New Jersey Department of Education

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Episode 2: Skills for the Future — Infusing SEL into Classrooms and Schools

Note:  The audio versions of all episodes are available on the  DOE Digest webpage.


[upbeat background music]

Dr. Lamont Repollet: I’m Dr. Lamont Repollet, New Jersey’s Commissioner of Education. Welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. It is a platform for information exchange, in which the Department will highlight the work being done by innovative and transformative educators around the state.
I have been working to redesign the Department of Education to what I call NJDOE 2.0. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. I hope you enjoy today’s topic.

Ken Bond: Welcome to the first episode of the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I’m the host, Ken Bond. Before we jump into today’s episode, I wanted to thank everyone who joined us for the very first NJEdPartners Twitter chat.
This Twitter chat was trending world-wide and it had folks from around New Jersey, as well Department of Education staff, and even some folks from around the world, join in to the discussion about building professional learning networks and leveraging those networks for equity. In this episode, we’re going to be discussing Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL. SEL is the idea that we need to go beyond strictly the content areas and think about students as whole people. And think about their learning in dimensions of social and their emotional life. For people who are first getting started with this concept, in New Jersey we have competencies, that are kind of like standards to guide instruction around SEL. The competencies are:

  • Self-awareness;
  • Self-management;
  • Social Awareness;
  • Responsible decision making; and
  • Relationship skills.

We’re going to explore what all of these look like in the context of programs in New Jersey schools getting to listen in on some lessons and talk to educators about what they’re doing.

The first district that is going to be highlighted in this episode is Spotswood. They have a Pre-K to first grade building that is doing a lot to integrate SEL in a very systematic and thoughtful way.

EL at Schoenly Elementary

Debbie Generelli: I’m Debbie Generelli. I’m a kindergarten teacher at Schoenly School. I’ve been teaching Kindergarten, I think, seventeen years here at Schoenly.

Ken Bond: Debbie’s class was excited to start the day with their morning meeting. The focus and the intention of the morning meetings has really reinvigorated them so that students are excited, and teachers are excited to jump in.
[transitions to classroom]

Students: [Chanting while clapping}
I pledge today to do by best
In reading, math, and all the rest.
I promise to
Obey the rules
In my class
And in the school.
I respect myself
And others too,
I’ll expect the best in all I do.
I am here to learn
All I can,
To try my best
And be all I am.

Debbie Generelli:  And now we’re going to share our news, and I think, Jake, it’s your turn…to pick from the bag.
Jake: Where’s the [unclear]?
Debbie: You’re going to read your friend’s.
Jake: I will start with…Quinn.
Jake: Good morning, Quinn.
Quinn: Good morning, Jake.
Jake: What’s the news?
Quinn: The news is…I love school.
Jake: Good morning, Gianna.
Gianna: Good morning, Jake.
Jake: What’s the news?
Gianna: The news is that yesterday when I went to IHOP, I saw Catalina and we were sitting next to each other.
Jake: Good morning, Adam.
Adam: Good morning, Jake.
Jake: What’s the news?
Adam: The news is that I’m angry that I didn’t get a game.
Jake: What kind of game? Sonic?
Adam: No, Roblox.
Jake: Oh, yeah.
Another student: [exclaiming] Roblox?!
Debbie: Do the right thing. Maybe it will happen.
[transitions from classroom to interview with Debbie]

Debbie: What you saw was our Morning Share, which is such an important activity, especially when can do it first thing in the morning. ‘Cause it’s an opportunity for the kids to…make that transition from home to school. Sometimes they have things on their chest that they want to get off their chest. But it also creates a sense of belonging. A sense of community. That we’re a family. And you really get to know the kids. I mean, I know Gianna likes ice-cream. I know Lilian wants to be a vet. Uh, Vincent has two dogs. So, we really get to know each other. In this busy world, of technology we live in today, kids just don’t get a chance to practice communicating with each other.
So, we teach them things like how to make eye contact. How to be a good listener. How to wait your turn to talk. And you saw all that happening in that circle time.

