Teaching Writing to Support Social & Emotional Learning

During the early days of the pandemic, and the Spring 2020 closure of schools across the nation, teachers received praise as America’s unsung heroes as parents and families discovered personally the daily challenges teachers and schools faced every day. One of those challenges was that the tried and true methods traditionally used by teachers to gauge student engagement and learning, physical health, and social-emotional well-being, no longer applied.

Teachers couldn’t reach through the computer screen to give a child a much-needed hug. It was impossible to read the body language of joy, excitement, confusion, frustration, understanding, sadness, and fear from their students from the neck up — if the students’ videos were even active.

As teacher leaders within the National Writing Project, one of the things that has amazed us in the past year is the way teachers used writing to support the social and emotional learning of their students online, in person, and in hybrid spaces. One thread we have witnessed throughout all of this uncertainty and change is the way teachers can and do use writing to build connection, community, support, and sustained and remarkable learning to support the social and emotional needs of their students.

What Does it Mean to Support SEL?

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) aims to help students become more self-aware, manage their thoughts and emotions, and develop more empathy and understanding for their peers, the community, and the world around them. Research over the past two decades clearly demonstrates that the promotion of social-emotional learning leads to increased academic growth, improved behaviors in the classroom and at home, individuals better able to handle stress, anxiety, depression, and other episodes of emotional distress. SEL can reduce poverty and promote upward mobility and improve life outcomes of general happiness. One may wonder if it does all this, why isn’t SEL required in every school?

One silver lining of the pandemic’s disruption in education has been the shift from a laser focus on academic instruction and standardized test scores to the inclusion of the five competencies of social-emotional learning. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)identifies and describes 5 SEL competencies:

  • Self-Awareness is the ability to identify emotions, recognize strengths and needs, and develop a growth mindset.
  • Self-Management involves managing emotions, controlling impulses, and setting goals.
  • Social Awareness promotes empathy for others, appreciating diversity and being open to others’ perspectives.
  • Relationship Skills foster collaboration, conflict resolution, and communication
  • Responsible Decision-making encourages thoughtful consideration of the consequences of our personal actions and choices.

In the past, many educators have been quick to dismiss social-emotional learning as something they “don’t have time for” because they’re so focused on covering the content standards to ensure students are ready for state testing. However, integrating the SEL competencies into instruction doesn’t mean sacrificing content knowledge — educators can do both and writing is a key strategy to do so.

How are teachers using writing to do this?

Teachers across the country, whether online, in person or hybrid, are finding ways to support students in the five different competencies of SEL using writing. We reached out to our teacher network through the National Writing Project to highlight these strategies and approaches.

1) Writing to Promote Self Awareness

As teachers are navigating online and hybrid environments, many are finding creative ways to support students in cultivating a sense of self-awareness using digital tools. Some are simply using the chat feature of Zoom or Google Classroom.

For example, Michelle, a teacher in Arizona, shared that one of her new favorite things is the “Two-Word Check-In,” an idea she got from Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us Podcast. At the start of every class, she asks students to respond to this prompt in the chat feature of their online meet: “In two words, how are you feeling? This prompt could also be used in in-person settings using sticky notes or scrap paper. Students may elaborate or add context. In this quick written exchange, Michelle can read the room for students who are doing well that day. She explains, “It is a really powerful activity and allows us to see that we’re all going through it right now, and simultaneously, that we’re all here supporting one another. It also helps students think about how they are feeling/doing each day.” This strategy is an example of how to use writing to promote self-awareness.

2) Writing to Foster Self-Management

Teachers of all ages and disciplines are using writing to support students in managing their lives during stressful and unfamiliar times. Some are asking their students to set goals for themselves each day in relation to school work, taking time to rest, and drinking enough water. Others have created spaces online for students to share questions with one another about coursework or to share their progress with a project.

