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New Semester, Start With Social Emotional Learning: 4 Questions To Ask Students

Social emotional learning, or SEL, is a big buzzword in education these days. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) offers the following definition:

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

While I think it’s absolutely wonderful that administration is finally encouraging teachers to spend time prioritizing social emotional learning and classroom culture building, as math teachers, it can feel a little out of place and difficult to implement. After all, we have a lot of material to get through in one year and since math is a progression, it’s even more vital that we actually get through all the material so we can set our students up for success in their next math class. But I argue that it is also imperative that we, as math teachers - especially as math teachers - also invest time in social emotional learning in our classrooms. What better time to try some SEL techniques that the start of a new semester? Here are 4 questions to kick off your new year! Pose the questions to your students one at a time, allowing them ample time to individually think, write, and reflect before asking anyone to share out loud.

1. Did you ever feel disrespected by me as your teacher last semester? Why or why not? (15 word minimum)

This question is vital. If students have felt disrespected by you as their teacher, it’s important that you know why. It’s also important that you don’t judge or punish students for sharing openly. You might not have thought you treated students with disrespect, but maybe there is a cultural difference you’re unaware of, or some small instance that has left a lasting hurt on a student. The earlier you catch this, the better.

2. How did we do as a class with our words of respect last semester? Did we follow them? How or how not? (15 word minimum)

During the first week of school I asked students to create individual circle maps of the word “respect.” They shared with their teams and then we created a circle map for our class. Check out the photos below to see what my high school students came up with:

Admittedly, I didn’t do much with them during first semester, but it created a wonderful connection for second semester. I asked them to reflect on how we did with our words of respect. This was the most incredible class conversation. Hearing students say, “Not really. We talked while you were talking and were disrespectful” made my jaw drop! Also hearing students say, “Yeah. I think we’ve done a good job. We’re paying attention and passing your class” warmed my little teacher heart to the core. I highly suggest this activity, even with high schoolers!

3. What do we, as a class, need to change about our behavior this semester to be successful? (15 word minimum)

This helped students set and achieve positive goals, a major part of SEL, as well as helped them think through making responsible decisions.

4. What do you need to change about your behavior the semester to be successful? (15 word minimum)

Also another great individual goal setting activity to practice SEL.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these 4 questions to ask students at the start of second semester to bring SEL into your secondary math classroom. Maybe you’ll use them as is, or maybe they’ve inspired you to tweak or create your own questions! You’ll be amazed what teenagers can bring to the table when you give them a chance to reflect and respond thoughtfully.

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Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Retrieved from

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