5 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Next SEL Lesson or Group Counseling Session

Those who know me know that I am downright evangelical about planning out my school counseling services. It’s not that I don’t see value in what can naturally occur within an SEL lesson or counseling session, it’s that I want to set myself and my students up for success and that means having a great game plan. Sometimes this just means a solid idea of what to teach and how students will practice what they learned. Other times, it means being even more strategic to maximize the effectiveness of your time with students (and minimize potential struggles).

effective SEL lessons and group counseling sessions

Below are five questions to ask yourself before diving into a class SEL lesson or group counseling session to make it as impactful as possible:

1. What is the objective? What are you hoping they get out of it?

Determining the “why” behind your lesson or session is key. First, a clear objective guides your planning. It lets you start at the end and work backward to see what needs to happen in order to achieve the objective. Second, it helps you to measure success because you know more clearly what it will look like.

We’re pretty good at knowing what a lesson or session is about, or what problem it’s tackling, but it’s not as automatic for us to determine the specific objective. It’s not wrong or bad to sometimes read an amazing children’s book just because it has a great SEL message, but sometimes we want to be more strategic or intentional about our time.

Here are some examples of social-emotional learning objectives:

  • Emotional Awareness: Students will be able to identify and name their own emotions and the emotions of others in various situations.
  • Emotional Regulation: Students will learn and apply strategies to manage strong emotions like anger or worry in a healthy way.
  • Empathy: Students will demonstrate the ability to understand the perspectives and feelings of others and show that they care.
  • Conflict Resolution: Students will be able to apply problem-solving skills to resolve conflicts with peers in a peaceful and constructive way.
  • Decision Making: Students will learn to make responsible decisions by considering the consequences of their actions for themselves and others.
  • Goal Setting: Students will be able to set, plan, and take steps toward achieving personal and academic goals.
  • Resilience and Perseverance: Students will demonstrate strategies to overcome setbacks and continue efforts after failures or challenges.
  • Social Awareness: Students will recognize and respect the diversity and differences in their school and community.
  • Collaboration and Teamwork: Students will effectively collaborate with others to achieve shared goals in group tasks or projects.

2. How are you incorporating self-reflection?

Self-reflection is a common practice found in evidence-based SEL interventions, so it’s considered a pretty important part of our work (we can probably also agree it’s important for ourselves as counselors, too!). It encourages deeper understanding by giving students the opportunity to connect it to themselves. Self-reflection also allows students to internalize and apply what they’ve learned.

Here are some examples of self-reflection questions I use in my lessons:

Two easy ways to incorporate this:

  • Exit Tickets: I usually have the question on a quarter sheet of paper printed as part of the lesson, but sticky notes are pretty great for this, too!
  • Closing Circles: You can ask students to raise their hands to answer or go around the circle giving each student the opportunity to share or pass.

As a bonus, both of these things give you some informal data about your students’ understanding (and sometimes connection to) what they learned!

3. Are there any routines or rituals that will be a piece of it?

Routines and rituals bring structure and predictability, crucial for a safe and engaging learning environment. They also can increase a sense of community, identity, and group cohesion!

  • Check-Ins: Start with a quick check of how your students are doing. Use a scale, a feelings chart, or something that asks about their highs and lows of the week.
  • Breathing or Mindfulness Exercises: Begin or end sessions with a brief mindfulness or breathing exercise. This helps students center themselves and prepare them for learning. Standing yoga works great, too!
  • Positive Affirmation Circle: End lessons or group sessions with a circle where each student says a positive affirmation about themselves or a peer. This builds self-esteem and encourages a supportive community.
  • Openers or Hooks: Do you have certain activities you and your students love? Starting your time with them using Four Corners or Would You Rather is a fun way to activate prior knowledge and build investment in the learning.
  • Circles: Students are hopefully already seated somewhat in circles for groups, but I think they’re great for lessons, too. Consider starting and ending your lessons sitting in a circle to boost a sense of connection.

4. What parts could be challenging for the students?

Anticipating challenges helps prepare both you and your students, ensuring a supportive environment where learning can thrive.

  • Personal Sharing: Are there elements of the lesson or skills that might feel sensitive or personal? Think about ways to maximize emotional safety, like only calling on students who raise their hands or even just validating and acknowledging potential discomfort.
  • Groupwork: Having students work together on tasks has always brought about some challenges, but even more so after the pandemic. Students have less experience and practice working with others which means it’s harder for them. I believe it’s still super important to incorporate, but it does mean you might have to spend more time modeling your expectations and you may you need an independent activity option.
  • Reading and Writing: Do the activities require students to read or write independently? At what grade level? Are all the students in the classroom at that level for reading and writing? If not, then you’ll need to plan for accommodations (like strategic grouping, you doing the reading, etc.).

5. What parts might require more classroom management?

The smoother things go, the more the students will get out of it and the better you’ll feel about it. While there are small strategies you can use during your time to keep students on track, there are also things to plan in advance to set everyone up for success. Here are three examples:

  • Transitions: Are students going to be switching from one activity to another? Make a plan for what that looks like and what your expectations are. One strategy that’s been helpful for me is using a chime to get their attention. Because the sound slowly fades away, it gives students the opportunity to finish their sentences before turning their attention to me.
  • New Activities: Are you trying something for the first time, like “a warm wind blows?” Or using sorting cards in a group? Make time to explicitly model the activity to the students, asking them what they notice about how you did it in order to understand the expectations.
  • Sharing Supplies: Are there supplies being used, like play-doh or dry erase markers? Small disagreements or disappointments about what color someone gets can make a big (negative) impact on the rest of the time. Deciding how supplies are assigned and telling the kiddos ahead of time how it works can help.

By thinking through these five essential questions, you can level up the structure, impact, and effectiveness of your SEL lessons and group counseling sessions. I’d love to hear how you incorporate these thoughts into your next lessons and group sessions! Let me know about how you’re keeping one or more of these things in mind.

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Hello, I’m Sara!

With 10 years of experience in
elementary school counseling,
I get to serve in a different way now
– by helping fellow counselors and

I value quality over quantity,
effective practices and resources,
and meeting the unique needs of all
our diverse learners.

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