Instructional Approaches that Foster Social-Emotional Development

Imagine you are preparing for an upcoming lesson. You plan to explore a topic with your students and have created a variety of resources for them to unpack. Students will research this topic using digital tools over a period of time. Then to culminate this learning you have created a paper and pencil assessment to determine student understanding of the topic.

While there’s nothing wrong with this plan of attack, think about the ways you might empower your students if instead they were able to drive this instruction on their own. Consider offering students the opportunity to choose a topic that they want to study and in the way in which they would go about researching it. Think about how this would allow them to take ownership over what and how they would learn. When we transfer the power of choice over to our students, they are able to build skills on their own that we may have never been able to develop within them.

Project-based learning allows us to facilitate student-centered instructional approaches in a way that will build important skills for students now and into the future. The open-ended nature of PBL and the infusion of critical thinking and creativity provide students with a pathway to skills like flexibility, time management, and self awareness. Add in the ability to collaborate and communicate with others and now we are tapping into additional skills that will serve students not only in your classroom, but throughout life.

Developing social emotional learning in the classroom can be done in a number of ways. PBL sets up an environment for students that promotes various components of social emotional development. It can also be fostered when educators engage students using integrated instructional approaches like STEM and STEAM. There are effective tools that can assist in educators as they incorporate social emotional learning (SEL) into their existing classroom practices.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social emotional learning as:

  • SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

Now, more than ever, we have a responsibility to incorporate SEL into all that we do.

PBL in Action

Several years ago I spoke with a school district who is implementing project-based learning in their elementary classrooms. This team of teachers was facilitating the study of bees with their students. This approach to learning started with a driving question that was developed by the students in that grade level. Small groups of students collaborated on a number of different aspects regarding the study of bees. Some studied the habits of bees, while others studied the different types of flowers bees helped to pollinate. Other groups looked at how to build beehives to support and maintain be life in their community. Each group took on an aspect of the project that met their interests. Within these groups students were able to engage with their peers while also exploring deeply into a topic.

Connect to SEL

So how does that connect with social emotional learning? The project gave much ownership to the students, building their confidence and motivation to learn. Students increased their self awareness as learners and as humans. They came to school each day excited about their study, full of ideas to drive the project forward, and ready to continue building relationships with those in their classroom. Their interactions with one another we’re collaborative and positive, because they cared so much about what they were working on. The passion for this type of learning caused their self management was always in check because they knew they were a part of a larger team, feeling accountable to their classmates. As students made important decisions about their own learning, they further developed an understanding of the content and of themselves.

Within the instructional approach of PBL, students were able to manage their emotions and interactions with others, set positive goals as individuals and within a group, demonstrate empathy and understanding for others. These outcomes weren’t exactly intentional, but rather the positive result of designing instruction that keeps students at the heart of the learning.

CASEL identifies these five components as the foundation for social-emotional learning:

  • Self Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Responsible Decision-Making
  • Relationship Skills
  • Social Awareness

As we work to develop these characteristics within our classrooms, whether physical or virtual, project-based learning is one viable option for embedding social emotional learning components into our existing instruction. PBL promotes social emotional development and can provide the opportunity for students to grow as learners and individuals.

About the author:
Dr. Jacie Maslyk is an Assistant Superintendent focusing on curriculum, instruction, and professional learning. She has served in public school as a classroom teacher, reading specialist, elementary principal, and Director of Elementary Education over the last 22 years. She is passionate about STEM education and is the author of STEAM Makers: Fostering Creativity and Innovation in the Elementary Classroom. You can contact Jacie through her website at


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