

Give students voice and choice. [Tweet This]

Research shows that students who are given choices about their learning are more likely to engage in deeper learning and display more on-task behavior.  Summer school can provide the same types of personalized learning experiences that many students thrived in during the COVID-19 pandemic

To give your students a voice and choice this summer:

  • Prioritize relationship-building. Summer school is a prime opportunity for educators to build relationships with students. When adults make an effort to learn about (and celebrate) students' identities and passions, it can create a sense of belonging at school. To help you get to know your students, consider using ideas from our list of 101 asset-based, inclusive get-to-know-you questions
  • Have students co-author their summer learning journeys. A “co-creation” approach to summer school can help students explore new topics and connect their personal interests to academics. For example, community-service learning and project-based learning projects are great ways for students to take ownership and co-create the learning experience. Creating SEL Choice Boards is another great way to give students optionality and flexibility this summer.
  • Frequently check-in with students to meet them where they are and adjust to their needs. Carve out time for quick, asynchronous check-ins during morning meetings or general class time. This help build adult-student relationships by identifying students’ opinions, feedback, and needs—academically, socially, and emotionally. Download Panorama’s open-source Student Check-Ins Question Bank to access free-response and multiple-choice question prompts you can use in the classroom. 

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2. Continue to use trauma-informed SEL practices. [Tweet This]

Rachel Bacosa, SEL Instructional Coach at Sunnyvale School District (CA), shared with us:

“Teachers have been implementing trauma-informed practices this entire year; we just haven’t explicitly named it in many cases.”

Trauma-informed SEL practices build learning environments that allow students to heal and learn. Over the past year, teachers have been creating predictable routines to help students feel safe in classrooms, virtual or otherwise. We can keep building from a place of strength. 

pasted image 0 (3) (1)Source: Transforming Education

Here are a few resources and tips for prioritizing trauma-informed SEL during summer learning:

  • Ensure staff have access to both professional development focused on trauma-informed pedagogy as well as a library of best practices that they can pull from and reference throughout the summer.
  • Set aside time for relationship building routines using strategies such as 2x10 relationship building or check-in check-out
  • Greet students with positive and affirming language every day.
  • Implement well-being check-ins with students to give students an outlet to cope with their emotions while building relationships.
  • Focus on improving students’ self-efficacy with reflective exercises and goal-setting activities that allow them to show their strengths, such as Rose, Bud, Thorn Journaling or service learning projects.

3. Integrate SEL into core academic content. [Tweet This]

Research tells us that embedding social-emotional learning into instruction is an effective way to help students engage in deep learning. Providing students with consistent opportunities to be collaborative, active, and reflective in their learning process can lead to improved academic outcomes and a more equitable, supportive classroom environment.

Oftentimes, however, educators get theoretical guidance instead of practical ways to bring SEL into academic lessons.

Instead of adding more work to educators’ already full plates this summer, consider the following low-lift strategies teaching strategies to weave SEL skills into everyday academic instruction.

  • Set specific SEL goals alongside academic goals for each lesson. Evaluate which social-emotional skills can be best taught, practiced, or reflected on when planning lessons. For example: SEL skills such as growth mindset, perseverance, and collaboration have clear parallels to many Common Core standards for mathematics. Use tools such as YouCubed’s Mathematical Mindset Teaching Resources or CASEL’s examples of SEL in ELA instruction to help co-author (and discuss) explicit goals with students when introducing new assignments. You can also ask students to think about the SEL skills or competencies that will help them achieve their academic goals and why.
  • Rephrase questions through an SEL lens. Use asset-based and process-focused language that helps students adopt a growth mindset and reflect on their decisions. This can encourage curiosity, inclusivity, and support. For example:
    • “What didn’t you understand?” → “What do you know? What do you wish you knew? What are you still learning about?”
    • “What do you want to talk about?” → “What’s on your mind today?”
    • “What do you have to do today?” → “What do you get to learn today?”
  • Use or adapt content from your existing SEL curriculum. If your district or school already uses an SEL curriculum, identify the resources and activities that directly integrate SEL within academics. For instance, many social-emotional learning activities for high schoolers (such as this one from Newsela) are geared towards building students’ self- and social-awareness skills through literacy projects. Or, standalone SEL lessons that focus on goal-setting or overcoming difficult situations can be adjusted to fit in a mathematics or science project. 
  • Add interactive elements into projects. Instructional practices that encourage student-led discussions, group work, and physical activity can help to naturally bring relationship-building and decision-making skills into projects.

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