Create a place where students can go if they need to calm down with sensory-friendly items such as play-dough or a glitter jar. You can learn more about strategies on creating calm corners in the articles below.


Why creating a calm, safe environment matters for students and staff

More Resources

10 Strategies for Supporting SEL for ELLs: "Grow As You Go"

10 Strategies for Supporting SEL for ELLs: "Grow As You Go"

Ms. Alhaiki shows a student the message near her classroom

Learn how one elementary school with a large population of ELLs is integrating social and emotional learning more deeply throughout its school community and how those efforts are supporting student success.

One day, as her students were returning to the classroom from a specials class, first-grade teacher Amanda Tokko noticed that a little boy was upset. She asked him if he wanted to talk. He shook his head and walked over to the calm corner that Ms. Tokko had created. It included a hanging canopy, a box of fidget toys, and a book called "I Know What to Do When I Am Feeling..."

The boy looked through the book until he found the page about frustration. After looking at the page for a few moments, he went back to Ms. Tokko and told her he was ready to talk about what had been upsetting him. After a brief conversation, the boy had calmed down and returned to their class activity.

At Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan, these small yet significant moments are happening in classrooms throughout the building thanks to the school's deep commitment to social and emotional learning (SEL).

Salina Elementary is a Title I school whose student population is mostly English language learners (ELLs), many of whom are newcomer immigrants from the war-torn country of Yemen. Since numerous students in the Salina community have experienced family separation, trauma, and hardship related to the war or displacement, the school has long prioritized strong social and emotional supports for its students informed by training in trauma-informed practice.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, however, the school quickly recognized that they needed to further intensify their focus on SEL. Their efforts have yielded school-wide positive results in terms of students' ability to regulate emotions, manage conflict, and focus on their learning.

We had the opportunity to learn more about Salina's approach to SEL through surveys and interviews with the school staff and leaders. The following article highlights some of the reasons SEL is working at Salina and the staff's takeaways about why it matters. You can learn more about Salina from our documentary about the school and related resources below.

School-wide Initiatives

As the Salina staff has embarked on a deeper exploration of SEL within their own professional learning, they have scaled up SEL work they were already doing before the pandemic, integrating it into the classroom more intentionally, while also focusing on the social and emotional well-being of families and staff. This work has included the following:

1. Staff training

School leaders have ensured that the staff has had extensive training related to social-emotional learning, which continues on an ongoing basis. One of the key leaders of this effort has been the school social worker, who has led regularly scheduled professional development sessions on topics such as trauma-informed instruction. This not only provides important information for staff; it also fosters more collaboration between the social worker and teachers.

Principal Sue Stanley writes, "In terms of the school social worker and collaboration, it boils down to a school-wide practice of -- not just a belief in -- collaboration.  When true collaboration is present, it is natural for staff to reach out to the social worker for any questions or concerns. The social worker must be viewed as a leader...If the school leader sees it as a priority, the staff will as well." Ms. Stanley notes that the social worker is also part of the school's Multi-Tiered Support System (MTSS) meetings each week where teachers bring students for discussion and support.

2. Calm Classroom

Before COVID-19, the school had implemented the Calm Classroom program based on the recommendation of the social worker, which includes a curriculum that has weekly lessons and teaches students calming practices such as guided meditations. Principal Stanley writes, "Teachers and students start their day with short scenarios, calm breathing and classroom affirmations." Ms. Stanley notes that laying the groundwork around trauma and SEL can lead to meaningful conversations about why the Calm Classroom is important. "It's not hard to implement and takes just a few minutes a day. The results are so powerful," she says.

Ms. Tokko notes that she and her class do Calm Classroom exercises multiple times a day, including at times when the class needs to settle down. She and her students have some favorites, and she does the exercises with the students. She has noticed that the impacts of this program are extending home as well -- her students are teaching their families how to do some of the breathing exercises at home.

Teacher Diana Goodhue mentions the importance of ensuring that all students, including her ELLs, fully understand the activities before starting them. "I do the Calm Classroom activities with them so they see me model it," she says. "Then we stick with the same Calm Classroom for a week at a time so that they get comfortable with it."

3. Books and read-alouds

The school has also made reading a priority in their SEL work. For example, Classroom Book-A-Day is a school initiative that promotes read-alouds in the classroom. Many of the books that teachers read have to do with SEL. Ms. Tokko writes, "I like to read a book in the morning during morning meeting and after lunch to calm students down." Some of the books that Ms. Tokko has used are included in our SEL booklist, and others are listed at the end of the article.

In addition, the school participates in an initiative called "One School One Book," in which all students read a chapter book as a school.  For example, when the school read Wishtree by Katherine Applegate, which is the story about an immigrant girl who moves into a town that is not welcoming, the school planted their own Wishtree and did a dedication with their favorite quote: When things get tough, "stand tall and reach deep."  The students then went into the neighborhood and left messages on the doors of their neighbors, focusing on the theme "our differences make beautiful gifts" for the school year.

