SEL for English Language Learners

The number of English learners (ELs) is expanding nationally, currently averaging 10 percent of the student population (varying significantly by state, with CA at 19 percent and TX at 18 percent). The highest percentage of students reside in urban schools, followed by suburban, then rural schools.

In the classroom, ELs often have unique needs and strengths. In addition to language challenges, ELs have additional difficulties: living in a new country, trying to fit into a new school, making new friends. They may also have significant family responsibilities or experience with trauma.

Research and data show that EL students report lower social self-concept—those beliefs one holds about oneself and the responses of others—than non-EL students. Having a low self-concept makes it challenging for students to learn to be resilient and overcome adversity, which can then negatively impact their academic achievement and motivation to succeed in life.

SEL can help EL students overcome challenges. A growing body of research suggests that the use of SEL in classrooms has positive impacts on all students, teachers, and society at large. Likewise, several studies note the importance of SEL in reducing student anxiety and promoting a safe learning environment, making SEL and its positive effects of critical importance to English language learners.

Below are three strategies to use as a foundation for incorporating SEL into classroom and school communities to create welcoming and authentic school-family-community partnerships, foster trusting and collaborative relationships, and ensure a sense of belonging among adults and peers.

  1. Create a culturally responsive learning environment:
    • Familiarize yourself with your EL students and their cultures and create a school environment that is inviting and representative of those cultures.
    • Help ELs take pride in their cultures by integrating cultural aspects into curricula, labeling classroom objects in other languages and encouraging parents to promote cultural affirmation at home.
    • See if your school library can help carry diverse books that represent the culture of your EL students.
  1. Accept EL families’ and students’ identities
    • Honor ELL students’ first languages: find ways to bring language into the classroom, which helps non-EL students learn new culture and language and helps EL students create a positive self-concept.
    • Help show EL students the similarities and differences between academic English and their home English, creating bridges between the two.
    • Some EL students may have unique names. Show them that you care to say it correctly and ask them how to pronounce it and practice instead of giving them a nickname to make it easy for yourself.
  1. Provide EL families and students the opportunity to have a voice and be heard
    • Create collaborative time where non-EL students can converse with EL students, which can take away some of the anxiety for EL, build up their confidence, and encourage collaboration, mutual respect, and teamwork.
    • Invite EL families to share favorite stories, books, or songs in the classroom.
    • Start a multicultural group or an EL family advisory committee to engage your school and community.
    • Start a series on various topics to help EL families alleviate some of the anxiety by partnering with agencies that work with immigrant and/or refugee families.

By integrating one or more of these strategies, a school can support their EL students’ learning and development, increase resiliency and success for them, and ensure that all students in the school community are successful. Finally, but most importantly, it can help in building EL students’ self-concept by creating positive messaging across all environments—that being their authentic self is a strength.