Using SEL to Create More Student-Centered Learning Environments
SCHOOLS | August 10, 2021
Using SEL to Create More Student-Centered Learning Environments

By Ms. Jenna Fisher, Primary Grades Social-Emotional Learning Teacher at Skinner West Elementary School

My excitement for the upcoming school year builds when I think about how my students were feeling nine months ago. It was incredible how they were able to adapt so quickly to a new way of learning, building their technology skills and remaining engaged. It was not a lost year, and every time I would post assignments on Google Classroom when I wasn’t in school, I would get messages from students.

“We want to be in class,” I read over and over. And, as a social-emotional learning (SEL) teacher, it meant so much to know that my kids were being impacted by my teaching. They brighten me up with their eagerness to learn, and I have some very specific goals for the upcoming year to build upon the joy that they bring to my classroom. 

This past year, I was worried about the balance between my students’ social-emotional well-being and their learning outcomes. What I found was that if you prioritize SEL, the learning outcomes will follow if your students are well. 

I plan to start every morning with an SEL check-in. We could reflect on a quote or a picture, or maybe a question like: “How did someone help you this week?” or “What are you proud of today?” Building students up creates the openness, safety, and trust needed for learning to happen. 

I also have the opportunity to lead a culture and climate team next year. I’d like to create student-led committees where we let our kids determine what the behavioral expectations should be at school. Then, these committees will be able to present these expectations through skits to receive feedback directly from their peers. 

Another priority I have through this work is relationship mapping. I’m part of the district’s Transformative Teaching Cohort (TTC) this year, which brings educators together to discuss amplifying student voice. One tool I’ve learned more about through the TTC is the “Seven Cs” survey. When I surveyed my seventh-graders about having a trusted adult in the school building, more than half of them said they didn’t have one. Through relationship mapping, I will help ensure that every student has someone they can go to when they need SEL support. 

Through the TTC, I also learned about building an inclusive culture through storytelling. This practice allows students to pair up and share more about their identity, background, and experiences with each other. Then, they get to be in the other person’s shoes and tell their story. This has amazing implications for building safe spaces within our school. 

Not only am I learning from other educators, the TTC is also giving me a platform to share some of the ways I create student-centered learning environments. At Skinner West, I’m known as a community builder, and this includes shifting my practice to build student ownership around assessments. 

I want all of my students to have a pathway for learning and a space to reflect on their learning through goal setting. This is only effective if students have a clear understanding of what they’re learning, how they’re going to learn it, and why they’re going to learn it. Throughout this process, students are able to self-assess their progress and have time and space to revise their work so they can become proficient​​—and even advanced—academically in meaningful ways. 

Our children have been hit hard by the pandemic, and I’m looking forward to seeing wherever they’re at in their learning next year. I know I’m not the only educator with ambitious goals for the upcoming year, and I think we should remember that being compassionate to ourselves will be a key part of bringing these goals to life. 

Before she became an educator, Ms. Fisher worked in marketing and managed events in Latin America. She first came to Skinner West as a student-teacher. Make sure you are ready for the first day of school—Monday, August 30, 2021—by visiting