Social and Emotional Learning

Incorporating Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) into the Math Classroom

  • Courtney Adams

While it may seem like an overwhelming task, incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into the math classroom can be simple and can make a huge impact on students’ success and the overall classroom culture. In this post, Big Ideas Learning will outline strategies to integrate the five core competencies of social and emotional learning into your daily math instruction.


Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Math Instruction

As we return to the classroom, the expectation for teachers and students to reach academic and social emotional learning targets is higher than ever. Math teachers in particular, face the pressures of teaching students new content, reinforcing foundational knowledge that may have been affected by remote learning, and supporting the social and emotional needs of their students. While this may seem like a herculean task, intentionally incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into the math classroom can enhance student learning and engagement. 

To be explicit about the inclusion of SEL into your math instruction, it is beneficial to begin by reviewing what skills and competencies are fundamental. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization devoted to students and educators to help achieve positive outcomes for PreK-12 students, identifies five core competencies for social and emotional learning:

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Management
  3. Social Awareness
  4. Relationship Skills
  5. Responsible Decision-Making


In math classes across grade levels and geographic areas, students solve real-world and mathematical problems by working with peers, developing and communicating arguments, setting goals and overcoming challenges. That is because math and SEL are deeply interconnected. The skills that are typically considered to be under the SEL umbrella also make learners better mathematicians and students.


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Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Math Instruction

SEL is not necessarily a “new” addition for the math classroom. Many experienced and effective teachers have been incorporating the five SEL core competencies into their classroom all along!


Here are some additional methods for incorporating SEL into your math lessons.



Support students to see connections between the current lessons or skills and their personal interests.

Encourage students to discuss and reflect on their feelings and how it could impact behaviors. 

  • Regularly ask your students to identify their personal interests, strengths, and weaknesses, including in math. 
  • Using the information you gather from students' answers to the questions above, provide culturally relevant materials and problems to engage students.
  • Depending on the age of students, connect math concepts to their reflections. Ex: “Graph how you feel over the course of this lesson” or “Fill in these hundred grids to show me how confident you feel about this skill.”
  • At the beginning of the year, establish shared classroom rules and expectations so that students can see the impact of their own actions and behaviors. 
  • Offer space during class for students to discuss how their feelings and emotions can influence our behaviors. Ex: “What can happen when the lesson feels frustrating?” or “How did you feel when you answered a question correctly in front of the class?”



Explicitly teach students self-management techniques that they can use in your classroom to manage strong emotions. Model these practices and normalize and encourage their use in your class. 

Lead class-wide or individual discussion about goal setting and reflection.

  • Teach regulation tools such as belly breathing, counting to ten, or other relaxation exercises to help students develop techniques for managing their own stress or strong emotions. Model these strategies or build them into your weekly lessons to encourage use. For example, starting class with deep breathing exercises or regularly providing feedback on the self-management tools that you see in class, “I saw that you were frustrated, but you took deep breaths and chose your words carefully.”
  • Identify a place in the room or a set of steps that students can take if they need additional space and time to regulate themselves to be successful during the lesson while not distracting from the learning of their peers. 
  • Routinely take time for students to set both short-term and long-term goals. Help students reach these goals and keep them accountable. Ex: Schedule times to meet with your students in small groups or individually to help students reflect on their goals and maintain a sense of self-motivation. 



Social Awareness

Develop respect for diversity in the classroom by having students share their different perspectives on situations or solution strategies.

Provide project-based learning and cooperative learning opportunities for students.

  • Frequently model that there is often not just one correct way to solve many math problems and demonstrate empathy when helping students to identify errors so that they demonstrate this practice with one another in the classroom. 
  • Give authentic feedback to students when they are respectful toward others. Encourage students to identify how they feel when they are respectful or supportive of another person, or when others are respectful or supportive of them.
  • Throughout this group work, provide students with the chance to reflect on how the group is working together and the different perspectives or ideas that each group member brought to the table.



Relationship Skills

Teach and model effective communication and listening skills.

Routinely incorporate cooperative learning and group work into lessons. 

  • Teach lessons about how to speak loudly and clearly when sharing a solution to a problem or presenting to the class. 
  • Provide clear expectations about what group work should look like, feel like, and sound like. 
  • Offer sentence stems for students to use when engaging in dialogue to show their listening skills. Ex: “I heard you say ____.” or “You said that the answer is __, but I believe…” Also, use non-verbal signals to encourage listening such as a common hand signal to show agreement. 
  • Frequent opportunities to socialize and collaboratively work together is the best way for students to develop their overall relationship skills. Be sure to monitor groups and ask students to reflect on the group’s work to ensure that teams are working together in positive ways. 
  • Offer students the chance to play math games to develop number sense, but also to promote self-regulation, turn-taking, fair play, and other important social skills. 


Responsible Decision-Making

Explicitly teach students how to make a responsible decision.

Provide authentic, timely, and specific feedback for making good decisions.

  • Teach and model a decision-making formula that fits the age of students and your classroom. Ex: Stop and calm down, identify the choices you have, consider the options, make your choice and do it, reflect on how it went or what you could have done differently.
  • This decision-making strategy can be used for solving a math problem, working together in a group, or with a disciplinary issue.
  • Enforce responsible decision-making and help students self-reflect when not making sound decisions, so that students are encouraged to reproduce the action in other contexts as well. 
  • Ex: “I saw that you chose to work on your homework assignment when you finished your assignment early. This was very responsible - now you will have free time after school.”



Many teachers recognize the importance of SEL skills and knowledge but feel overburdened with the sheer volume of content to be taught during a short amount of time. While these feelings are understandable, it is essential to shift the understanding of SEL from a separate set of learning targets to seeing it as part of the classroom regardless of subject. Math instruction and SEL go hand-in-hand and by incorporating some of the strategies outlined above, educators will not only be producing stronger mathematicians, but also students who are college- and career-ready. 

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