Connecting SEL and Literacy Teaching: A PD Activity to Try

I wish I could teach social and emotional skills, but there’s too much pressure to teach academics—I just don’t have time!

As I work with teachers in schools across the United States, I often hear some version of this statement. It’s easy to see how teachers can feel this frustration. The pressure to teach academic content is very real and intense. It is a common (mis)conception that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have pushed social and emotional learning (SEL) further away from daily teaching and learning. This is simply not true. In fact, the CCSS have the potential to enable great SEL teaching to happen as a part of great academic instruction.

In this article, I’d like to share a professional development activity that you might facilitate with colleagues that helps illustrate this point. Though I’ve designed this activity for exploring the English Language Arts (ELA) standards of the Common Core, it could be easily modified.  You might use any other robust standards or even curricula or in-depth units of study. If you’re going to try it with math, I suggest using the Standards for Mathematical Practice of CCSS rather than the specific content standards.

A Professional Development Activity to Try

Grouping Suggestions:

  • With a small group (5-10 educators), each person might do this activity individually, with everyone helping and supporting each other as they work.
  • With a larger group, consider having educators work by grade level or department. Teams of 3-5 would be ideal.


  • Have paper copies of the ELA standards that people will explore and sets of highlighters (5 different colors). Or, send people PDFs and make sure they know how to highlight PDFs using their computers or tablets.
  • Have either printed or digital copies of the SEL competencies outlined by CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning). If your school uses a different set of competencies, use those instead. Just make sure to adjust the number of different colored highlighters you’ll need.
  • I highly recommend trying this activity yourself before you facilitate it with colleagues. This will help you anticipate questions that might arise. It will also give you an example to share to help set people up for success.


  • 5-10 minutes: Have people explore the SEL competencies you’ll be using (either CASEL’s or others). Make sure educators have a clear understanding of what each competency is all about. For example, you might have people/teams try to explain each in their own words.
  • 30-45 minutes: Assign each competency a color (which matches the highlighters people will use). Have educators look through the ELA standards and see what SEL competencies they see embedded in the standards.
    Some might be very clear and explicit. For example, “working with diverse partners” clearly requires relationship skills. Some may be more hidden. For example, “describing a narrator’s point of view” involves perspective taking, an element of social awareness. Encourage educators to not be too self-critical and to not over-think this. If they think they see a connection to SEL, they should go ahead and highlight the standard. If it seems to connect with more than one competency, either just pick one or use a couple of colors.
  • 10-15 minutes: Give educators a chance to reflect and share together. People might swap highlighted standards to see how other people made connections. Another idea is to have people share a few examples and chart them for the group. You might facilitate a group discussion using questions such as, “What were some things that surprised you about this activity?” or “What questions do you now have?” or “How might this new perspective shift some of our literacy teaching strategies?”

What is obvious at the end of this activity is that we can no longer say, “We don’t have time to teach SEL skills because of the pressure to teach academics.” In fact, it is crystal clear that SEL skills are academic skills. Great literacy instruction involves teaching the SEL skills that students need to be successful.

Next Steps

Though this activity works well on its own, it makes most sense as part of a broader exploration of embedding SEL skills into daily literacy teaching. Teachers might have questions about what to do next. “Now that I see these SEL skills as a part of literacy teaching, how do I do this?!” It’s a valid question. Few teacher preparation programs or literacy curricula have made the explicit teaching of SEL skills a part of reading and writing instruction. Of course, the answer is far longer than can be explained in a simple blog post, but here are a few ideas to share:

  • Teach skills like empathy, sharing, turn-taking, and active listening when teaching students how to confer well in writing.
  • Teach skills like perspective-taking, respectful disagreement, self-control and asking interesting and authentic questions while facilitating book group discussions.
  • Model a growth mindset, curiosity, and problem-solving when reading aloud.
  • Model perseverance, struggle, passion, and joy when writing with (and sharing your writing with) your students.
  • If teachers want more background knowledge and information about the teaching of SEL, you might share this Pinterest Board I maintain: Social and Emotional Learning. It’s packed with articles, research, and videos.

I’ve tried several different versions of this PD activity with many different groups of teachers and each time it has been engaging and eye-opening. I hope you find this activity helpful and fun!

  • Mike Anderson
    Mike Anderson is an education consultant, award-winning teacher, and author of many books including What We Say and How We Say It MatterThe Well-Balanced Teacher, The First Six Weeks of School, The Research-Ready Classroom, and Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn. Learn more about Mike and his work or invite him to work with your school or district through his website: Connect with Mike on Twitter: @balancedteacher.

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    Mike Anderson
    Leading Great Learning
    Durham, NH
    Phone: +1 413.658.7907

    Leading Great Learning

    Mike Anderson is an energetic, experienced, and highly sought-after educational consultant who helps facilitate great learning in schools all over the United States and beyond. He has over twenty years of experience as a teacher, consultant, presenter, and developer and has authored many books and articles about great teaching and learning.