Why Realistic Classroom Expectations are Important

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How to set yourself up for success when trying social & emotional learning programs

Would you rather have a short-term or long-term impact on a student’s life? When framed this way, I imagine all teachers would choose having a long-term impact. As a teacher, there are few things that bring me more pride than when students - years later - say the skills we developed in my class helped them in college or their career.

However, it is not always so easy to choose long-term growth over short-term gains. In an era where more and more aspects of school and student performance are quantified, it is tough to take a long-term approach. If you don’t think an activity will quickly help students improve on an upcoming test, it makes sense to replace that activity even if you believe it could create long-term curiosity in your subject area. This is particularly problematic for areas of study like social & emotional learning, which take time.

For many students, social & emotional learning (SEL) is novel. It can seem foreign and downright weird - making quick, observable gains difficult to manage. I once had a colleague refer to SEL as a buffet. When the buffet opens, some people immediately get up and fill their plates with everything offered. Some are more methodical with what food they put on their plate, and still others might not even get any food right away. From a teacher’s perspective, it is difficult to stick to a program that a majority of students do not initially, or at least quickly, gravitate to. A lot of students won’t immediately go up to the SEL “buffet.” They will balk at trying something new or refuse to show vulnerability.

When it comes to students’ mental health, it is imperative to have a long-term approach as these are the types of programs that can impact a student for years to come. A study involving over 97,000 students over 18 years found “3.5 years after the last intervention the academic performance of students exposed to SEL programs was an average 13 percentile points higher than their non-SEL peers.” Additionally, the research, conducted in collaboration with the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), concluded that “conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use were all significantly lower for students exposed to SEL programs, and development of social and emotional skills and positive attitudes toward self, others, and school was higher.”

This is why setting realistic expectations for yourself and your students is so important.

Two Tips for Setting Realistic Social & Emotional Learning Objectives

  1. Owning the weirdness

    Introducing social & emotional activities is tricky because we don’t know what our students’ experience with such practices is. For this reason, I always owned that “this might be weird for some of us” and shared with my students which tools I personally used and which didn’t resonate with me.

  2. Accepting that short-term successes might be few and far between

    When I was new to teaching, I thought for an activity to be successful it had to stimulate all students (give me a break; I was young!). I quickly realized that this was unrealistic. If your expectations and the expectations you set for students are “everyone is going to love this,” you’re setting the class up for failure. So, be honest with your class. For me, this meant explicitly saying, “The following SEL tool might not work for everyone and that is okay, but just give it a legitimate try.” I had a student who absolutely refused to engage in any SEL activities, but three years later I got an email from her when she was in college. She said how she now realized that self-care wasn’t selfish care. If I had judged whether SEL impacted this student right away, I would’ve had to accept that it failed. A long-term approach alters that judgement, as now the student realizes the importance of SEL and goes back to those activities as ways to care for herself.


About the Author

Brent Modak followed the example set by his grandfather and entered the classroom first as a middle school teacher before moving up to teach high school history. As a member of the ASSET team, Brent helped develop the curriculum and led in the implementation of the program across all of ASSET’s partner schools. When not teaching Brent enjoys spending time with his beautiful wife and newborn baby, Lewis.


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