Ken Bond: After students greeted each other, I got to see breathing exercises. The first one was a pinwheel breathing exercise, where students breathed in to a pinwheel to help them to think about the air and breath that they were producing, to calm themselves, as well as to center themselves.
[transitions back to classroom]

Debbie: [speaking to class] Make your air come out nice and slow and see how long you can make that pinwheel spin. Alright, are you ready? So, we’ll start by taking a deep breath in when I count to three. One, two, three.
[sound of deep breath]
Debbie: [whispering] That was awesome.
Debbie: Guys, so this time, let’s pick one of our, um, animal/insect breaths, whichever one you want.
Student: Okay.
Debbie: Alright, Addison picked the bunny breath. I’d like to read this, boys and girls, what it says about bunny breath. Take three, big sniffs, one right after the other. Then exhale in a long release, or a long breath. When you’ve finished, you should feel clear, relaxed, and alert. Ready? I’m going to count to three. One, two, three.
[sound of three, quick inhales followed by a long exhale]
Debbie: One, two, three.
[sound of three, quick inhales followed by a long exhale]
Debbie: One, two, three.
[sound of three, quick inhales followed by a long exhale]
Debbie: Good job.
[students cheering and clapping. One student says “Yay!”]
Debbie: We should be all ready to learn.
[transitions from classroom back to interview with Debbie]

Debbie: Now the breathing, we don’t always do as part of our morning share, or our morning group. Uh, we kind of fit it in during the day, whenever we can. I have found that with my class, it--it works really well after they have recess. They have a really tough time transitioning from, you know, being outside running around with their friends. Uh, the breathing gets them really focused and ready—ready to learn. I’ve talked to parents and parents have told me they’re doing it at home. The kids—the kids know all the breaths by heart, the different ways to breath. And they—they use it at home as well. It really does make that transition. You know, “now it’s time to settle down. Now we’re gonna get ready. We’re gonna check in. And we’re gonna get to ready to learn.” The boys and girls, they are using their words a lot more. Um, when they do have conflicts they know how to… use words to settle these conflicts. And also, through the zones of regulations. Every morning when the children come in, they put their name next to a different color. Each color represents a different kind of feeling. They put their sticks next to a certain zone and then we can talk about it. And they’re very—they’re very honest and very free to say exactly how they feel. So, they are learning how to get in touch with their emotions. You know, “why did you put your stick near red today? “ Which red would mean “I’m mad and I’m angry and I’m afraid. I didn’t want to get up.” Or, you know, “my sister stole my book.” Why are you on yellow? “I’m really excited ‘cause today is a gym day.”And again, we’re building those skills and we’re having a chance to really communicate with each other on another kind of level.
[end of interview with Debbie; transition to interview with school and district administration]

Ken Bond: After seeing the program in action, I got to sit down with the administration of both the building and the district to discuss how SEL was being implemented and how they’re building an environment that really supported social and emotional learning.

Jen Asprocolas: My name is Jen Asprocolas. I’m the principal here at Schoenly School.

Graham Peabody: Graham Peabody, superintendent of schools in Spotswood. The things that we’re doing in our classrooms are not what we were doing 25 years ago. So, they set up a lot of centers. There’s a lot of collaboration. There’s a lot of students working, uh, with one another. And so SEL becomes integral in advancing that philosophy, in kids actually getting their math work done or their reading work done because they have to work together to search and then find the answers.

So, without that—without the ability to communicate, um, they would not be able to get as far in our programs. I think 25 years ago we were talking about soft skills, right? SEL has--has always been around and it was called the soft skills. These days, it really has become a hard skill. Because unless you can communicate and collaborate and work with your peers, you’re not going to be able to get through the curriculum that the state has for us these days. Because it’s important.

And we see constantly, in research, that this is what the job force looks like. That this is what the future looks like. That—that students need these skills and we’re promoting them in our kindergarten classes.

