The Strong Connection Between Writing and SEL

Students talking in front of window in school hallway

Writing is among the most natural, efficient ways to help students develop a well-balanced set of social-emotional competencies.

Attending to the social and emotional well-being of their students is not a new priority for educators, but it has taken on increased importance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the pandemic, 93% of teachers wanted a greater focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) in schools and 74% of high school students felt that attending a school that focused on SEL would help them personally.

Because writing involves actions that closely align with SEL competencies, it’s one of the most efficient ways to bring social-emotional learning into the classroom. The writing cycle functions as a means of self-exploration, a forum in which to connect and engage with others, and an avenue for growth. As students become increasingly comfortable as writers, it becomes easier for them to recognize that their thoughts and feelings are valid and their voices matter. They also become more likely to affirm the thoughts, feelings, and voices of others.

However, because writing for SEL explores potentially sensitive personal and interpersonal territory, teachers need to be deliberate about how they approach it—and their SEL initiatives more broadly. The ​​widely cited Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified three pillars of high-quality SEL initiatives: a supportive classroom environment, integration of SEL into academic instruction, and explicit SEL instruction.

1. Creating a supportive classroom environment

There are a number of ways for teachers to create a supportive classroom environment. For one, teachers should start with straightforward social-emotional learning activities—think: asking students to write about what they look for in a teammate—before building up to explorations of more complex emotions and dynamics.

As teachers move through this progression, they should be sure to acknowledge the challenges of writing about social and emotional topics. Creating a supportive space for students to discuss what they find difficult or confusing about these topics, how they overcome these challenges, and why they’re proud of their work eases the anxieties that pop up throughout the writing cycle.

Of course, protecting student privacy is essential to getting students to engage with SEL. While defining a forum for collaboration can be tremendously productive, students should never be forced to share their social-emotional writing with their peers.

2. Integrating SEL into academic instruction

To be effective, SEL instruction must be integrated into the work that’s already being done in the classroom. This can be achieved by having students write about the emotions, choices, and relationships of the historical figures they’re studying or the characters in the novels they’re reading. From a SEL perspective, it’s good to expose students to texts that present experiences both similar to and different from their own. Analyzing a wide range of voices and topics helps students build empathy across differences while still feeling recognized and validated.

Teachers should also invite students to carefully consider their academic goals, strengths, and areas for improvement. Doing so promotes self-management skills like planning and goal-setting and enables students to develop useful habits through metacognitive reflection on their learning.

3. Providing explicit SEL instruction

In addition to integrating SEL into core subjects, CASEL recommends that teachers carve out time for explicit SEL instruction. Discussing social and emotional competencies directly provides students with opportunities to not only recognize the skills they’ve acquired through academic learning, but build upon them. (It should be noted that teachers in certain locales may be legislatively prohibited from providing explicit SEL instruction.)

While there are a variety of activities that nicely complement direct instruction about social and emotional topics, writing is among the most effective ways to get students to think about and internalize strategies for everything from coping with stress and resolving conflict to labeling feelings and being assertive.

Writing for SEL with NoRedInk

NoRedInk gives teachers access to an array of features and resources that support the development of SEL competencies. Our Academic and Personal Reflection Quick Writes give students chances to write about topics like their “academic superpowers,” their approaches to teamwork, and their advice to younger students.

For longer-form writing, our Personal Narrative Guided Drafts provide students with genre-specific lessons, exemplars, and tips as they craft stories about notable experiences in their lives. These prompts help students reflect on their emotions, choices, and relationships as they level-up their narrative writing skills.

Sign up for free today to start building better, more socially and emotionally attuned writers in your classroom!

Thomas collaborates with colleagues from across NoRedInk to craft stories that illustrate how NoRedInk ​​builds stronger writers. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from Occidental College.