Meeting SEL Through PBL

When it comes to preparing our students for the future, there are many learning activities and digital tools for us to choose from. However, it can be overwhelming to sort through all of the options to decide which method or digital tool might have the biggest impact on our students. What I have learned more during the past year is that we must be flexible in our practice, purposeful in the decisions for tools and strategies to use in our classroom, and intentional about creating meaningful, real-world learning opportunities to help students build essential skills for their future and for now. 

When it comes to the essential skills needed, social-emotional learning (SEL) is a key component. There are five SEL competencies which include self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills.  To learn more about SEL, explore the many resources available through the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Why focus on SEL? Because research shows that by addressing the five competencies of SEL in our classrooms, we can positively impact and see an increase in student academic performance. There are a lot of ways we can help students to build their skills in these areas whether in person, hybrid, or fully virtual.

PBL Through the Lens of SEL

Beyond simply choosing one specific activity or digital tool, bringing in project-based learning (PBL), for example, can help us and students accomplish many things. A few years ago I wasn't providing true PBL opportunities for my students. After doing some research and reflecting on our experiences implementing PBL in our language classroom, I recognize the many benefits for students. Beyond just building content-area knowledge, if we look at PBL through the lens of SEL, the five competencies connect well within a PBL experience for students. 

Self-awareness: As students work independently during project-based learning, they are becoming aware of their skills and their interests as they explore topics that they are curious about. As they design their PBL focus, they learn to self-assess and evolve as learners. 

Self-management: Through project-based learning,  students work on setting new goals, dealing with stress as they work through their project or perhaps problem-based learning journeys. Because PBL is an iterative process, students will see learning as a process, rather than a final product as they develop their own personalized work plan.

Social awareness: By connecting with students in Spanish-speaking countries and developing a greater understanding of what life is like, the similarities and differences, for example, students became more socially aware of the world around them. Creating these opportunities for all students is important, in particular for developing empathy.

Relationship building. With PBL, whether students are working together with peers on a project or as in my experience, collaborating with students from other classrooms, they develop their interpersonal skills. We can help students to build relationships and collaborate regardless of whether we are in-person, hybrid or fully virtual. Providing opportunities to build relationship skills is essential for future workplace success. Employers look for teamwork and leadership skills.

Decision making: As students work through project-based learning or other assessments, they will develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Working with peers will require students to make decisions, which are just a few of the many additional benefits of PBL that will better prepare students for future learning and work. 

Tools to Enhance PBL and Promote the Development of SEL

Once we recognize the benefits of PBL, especially for promoting the development of SEL, we just need some digital tools to enhance the learning that happens. Here are four tools to explore, perhaps even help with boosting student engagement at the end of the school year. Trying new tools will give teachers and students something to reflect on over the summer. 

  1. EdLight is a digital tool we recently started using in our classroom. EdLight is a web-based app that enables teachers to view student work as it is submitted. Teachers can then provide authentic, meaningful and timely feedback to students by either drawing or writing on the student work, adding stickers, or recording audio feedback. 
  2. Google Jamboard has been a favorite tool in classrooms this year. It is a free, cloud-based interactive whiteboard system for designing more collaborative and engaging learning experiences for students. It takes only a few minutes to set up a Jamboard and there are many ways to use them for collaboration. Students can manage their PBL ideas or use it as a PBL brainstorm space and post a note with topics they would like to explore or respond to classmates. 
  3. Nearpod. Another multipurpose tool that is a great choice for creating interactive  lessons for students and that can also be used by students to create their own lessons. As teachers, we can design lessons with Nearpod or use their content for our courses, adding in activities and opportunities for collaboration. Depending on the age of the students, they can create their own Nearpod lesson. Many of my students have used Nearpod to do their PBL presentations as a way to engage their peers more in learning and build essential skills. Using the virtual reality trips is so beneficial for promoting social awareness and empathy.
  4. Spaces EDU is a digital portfolio platform where students can create digital portfolios or collaborate with peers in a centralized space. Students will develop self-awareness and self-management skills as they reflect on their growth and set new goals. Social awareness skills develop as students can interact and work collaboratively with classmates.

There are many benefits for SEL when we have students engage in project-based learning. And not only is PBL an authentic, real-world learning experience, but it also creates more opportunities for students to develop SEL skills which are highly beneficial for their future. We want to promote student agency and PBL helps students to work through challenges, develop their workflow and be better able to understand their skills and the steps they need to take to grow. Long term benefits are that competency in SEL positively impacts the future success of students whether in college or in the workplace.

About the Author: 

Rachelle Dene is a Spanish and STEAM: What’s nExT in Emerging Technology Teacher at Riverview Junior Senior High School in Oakmont, PA. Rachelle is also an attorney with a Juris Doctor degree from Duquesne University School of Law and a Master’s in Instructional Technology. Rachelle is an ISTE Certified Educator and serves as the past president of the ISTE Teacher Education Network.  She is the author of ‘In Other Words: Quotes That Push Our Thinking,” “Unconventional Ways to Thrive in EDU” “The Future is Now: Looking Back to Move Ahead,” “Chart A New Course: A Guide to Teaching Essential Skills for Tomorrow’s World and her newest book “True Story: Lessons That One Kid Taught Us” is now available. 

Follow Rachelle on Twitter @Rdene915 and on Instagram @Rdene915. Rachelle has a podcast, ThriveinEDU available at


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