Jen Asprocolas: {not sure this is Jen speaking} So I met this summer with a committee of teachers—a pre-school teacher, kindergarten teacher, first grade teacher, and our school psychologist. And we just started a conversation. And these were long conversations in the summer, brainstorming—went on for hours just to talk about what our needs are and how we can make this work for us.
There is no tried and true SEL program that works for anybody. You have to make it your own and that’s the biggest lesson I learned this year on this journey. In early elementary school, we’re the students’ first experiences in education. For a lot of them, it’s their first experiences socializing. They are developing their sense of identity. So, it so integral that, here, we teach them how to make a friend, how to voice when they have a conflict, and how to self-regulate. That is so important. This is a lot of these students first look in education, in socialization. They’re developing the core skills and competencies that they need to be successful citizens and friends, building these types of relationships. The core of all of that is the SEL competencies. So, we wanted to make sure as a team, that our efforts were coordinated. That the language we spoke in pre-k was the same in kindergarten and first grade. For example, for our young guys, we had breathing centered around different animals or insects. One of them, you heard in the classroom, which was the bunny breath. What we did in the beginning of the year was we rolled out each of these breaths week by week. So, for the first week we focused solely on the bear breath and everyone in the school focused on the bear breath. Then we did a snake breath. We used these sometimes to center ourselves before an assembly. The nurse uses them when a student comes in and is hurt on the playground. It is our way of having that type of common language. And it’s our belief that with that common language, we can really reinforce the skills and values that we want to see in our students.
[end of Schoenly Elementary section]

SEL as a Base Ingredient

Ken Bond: I have a colleague named Andre who gives a great illustration. He talks about how some ingredients in cooking are base ingredients, and others are just extra, and sprinkled on top. It’s key that SEL is a base ingredient and that it’s infused throughout the day in everything that’s being done.

In the next part of this episode, we’re going to contrast what happens in the pre-k and first grade on SEL, with what happens in an alternative high school that uses SEL to ensure that students feel safe and welcomed.
In both contexts, SEL is infused in many different ways throughout the day and it’s an integral part of the environment. But because the contexts differ, things are done a little bit differently in terms of how SEL is articulated.
I recently visited Somerville schools to get an idea of what this could look like, and to get some context about the thought process behind an alternative high school that infuses SEL in every aspect.

SEL at Somerville Public Schools

Dr. Tanya McDonald: Hi, I’m Dr. Tanya McDonald. I’m the Director of Special Services for the Somerville Public Schools.

Scott Hade: And this is Scott Hade, the principal of the MAPS program in the Somerville Public Schools.

Dr. Tanya McDonald: So, four years ago we actually launched this program after we were doing a data analysis and looking at some of our—our statistics with our high school. Um, and noticed that our graduation rate was doing down and our drop out rate was going up. So, we wanted to try to understand why this was happening. And when we really looked at it, we found a group of students that really weren’t responding to the traditional type of high school. It wasn’t necessarily because they weren’t capable or because they weren’t intelligent enough. It was because they had a whole bunch of obstacles that were in their way. Some of them had a lot of family issues. Some of them had mental health issues. Some of them struggled with some behavioral issues.

So, we decided that we were going to look at a non-traditional program. We worked very closely with our board of education, as well as our upper administration and superintendent.

We explored a whole bunch of other different programs in the state, and we came up with MAPS, motivation for academic and personal success, to really try to meet the needs of our very wonderful and capable students that just otherwise aren’t meeting success in a traditional program.

What makes us, I think, different than a lot of other places, is we’re not about SEL “time.” We’re about infusing SEL into everything that we do. It all really comes down to the building of the relationship.
We work really hard to make sure that we’ve hired staff that really care about, and—and understand. They’re able to—to push the rigor but also understand that these kids are presenting with things that not everybody’s used to. You know, some of the most hardworking kids that just literally got the short end of the stick and we’re here to try to balance that out and make is so that they have the same opportunity, if not more opportunity, as they progress through our school.

Scott Hade: SEL isn’t—isn’t necessarily a unit-based approach. It’s a mindset and it’s a philosophy that we embrace here at the MAPS program. And as Dr. MacDonald said, is once we form that relationship with students and that connectiveness between that student and the staff and the school and the home, we’re able to have kids feel safe and secure and—and excited about a place that they can call their own, where they don’t feel that they’re judged. And they can be themselves. And—and they know that they can come here—good, bad, in different days, and we’re going to be working with them, regardless. And once they understand that and buy in and believe in what we’re doing and see that we’re going to be here each and every day for them, it’s—it’s something that they do embrace.

