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Starting Strong: 3 Strategies to Unlock SEL at the Start of the School year

The beginning of the year can be a time of high stress with a never ending to do list. From bulletin boards to lesson plans, it can feel like there is never enough time to get ready for the student’s first day.

And yet, as we prepare to embark on another thrilling academic year, it's crucial that we create a positive and supportive atmosphere right from the outset. SEL can help us do just that. Let’s look at three SEL strategies to help us start strong.

Strategy 1 - Begin the Day with a Soft Start


The Facts: Many Students are Struggling

We find ourselves in the midst of an educational crisis, the likes of which I have never experienced before. The repercussions of the pandemic, coupled with an alarming surge in student anxiety, have created an environment in which many students are facing significant challenges. We must address this fact.

One powerful way to alleviate some of this anxiety is by creating a warm, inviting, and consistent morning routine that helps students feel connected and fosters a sense of belonging. It's about embracing what I call the "Soft Start" approach.

The premise of a Soft Start is simple: we set aside time at the beginning of each day for building relationships and connecting with their class. By starting softly, we allow ourselves and our students the chance to catch up, take a breath, and be present in the moment. This pause can help mitigate the stress that often comes with the rush of the morning, allowing us (educators and students) to become more grounded and present.

The Mistake I Made: Prioritizing Academics Over Connection

When I first took on the role of principal, I unwittingly fell into the trap of prioritizing academic rigor over, well, most everything. Our mornings were approached from a deficit perspective, a mindset that drove us to focus on perceived shortcomings and to immediately dive into academics. I recall urging students who were late to class to hurry along, emphasizing the need to get started on their academic tasks as soon as they entered the room. In fact, students were often greeted with "quick hitters," or tasks that were focused purely on academics to get started on right away.


Unfortunately, this approach inadvertently sent the message that academic performance was more important than anything else, including students' sense of belonging and well-being.

We failed to give them the grounding and connection they needed to start the day. When we changed our approach, not only did we all benefit, but academic performance actually improved.

The Strategy: Implementing a Soft Start Implementing a Soft Start in your classroom can be as simple as:

  • Setting aside the first 15 minutes of the day for connection, circles, or meetings. For example, fourth graders may be focusing on the SEL skill of gratitude, therefore, Soft Start would be a time to do a journal prompt on, “ Write a paragraph discussing something that makes you feel grateful.” or you could use the same prompt to do a classroom circle where each student could answer the prompt out loud, or be allowed to pass.

  • We want the space to feel different and soothing as students enter the classroom space. Create a serene environment with soft lighting and soothing music playing in the background to aid in that goal.

  • As the teacher, position yourself at the door to warmly greet students. Following their entry, take the time to mingle with them, getting to know about them and their interests outside of school.


This approach is more than just a tactic; it is a deliberate shift in mindset that recognizes the importance of starting each day with intentionality, connection, and care.


Strategy 2 - Do a Morning Mindful Moment


The Facts: Many Students Come to School Unprepared to Learn

There is an educational fact that often goes unnoticed in our classrooms: many students arrive at school unprepared to learn that day. They may not be in the optimal mental or physical state to absorb new information.

Factors such as a lack of stable routines, food insecurity, sleep deprivation, heightened anxiety, or personal and family challenges can all contribute to a state of dysregulation that hampers students' ability to engage with the learning process. As educators, we know that stress can be a formidable barrier to learning.

Understanding and addressing these potential obstacles is crucial for educators. Our role is not only to impart knowledge but to create an environment where learning can thrive.

The Mistake I Made: Overlooking Students' Readiness

When I began my journey as a principal, I failed to grasp the importance of students' emotional readiness for learning. I had assumed that our role as educators was simply to share our knowledge with students, believing that they would naturally be primed to receive it. However, this assumption couldn't be further from the truth.

By not acknowledging students' emotional readiness, educators can unintentionally exacerbate stress and negatively impact learning outcomes.

