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How to Structure SEL Lessons in Elementary School

How many lessons do you teach each month? Each week? Was learning how to create and/or teach those lessons part of your school counseling education? Whether it was or was not, delivering (and sometimes developing) core curriculum lessons is a primary piece of many school counseling programs. Because it’s something we dedicate so much time and care to, we want it to be as efficient and effective as possible! One way to do this is by having a consistent structure to your class SEL lessons.

Why use a consistent structure in lessons?

I used to think that each of my lessons for a class needed to be totally different. I thought the key to engagement was novelty, and that the unexpected was more fun. There’s also something to be said for the natural chaos that comes from teaching a lesson in an elementary classroom. They are so often full of moments of pure joy and silliness! The good news is that a structured lesson doesn’t eliminate or inhibit those moments, and it doesn’t impact engagement at all.

What it does do is provide predictability, which creates an environment primed for learning. As I have mentioned before, classroom management can be challenging for school counselors. It is also often something else that is left out of our training! By adding consistency into your lessons, you are immediately ahead of the game. The predictability of a structured lesson feels safer for a lot of kiddos. This is especially true for kids who worry about what might be happening prior to a new class or activity or who struggle with transitions to new teachers/classrooms. As the counselor, it also requires less time teaching and modeling expectations because as they adjust to the structure, students will internalize the routines and instructions for activities that you do frequently. This means more time for actual teaching and practicing! 

A consistent structure also makes your life easier. When you have a consistent structure, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel for each and every lesson. You know how it starts, how it ends, and what types of things to do in the middle. Having that all fleshed out saves you SO much precious planning time. What I also find to be helpful is that a consistent structure means I’m never getting lost in my lessons. No more sticky notes with the progression written on it, no more walking around with a lesson plan, no more losing my way and forgetting pieces. And, when you aren’t getting lost, neither are the students! 

Structuring your lessons also aligns with research-based practices in SEL. When thinking about structuring lessons, we are really talking about HOW you are teaching. Research can help guide this in a few ways. First, it tells us that the most effective SEL programs include explicit skill instruction, active learning techniques, and promoting generalization (part of the last component – process/reflect!). Second, research tells us which teaching practices promote social emotional learning – and those fit into a consistent structure really well! Some of those practices include: cooperative learning, classroom discussions, balanced instruction (including direct teaching vs. active learning), self-assessment and reflection, and building competence.

School Counseling Lesson Structure

The structure of my lessons includes three or four of the following components: – hook/opener, teach/model, practice/apply, and process/reflect. The reason for this is not only because it’s a best practice, but because it works! You have likely noticed that when you stay on any one activity for too long, you lose some of your kiddos. By doing this, you’re moving through sections and keeping them engaged by using multimodal instruction. 

Hook/Opener

Whenever I think of this part, I think of a book. If I’m not hooked right away, I’m not as engaged with the book, I’m not as invested, I’m not getting as much out of it, and I might not even finish it. When I am hooked right away, I want more. I can’t seem to put it down and the book tends to have a greater long-term impact on me. We want to inspire that same kind of investment in our lessons! The job of the hook is to activate your kiddos’ brains and get them ready to learn by either tapping into previous knowledge or experiences and/or piquing their curiosity. You can do this in lots of different ways, depending on the topic, age group, and needs in the classroom: 

  • Books 
  • Pictures 
  • Videos
  • Interesting Facts or Quotes
  • Games like Would You Rather, Four Corners, Stand Up If, etc. 

The example above is from a Multiple Intelligences lesson – the opener uses visuals and a quote to activate students’ beliefs about what makes someone smart.

Teach/Model

Most lessons will move into a teach/model component next. This chunk of your lesson should explicitly teach the skill you are targeting in your objective. That means you are being clear and intentional when defining the skill. Instead of vaguely saying, “Be empathetic.”, we want to share what empathy is, what it looks and feels like, and provide examples of it.  You can do this by using resources like slides, some books (think, Julia Cook or Trudy Ludwig!), videos, or modeling. What approach you take will be dependent on the topic you are covering and the age group you are teaching. What might this look like?  