Ken Bond: I was able to get to observe a lesson taught by Dave and Rebecca, who are teachers in the MAPS program, in which they were teaching public speaking and also working on social and emotional learning skills. It was great to see these students participate in ways that were meaningful to them and their learning, in both public speaking and social and emotional learning.
[transitions to classroom]

Rebecca: [speaking to class] So I gave you all a soft skill to pay the bill and you are coming up with a definition because you are going to rate yourself on these skills. And so, everybody says, “Oh yeah, I know what maturity is.” But really, what does it mean?
And so, I’m going to have you tell me what you wrote down on the—on your piece of paper, but if anybody wants to add anything, feel free to do so.
So, who’s got maturity? Who can tell me what maturity is?

Isaiah: Maturity is developing a more grown-up state of mind.
Rebecca: So, Isaiah said that—that maturity is developing a more grown-up state of mind. So, when I say to you, “grown-up,” what kind of attributes do you think we’re talking about?
Student: Um, taking responsibility.
Rebecca: Okay, so taking responsibility. Like it. Anybody else want to add to a definition of maturity?
Daniel: [inaudible]
Rebecca: What?
Daniel: [inaudible]
Rebecca: What’d you say Daniel? Nothing?
Daniel: [inaudible] independent.
Rebecca: Uh, okay. So, so you can be independent. You can do things on your own. That’s definitely maturity.
[transitions from classroom to interview with Rebecca]

Rebecca: I stress, in all my classes, but especially here, that growth is the most important thing. You can enter my class feeling however you’re going to feel, but hopefully we can process that and use those emotions for good and learn and grow from it.
We’ve been using this curriculum from the Department of Labor called “Soft Skills to Pay the Bills.” So, all of the skills that we have are directly from that curriculum. Each one of those skills has a whole unit and we’ve been doing it from the beginning of the year.
So, we talked about just giving them the definitions and then we were like, “that won’t mean anything to them.” To have them see this word that they’ve been told, right. “Be more mature.” Or, “you need to have better self-esteem,” or “you need to have self-confidence.” But what that really meant for them, each kid had to own the definition, so they could understand how they personally have grown from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.
[end of interview with Rebecca]

Ken Bond: In this class that is co-taught by Dave and Rebecca, Rebecca started by helping students create their own definitions for “Soft-Skills that Pay the Bills.”  And, as she said, these are things that really help students in their social and emotional learning.
In this public-speaking class, Dave is drawing from an activity that was done in the beginning of the year in which students did a short speech about themselves and their strengths, as well as their weaknesses and—and who they were as people. Dave is going to help students as they reflect on that speech and help them see their growth in the emotional and social aspect of their being.
[transitions to classroom]

Dave: [speaking to class] What we’re doing today is we’re—we’re re-introducing, um, one of our speech assignments that we did at the beginning of the year. Okay? Um, I hope you guys know, especially in a class like public speaking, this is more about growth, right? And improvement, then it is about getting the A. Right?
It’s not about being perfect from the get-go, it’s about trying to show that “hey, I may not have had a lot of confidence in myself at the beginning of the year.” Or “I may not have been mature enough at the beginning of the year.” Or, “I may not have worked well with authority at the beginning of the year.” But now, here we are, right? 180 days later, or very close to it, and “I’m a different person.” Right?
So, this next activity, guys, relates exactly to those definitions that you just created. Alright?
What I want you guys to do is look at the sheet that we handed out to you and that you just wrote your definitions on. You guys see that? Look at the sheet. Have it in front of you. Okay?
There’s two columns there, alright? On the left side, there’s—there’s numbers one through five. And what I want you guys to do is take two minutes. Maybe some of you guys have already done it. That’s okay. And I want you to ask yourself this first question: Based on how you viewed yourself at the beginning of the year, just based on how you viewed yourself at the beginning of the year, where would you rate yourself on those categories?
Alright, Ev. Be honest with yourself. That’s fine. If you think that you were fives at the beginning of the year, all the way down, then do that.
Here are my two—hey—here are my two points about being self-critical. Okay? Guys, believe it or not, being self-critical, alright, can actually be a bad thing. Some of us are overly critical of ourselves. Alright? And being overly critical of yourself, can make you feel really bad about yourself. That’s not the intent of this exercise. We’re trying to be reflective and we’re trying to think about who we were, and who we are now.
[transitions from classroom to interview with Dave]

