Every classroom should support social-emotional learning — here’s why.
Furniture and interior design play a role in students’ emotional development. That’s why educators are incorporating social-emotional learning (SEL) into the physical design of their classrooms — and you should too. But what does that kind of learning space look like?
- Lightweight, modular furniture that can be rearranged on a moment’s notice for circle time or individual work
- Chairs that fit different bodies and offer movement and sensory input
- Designated spaces where students can go to take a deep breath or a quick ‘brain break’ when they need one
What is social-emotional learning?
Social-emotional learning covers a wide range of skills and approaches. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an educational advocacy group:
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, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.
Fifth-grade educator Sara Radtke puts it another way when she says, “Social-emotional learning is anything done in schools that is not the academics.” Radtke has taught in schools across the United States for over 10 years, and while “SEL has been important to the administrators at all of the schools where [she’s] worked,” she has seen “a new or a renewed understanding of it” recently. Radtke has focused on SEL in her professional development and considers it a key element to student success in all age groups.
Why is it important to pay attention to social-emotional learning in the classroom?
SEL is crucial, Radtke explains, because it underpins everything else that educators do. “It’s easy, in education, to think about adding initiatives,” she notes. But “it’s helpful to look at social-emotional learning as the plate instead of one more thing on the plate. Because really, we’re not going to get very far academically with kids if we haven’t met their social and emotional needs. If kids are coming to school and they’re too dysregulated, meaning their emotions are all over the place, they’re not going to learn academically.” Essentially, kids need an environment where they can feel comfortable, supported, and safe. They also need methods for controlling emotions and spaces where they can go to cool down, take a break, or recharge.
Coming out of COVID-19 restrictions — Radtke has taught in a hybrid classroom, virtually, and full-time in person during the past school year — she says that her students are “really resilient” and demonstrate an impressive “ability to adapt and be flexible and move forward.” But the pandemic has left its mark.
“There’s so much anxiety,” she explains. So in her classroom, she focuses on giving students tools to work through their anxiety, like breathing techniques, fidget toys, noise-cancelling headphones, and time to write about what they’re feeling. Radtke also strives to normalize “discussions about how we all struggle — we all have feelings.” Making space for students to talk about their feelings in the classroom isn’t just vital for their emotional development, she says. Without these outlets, it can also be tough for the class to stay focused.
Social-emotional learning looks different for different students — and different teachers
It is important for schools to provide teachers with the resources to incorporate SEL into their classrooms in ways that work for them and their students. SEL “is not one-size-fits-all,” Radtke says. “We’re trying to teach kids how to regulate their emotions, plan, make decisions, and get along with others. That may look different in different classrooms.” Some emotional and sensory tools may be a curiosity for some children and an absolute necessity for others, she explains, but making them available to all students can help reduce stigma.
“I found that when you put things out there, there’s always a little bit of exploration,” she says. For example, a new rocker or wobble chair might be popular at first, but once the students have had a chance to play around with it, “then the kids who need it are the kids who keep using it.” Ultimately, she notes, the SEL classroom must be “inclusive and welcoming, meeting the needs of everybody.”
This is why it can be especially helpful to have classroom furniture that is easy to move and rearrange. Having access to a variety of options allows educators to set up their classrooms according to their students’ needs, their own teaching preferences, and the day’s activities. Radtke notes that in her fifth-grade classroom, it is essential for the class to be able to gather in a circle where they check in with each other daily and hold problem-solving discussions.
In the SEL classroom, students have a voice and choice
Another reason that classroom design should be flexible? So that students can choose where and how they want to learn, and by doing so, gain a better understanding of their individual needs. Teaching both virtually and in person, Radtke says, revealed “the extent to which all students are different, and all students have different needs, and we can meet those needs in different ways.” Some students thrived at home and chose to remain virtual for the remainder of the school year, while others floundered online and were grateful to be back in the classroom. Because of this, SEL must be grounded in two concepts: “student voice and student choice.”
The two are linked, Radtke explains, because choices “give students an opportunity for their voices to be heard.” A classroom where students can sit, stand, or move around provides learners with valuable information about how they prefer to engage their bodies and brains. Having opportunities to work alone, in pairs, in small groups, or together as a class allows students to build relationships and discover their preferred modes of collaboration and independent work. And once students understand what they need, teachers can encourage them to participate in the design of the classroom, advocating for themselves and their classmates based on their self-knowledge. The question for educators, Radtke says, is “how do we create school environments that are flexible and give opportunities for students to tell us how they learn best?”
The internet is full of facts, but SEL requires relationships
Radtke says she thinks of SEL as the differentiator between teachers and technology. “At this point, the kids know how to get on the internet; they know how to look things up,” she notes. “So we have to think about what we can offer that technology can’t. And it’s helping students work through decision-making, critical thinking, problem-solving, and emotional regulation.” These are the pieces of her students’ education that can’t be replaced by self-directed research, and which no computer can help them develop. They are skills that grow in the context of relationships between teachers and students and between students and their peers. “The more that we make students feel like they’re a part of the classroom,” she says, “the more positive outcomes we have.”
The SEL classroom is a flexible and inviting space with a variety of options for teachers and students to design and redesign, collaboratively, on an ongoing basis. As students grow into a world in which their digital and offline lives blend, they will rely on critical social-emotional skills to succeed: building empathy, managing emotions, and establishing supportive relationships. In effect, every classroom must be an SEL classroom — a place where students feel welcomed, supported, and ready to learn.
Where can you get furniture and materials to create an SEL classroom?
Incorporating SEL into your classroom may seem challenging, but Emergency and Secondary Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding has helped teachers throughout the country get the supplies and furniture they need to create the perfect learning spaces for their students. Demco offers a wide variety of furniture and supplies all in one place, so you can easily find everything you need to set up an SEL classroom that works for you and your students.
Review the guide below to learn more about applying for ESSER funding. For help preparing your school community for the next chapter, contact our team of product experts, STEAM masters, interior designers, and learning space consultants at firstname.lastname@example.org or 800.462.8709.
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I am new to the district as a SEL instructor. Are funds still available?