  • If you are doing a lesson in kindergarten on apologizing, your “teach” section might include what an apology looks like and sounds like, you will likely model giving an apology, and share examples of apologies for students to identify. 
  • If you are doing a lesson on peer pressure with 5th graders, your “teach” section might include slides that define peer pressure as a whole, explain the types of peer pressure they may encounter, and discuss examples. 

If using a slideshow, this section might include slides like these::

-teaching slide from primary self-love

-teaching slides domino effect

Images above show teaching slides from our Self-Love lesson and CBT/Domino Effect lesson.

Practice/Apply

I recommend designating the most time to this section because it is the most important. This is the “practice makes progress” part of the lesson where students are taking what we just learned and learning how to apply it. For example, if you just taught about conversation skills, you might include an activity for students to practice taking turns in a conversation or actively listening to their partner or even paying attention to their body language during conversation. 

While students are practicing, this gives you the chance to listen and observe so you can provide reinforcement and feedback in the moment. If your students are practicing identifying when someone is or is not respecting personal space and you notice a pair put something in the wrong category, you can provide quick feedback. If they are practicing how to show empathy in different situations, you can reinforce their thoughtful words.

There are a lot of options for actually practicing social and emotional skills! Here are some I use over and over again:

  • Task Cards: These can have discussion questions on them or they could have more traditional “tasks” (things to DO). These can be used in small group activities like the “pick a card!” activity or as a whole group “mingle-partner-chat” activity. 
  • Sorting: This is helpful to illustrate “yes” or “no” answers. For example, sorting cards for “Is this an example of a good friend?”, “Whose responsibility is this?”, “What type of conflict is this?”
  • Role plays: Some of the best practicing our students can do is in the context of role plays, because it most closely matches the real life situations we hope they’ll use the skills in! It can be quick things like prompting students to deliver and receive I-messages, or they can be lengthier skits about things like responding to peer pressure.
  • Carousel – This is like a version of centers or stations. Prompts are put in different places around the room and students travel to each in small groups. They can be purely “read and discuss” or you can use sticky chart paper for them to respond on (and interact with one another’s responses).

Here are more specific examples of practice activities:

The examples above are from two primary-grade lessons. The first is from our Empathy Adventures lesson, where students work in groups to match situations with emotions and then name how they would show empathy. The second is from our Perseverance and Self-Talk lesson where students practice helpful self-talk affirmations.

Process/Reflect

As you get to the end of the lesson, it is helpful to structure a closing ritual. This is a great opportunity for the kiddos to reflect on what you learned together! By taking the time to reflect, you are increasing the likelihood that they will internalize the lesson and use it outside of your class. This does not require a lot of time, but creates a moment of pause for your students to really take in what you discussed and can also provide you with a measurement of what they learned/took away from the lesson. 

First, think of 1-3 closing questions. Ask yourself “What do I want them to take away from this lesson?” Your questions should prompt students to reflect on how the lesson applies to them now OR how they can apply it in the future.

Next, ask the students one or all of these questions in a closing circle or on an exit ticket. Closing circles are just quick gatherings where you either go round robin (allowing students to pass if they want) to answer, or call on volunteers to share. Your exit ticket can be on a quarter piece of paper, or even just a sticky note. Sometimes, you might make this section longer by having students complete a worksheet that prompts them to process and reflect on the lesson – especially if developing self-awareness is a significant component.

For example:

Exit ticket from our Time Management lesson and worksheet from our Friendship Recipe lesson!

Next Steps 

Building structure into your lessons provides stability, cohesion, and clarity. With a consistent structure that includes a hook, modeling or teaching, practice, and reflection, you can save yourself time and focus on creating efficient, effective, and impactful lessons. What could be better than that?! 

If reflecting after learning something new is valuable, then you might want to take a moment and reflect on this post yourself:

  • What routines do you currently have? 
  • How are you starting and ending your lessons? 
  • What parts of your lessons do you really like?
  • What parts of your classes are you finding challenging or unhelpful?
  • Where can you start to add predictability for yourself and your students? 

Do you have a structure or routine that you particularly enjoy? Share it with me in a comment below! 

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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
educators!

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

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Sara

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