Dave: Our first assignment of the year was just a self-introduction speech. Some of the speeches at the beginning of the year were super powerful. Students talking about personal struggles and—and why they’re here at MAPS and what they have to overcome.
So, we’re sittin’ there and we’re—we’re seeing these videos and we’re like, “This is an amazing baseline. Like let’s go ahead and do the same activity at the end of the year and see how the student has changed, in—in every way.” Right? And let them see how they’ve changed.
So, part of the process today was allowing the kids to watch themselves. I don’t think they have an opportunity to kind of reflect like that enough. So, the goal of the assignment is really strength-based. It’s—it’s, “what are the good things that you’ve done? And how have you grown and where have you shown improvement? And how can we build off that now going into the future?”
I think the first thing is how we approach working with our kids. We recognize the fact that all the kids that come to MAPS, come to MAPS for a reason. And that we have, uh, a great staff that try to understand:

  • Where the kids are coming from;
  • What the kids need; and then
  • How best we as a staff, and as a school, can help our students reach those goals.

At least I think in how our school approaches SEL, we recognize, again, the individual needs of our students. We work with a population that has become detached for whatever reason, whether it’s not coming to school or feeling socially isolated, or having personal obstacles get in the way. We—we understand, again, where the kids are coming from. And so, we’re able to leverage our student-teacher relationship, our faculty-student relationship, to get the kids excited.
I can’t tell you how many times that I’ve had a one-on-one conversation with a kid, or one-on-three conversation with a group of kids, about what they did over the weekend or what their passions are, even during class. And that spirals into a conversation about who they are as a person and I don’t think you get that within a normal school environment.
We talk about meeting, like, the holistic needs of kids. We can see the whole child—big picture, like from 3000 feet, and then we also have the opportunity to see the whole child from two feet. And I think, that—that two-foot version is super personal, and that’s what the kids connect with and that’s what makes the kids excited to come to school. But the 3000-foot is what allows us as a program to help these kids reach their academic and social goals.
[transitions from interview to Ken Bond speaking]

SEL and Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Ken Bond: Some amazing things are happening in our state that are helping enhance the social and emotional learning of students. We are in a very diverse state and it’s essential that we are encouraging SEL to promote equity for all students.
Part of my Office’s mission is to be a catalyst for connecting innovative educators who believe in the global worth of students regardless of their background. And this has a lot to do with making sure that all students receive equitable SEL.
Students come from different norms and expectations in their home cultures. It is important that teachers are thinking about social and emotional learning not in ways that make students become like them, but in ways that honor students’ culture while helping them also meet the competencies of SEL.
For example, in terms of relationship skills, there’s differences in norms and related rules about emotional displays, especially in public, and especially between students and adults. Adults can misinterpret something that is a sign of respect in one culture as being rude in another.
And it’s easy when you’re trying to teach SEL to overlook some of those social norms that students may be used to, but teachers unfamiliar with. Some things that may be relaxing in meditation, for you as a teacher, or for you culturally, may not be relaxing for students. For example, a picture of an ocean may seem like an amazing thing that reminds you of vacations and reminds you of lots of opportunities to relax, but for students it could be very stressful. Maybe they had an experience where they were a refugee and had to use the ocean as a route of escape and it may bring back very difficult memories for them.
So, be aware of both the opportunities SEL presents to promote equity and culturally sustaining pedagogy in your classroom. And also, be aware that students may not be understanding things the way you do because of their cultural background.


Ken Bond: There are so many great things happening in so many districts all around the state. And we are so excited to be able to highlight a few of those things today, here, on this episode.
If you’d like to connect with the Department around social and emotional learning, please come out to our SEL conference, which is on May 23, 2019. I’ll be there, and I’ll also be conducting some interviews for possible use on the podcast.
We’ll also be having our third-Tuesday #NJEdPartners Twitter chat on May 21, 2019 at 8:30 PM (EST). I hope that you can join us as we’re going to be talking as a state-wide professional learning community and professional learning network about SEL on Twitter with Department staff and with many others from around the state and the world.
We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third-Tuesday Twitter chat.
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Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed. Discussion of resources are not endorsements.
Thanks so much for listening.
[closing music]



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