A regulatory practice that we adopted was the "Mindful Moment." Immediately following the Soft Start, every classroom would take a brief moment to pause and guide students in mindful breathing exercises. While this practice only took a minute or so, its benefits were profound. After this period of intentional, quiet breathing, students reported feeling more centered, more grounded, and better prepared to engage with the learning process.

The Strategy: Do a Morning Mindful Moment Implementing a Mindful Moment can be as simple as:

  • Following a Soft Start, have the students pause, feel their feet on the ground, and still their bodies.

  • Then lead them through deep breathing exercises.

  • Follow this up with a question such as, “What did you notice about that?” You’ll be surprised how students as young as Kindergarten are able to express how sitting still can help them get prepared to learn.


By incorporating a Mindful Moment at the start of each day, educators can nurture students' emotional well-being and facilitate their transition to a more focused and receptive state of mind.


Strategy 3 - Put the Glass Down

The Fact: SEL Includes the Adults

Educators are under an extraordinary amount of stress. According to a survey by Rand, teachers are more than twice as likely to experience high levels of stress compared to other working adults.

This stress is fueled by a multitude of factors, such as high workloads, large class sizes, political divisiveness, inadequate compensation, and the emotional labor inherent in the teaching profession. All of these elements combined can take a heavy toll on educators' well-being.

Amid the drive to meet students' needs, educators often find themselves neglecting their own well-being. This self-sacrifice can result in burnout, diminishing an educator's capacity to effectively support their students.

The Mistake I Made: Neglecting Self-care

I served as a school principal for over a decade. Though I cherished my school and community, the demands of the job began to take a toll on me. In the early years of my tenure, I devoted every waking moment to supporting my school—working late into the night, being constantly available on weekends, and committing to any task the job required.

As you might expect, this work-life imbalance was not sustainable. By not prioritizing my self-care, I was racing towards burnout.

A school crisis was my turning point to do things differently. Following our school fire, we became committed to incorporating wellness into our school culture. And wellness not just for students, but also for the adults.

Educators must take charge of their well-being. While it would be ideal for systemic changes to occur that provide more collective support, we can't wait for that day. The time to invest in our well-being is now. Prioritizing self-care, managing stress, and seeking support are vital steps in maintaining a healthy work-life balance and ensuring that we can give our best to our students.

I once heard a story that perfectly illustrates this point. I can't recall its origin, but I am grateful to whoever shared it.

The story goes like this: If I show you a glass of water, you probably would think that I'm about to ask whether it's half empty or half full. Instead, I’m going to ask you, "How heavy is this water?" You might answer 6 oz or 8 oz. But the truth is, the weight itself doesn't matter as much as how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute or so, it's no problem. But if I have to hold it for an hour, a few hours, or even all night, it would become unbearable. My arm might feel like it's about to fall off or even become paralyzed. The longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.

The stress of being an educator is much like holding that glass of water. It may be manageable at first, but over time, the burden can become difficult to bear. We must take care of ourselves before we reach the point of burnout. It's not sustainable to hold onto that stress day after day, night after night.

The Strategy: Put the Glass Down The final strategy is all about YOU!

  • When the workday is over, put the metaphorical glass down. Don't carry the burdens of the day home with you, allowing the worries to disrupt your evening or even keep you up at night.

  • Create a routine that signals you to do just that. For me, it was when I closed my computer.

  • Don’t open your email after a certain hour. For me it was 6:00.

I won't pretend I did this flawlessly, but once I became aware of the need and prioritized my well-being, I became much more intentional with my evenings and weekends. This was the time to reconnect with my whole self—being a good friend, daughter, and partner. It was time to watch shows, garden, play sports, create art, and engage in all the things that make us uniquely human.

To implement this strategy, I chose to work a little longer before leaving the office. Then, I would shut my computer, which served as a visual cue to lay down the burden. Even if it meant rising a bit earlier the next morning, at least for the evening, I was no longer bearing the weight of that metaphorical glass of water.

The Power of Social Emotional Learning As educators, the power of Social-Emotional Learning cannot be underestimated. By adopting strategies like the Soft Start, Morning Mindful Moment, and Putting the Glass Down, we can create a supportive and thriving learning environment for both students and educators.



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