Ginette, a fifth-grade teacher in Arizona, uses time every Friday to have her students write an action plan to set goals and make plans to put these goals into motion. Ginette’s students have shared topics such as having more compassion or creativity, building healthy friendships, and handling pressure and rejection. “The work we are doing with our journaling is more than a way to get our day started, and instead a way to teach us all how to care for ourselves in the most life-appropriate way.” These easily actionable strategies for teaching writing give students opportunities to practice self-management.

3) Writing to Support Social Awareness

Teachers have been experimenting with different digital platforms to find ways of framing writing to meet the social and developmental needs of their students.

For example, many teachers express having a hard time getting students to share their writing or even talk aloud in zoom meetings or in-person discussions. One way to make this less intimidating is to ask students to share a “golden” or favorite line from something they have just written. Other teachers have found creative ways to build discussions online. For example, Samantha, a high school English teacher, started using Padlet as a discussion board and space for writing. “I put our discussion topics or questions into a Padlet, which has a variety of formats that can and cannot be linear, and I found out that students are much more likely to participate this way.” While her students are typing responses in the Padlet, Samantha can highlight some of the comments posted, read them aloud, elaborate on their points, and draw connections between other responses. “I’ve come to see Padlet as an effective, user-friendly, and aesthetically pleasing discussion board that helps us all come together in one space and bounce ideas off of one another without showing our faces on screen or speaking up in a sea of quiet voices.”

In this way, Samantha read the social needs of her students and found a way to use a platform that also let them participate as writers in a way to support their social awareness.

4) Writing to Build Relationship Skills

One way to use writing to support relationship building is through the use of a short welcoming routine like journaling, reflection questions, or circles to create connections in the classroom.

Tala, a high school English teacher in southern California, began the year with a discussion community folder titled “Building Community”, which involves prompts, such as “what brings you joy? when? and why? Students replied to each other, shared ideas in discussions, and got to know one another. Other teachers make sure to build connections with their students by making a point to use students’ names, greeting students at the beginning of class, and sending them off with kind wishes and clear goals.

Other teachers have found ways of using writing to bridge the distance between school and online learning for students who remain online. Melissa, a second-grade teacher, sent home mechanical pencils and mini-composition notebooks for her students over winter break. The notebooks are small enough for kids to put in their pockets if they go for a walk, and her idea was that they all have a place to record whatever is inspiring to them. She explained, “These were a huge hit. Kids show me their mini-notebooks ALL the time. It might just have spelling words in it or a drawing, but they have enjoyed the little gift and it is something we all share.”

Others have found ways of connecting writing to students’ interests through video gaming using spaces such as Classcraft, a classroom version of Minecraft. Others are inviting students to write or respond to poetry using a poem a day on Poem-a-Day | Academy of American Poets or sending letters or postcards to authors they admire or friends in faraway places. These strategies help students of all ages use writing to build and cultivate support whether in digital or analog spaces.

5) Writing to Support Responsible Decision Making

Teachers are using writing to support their students in responsible decision-making by thinking about the pros and cons in choices they need to make or issues out in the world. This can be done in person using pen and paper, or with Students can respond to compelling and relevant questions like, “Should young adults and kids be vaccinated?” or “Should school uniforms be required?”

Teachers of writing are also supporting students in decision-making by asking them to write to-do lists for their days and weeks. Providing students with opportunities to plan for the things they need to do and the things they want to make time for promotes relevant decision-making. As teachers, we have all had students who feel stuck and struggle with what to write. We have found that using list-making helps students generate ideas and brainstorm topics, so they start from a place of abundance. Finally, teaching students to revise their writing is a wonderful way to support and nurture decision-making. Going back into the work to re-see it and to make choices about how to make it more accessible for others or strengthen or clarify, is in and of itself the practice of decision-making as a writer and thinker.


For America’s youth, the disruptions to learning environments, social networks, and family structures caused increased anxiety, depression, and loneliness. For many students and teachers, writing Not surphas become a bridge to build community, understanding, engagement, and empowerment.