Wayfinder Blog

5 Essential Back-to-School Tips to Boost Teacher Success With SEL

25 Aug
Diane Curtaz

The back-to-school season is here, and Wayfinder knows how exciting yet daunting it can be. As students return to classrooms, you may ask: How do I fully support the teachers on campus as they support our students? In our years supporting successful program implementation across schools and districts, we’ve found that beginning the year with a strong focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) is a great way to set teachers up for success. While your back-to-school efforts get underway, here are our tips for championing the SEL cause and fostering a supportive environment for your teachers.

1. Provide Direct SEL Implementation Support in PD 

As the school year begins, utilize PD to model for teachers how simple and effective SEL facilitation can be. As you plan your back-to-school PD sessions, think about three direct SEL facilitation support types: modeling, planning, and preparing.

  • Modeling: Demonstrate SEL activities in training sessions, focusing especially on those that are easy to integrate, such as opening/closing rituals or team-building exercises. When teachers see how easy and quick many SEL can be to facilitate, they may be more open and excited to facilitate them in their own classrooms.
  • Planning: Dedicate time in PD for teachers to prepare to embed SEL into their curriculum, thereby reducing workload.
  • Preparing: Consider taking some work off your teachers’ plates by curating collections of SEL activities for teachers to ensure they have a ready-to-use resource right from the start. Include all of the activities you modeled in PD so teachers can begin confidently. Preparing these lessons beforehand has the added benefit of helping students start their year with similarly positive experiences.

When modeling, planning, and preparing SEL activities for summer PD, be mindful of the grade levels your staff members teach and ensure the activities you demonstrate align with your intended audience. An activity perfect for kindergarteners might not resonate with high school students. Similarly, something suitable for new teachers may not be as impactful for veteran educators. If you work with a large staff, you may consider splitting into grade bands and modeling different activities for different groups of teachers. Fellow administrators, counselors, and teachers with SEL experience can be effective partners in this work. 

2. Embed SEL in Adult Learning

Just as students benefit from SEL, so do adults. Incorporate SEL strategies in staff meetings or professional development sessions. Activities like team-building exercises or even simple mood-boosting music playlists can make a significant difference. When you model these practices with adults, teachers get firsthand experience of their benefits, making them more likely to use them in classrooms.

Using adult-appropriate SEL with your staff isn’t just about making them more comfortable with facilitating SEL either. Benefits of SEL—including improved communication skills, stronger self-awareness, greater capacity for empathy, and more—are also features of a well-functioning staff ready to build a healthy school culture among themselves and their students.

3. Remove Barriers

Teachers sometimes face very real barriers when adding SEL to their teaching practice. Other times, these barriers are mental blocks that make SEL an intimidating new endeavor for teachers. Whatever the case, there are steps you can take to help your teachers find ways to add an SEL component to their classrooms and to feel comfortable and confident in doing so. Teachers' main obstacles in implementing new practices are technology, time, and unfamiliarity. Administrators can alleviate these barriers by…

  • Disseminating Activities Digitally: Share SEL resources directly through school newsletters. Include hyperlinks to activities and lessons so teachers can access materials with a single click. This can help teachers who struggle with new technologies easily access your SEL program and get comfortable using a new platform.
  • Giving Time for Collaboration: Allocate dedicated times during staff meetings or planning sessions to think about SEL specifically. Encourage grade-level teams to come together and create their own collections of tailored activities and lessons to remove the onus of planning from individual teachers while also giving them ownership of SEL planning and implementation.
  • Offering Ongoing Training: Initial training in summer PD is great, but it likely won’t be enough for your teachers who are very new to SEL and/or those who have had a less-than-great experience with it in the past. To help build familiarity and comfort, continue to model new SEL activities throughout the year. In addition to embedding SEL into adult learning, providing ongoing tips and tricks for facilitating SEL with students can help remove the barrier created by unfamiliarity. 

4. Help Teachers With Family Messaging

Communication with students’ families is pivotal in ensuring the success of school programs—and this is especially true for the sometimes misunderstood topic of SEL. Managing this messaging from the start ensures that teachers can confidently embed SEL into their curriculum without apprehension about how families will react or uncertainty about future ramifications.

A proactive approach, such as arranging SEL activities during back-to-school nights, can offer families a firsthand experience of SEL programming and alleviate concerns. Additionally, regular newsletters can help demystify your SEL program, explaining its alignment with other school initiatives and benefits to the academic goals. Your SEL curriculum provider may even be able to support communication with informational resources and tools for families. 

Families may need help understanding how SEL is important to their children’s academic growth, so helping them understand the relationship between SEL programming and student learning objectives is critical. You can help alleviate concerns by involving families from the onset and transparently sharing the objectives and mechanisms of your SEL program. Creating a shareable resource that clearly aligns the skills your SEL program teaches to your school’s academic learning goals helps families easily visualize the importance of SEL in their children’s school day. 

5. Model SEL Activities Directly With Students

A school's ethos is often set in its first few assemblies or pep rallies. What better way to introduce SEL than for school administrators to model SEL activities? Depending on your students and the tone you’re trying to set, you may consider different types of simple, quick activities that can be facilitated with large groups to create the desired effect.

  • Create calm and focus: A simple breathing technique like Wayfinder’s activity “Box Breathing” helps reduce anxiety and improve focus. It can be introduced at the start of an assembly to set a calm tone and help students focus on the information about to be introduced.
  • Improve energy and engagement: A quick ice-breaker like Wayfinder’s “This or That” encourages participants to choose between two options (ex: "ice cream or cookies?") and move to one side of a room to indicate their choice. This type of activity energizes students while promoting decision-making skills.
  • Foster community and relationship-building: Stand-up/Sit-down games, for example, are interactive and can be tailored to be educational (ex: "Stand up if you've read a book this summer.") These types of activities help students get to know one another better, reestablish familiarity after time away, and recognize the strengths and healthy habits they see in their school communities.

By showcasing these activities, administrators not only promote SEL but also allow teachers to visualize how they can incorporate them into their classes.

The beginning of the school year is more than just textbooks and lesson plans; it's about building relationships, encouraging engagement, and setting a positive tone for the months ahead. Likewise, supporting teachers is more than providing resources; it’s about leading by example, fostering collaboration, and removing perceived barriers. With an intentional focus on SEL, administrators can create an environment where teachers feel empowered, supported, and prepared to make a positive impact throughout the school year.