4. Family engagement

The school also continues to provide regular, ongoing communication in families' languages about things that are happening in class, how families can help their students, and supports such as social services. The school also holds regular family meetings where families have a chance to share their questions and concerns and talk about any challenges they are facing. Just as importantly, the school has figured out how to make its family outreach culturally responsive and align it to families' preferences. For example, in the Salina community, many of the mothers prefer to be in groups that only include other women, and so the school plans family events accordingly.

Classroom Environment

Another priority for the staff is building relationships with students and making them feel welcome. "I try my best to help students build confidence in themselves," says Ms. Tokko. "Our classroom really is a family." Here are some ways the staff is creating a nurturing environment for students.

5. Creating a welcoming classroom

The staff have placed a strong emphasis on creating a welcoming environment, posting notes of encouragement around the school, and getting to know students' interests. For example, teacher Welaya Alhaiki, pictured at the top of this article, has posted the following sign outside of her room:

Dear Students,
You are important.
You are listened to.
You are cared for.
You are respected.
You can be or do
You put your mind to.
I support you.
You are in a safe place!
Love, Ms. Alhaiki

Other signs around the school promote a sense of community while encouraging students to adopt a growth mindset. Positive messages are almost always in view of students throughout the building.

6. Calm corners

In addition, the leadership team has provided each teacher a small budget to create a calm corner in their classroom. Items include a canopy or tent, a few fidgets, and a special book, like the one Ms. Tokko mentioned above. Teacher Rebecca Rosemary uses her calm-down tent "for students having a hard time with emotions," while Ms. Goodhue reiterates the importance of making sure students know how to use the calm corner. "I demonstrate everything they have to use in the Calm Corner," she says.

Ms. Stanley notes that she used Title funds for the calm corner supplies, but that other parent clubs, program budgets, or SEL projects could also support this kind of initiative. The investment is well-worth it, says Ms. Stanley, especially when compared to what the schools spends on supplies.

Classroom Strategies

At the core of these efforts are the daily strategies that teachers are using to check in with students and help students build their emotional vocabulary. These efforts are integrated throughout the day and are part of students' routines so that they know what to expect and how to ask for help if needed.

7. Daily check-ins

One strategy the staff has been using regularly is student check-ins. These may be through individual conversations or circle time. Ms. Tokko also uses a letter box where students can leave a private note about how they are feeling. Ms. Kdouh does the same. She says, "I have this 'mailbox' in my calm corner with a pack of large sticky notes and a special pen where students who come to the calm corner can draw/write about how they’re feeling or why they came to the calm corner.  Students fold their note and slip it into my letter box. I check it daily before leaving school and it is locked so no one else can open it except me. Students are aware of this and share their feelings without feeling embarrassed or afraid that a peer might see it. After a student drops a letter in there, I unlock it and remove it so I can help them as soon as possible."

8. Building emotional vocabulary

These practices have also supported creative ways to increase students' communication around emotions and calming practices. For example, the teachers talk about what different feelings might feel like and have set up different ways for students to identify their feelings on a certain day. Ms. Tokko writes, "Students complete this feelings chart (pictured to the left) in the morning and after lunch to let me know how they’re feeling and how I can help. The clothespins have their student numbers on the other side but are flipped over for privacy." This way, Ms. Tokko can check in with the students who indicate they are upset.

The teachers also use commonly-used ELL scaffolds to support these resources and strategies. Kindergarten teacher Emily Wagner writes, "We use detailed visuals for emotions and calm-down practices so students know how to follow without knowing the words."

In addition, the social worker also provides SEL lessons to students and teachers look for way to make these connections to curriculum as well.


9. Celebrating successes

The school is also mindful of celebrating successes within the classroom and more broadly in the school. For example, Ms. Tokko has encouraged her students to clap for each other when they achieve positive accomplishments, no matter how small. She writes, "Students are always clapping for their peers' successes by themselves and using positive words in our classroom." (And she says that they clap for any guest who enters the classroom!) Ms. Stanley also notes that SEL goals and achievements will now be included in the school's Celebration Wall in the front office.

10. Celebrating families in the classroom

In addition, the staff at Salina are also actively partnering with families around SEL activities in the classroom. Some of their efforts include the following ideas:

  • Ms. Kdouh has created a family/student picture wall in her classroom.
  • Ms. Goodhue gives each student a "spotlight week" where they take home a poster and a pack of crayons to fill out about themselves. Ms. Goodhue writes, "Their poster is put in the hall for the week and they get to share it with the class. This gives them a chance to share things that are important to them and their family. It also gives parents a chance to help."

The school is also brainstorming ways to highlight these activities as part of family engagement this year so that families can continue to support SEL at home.

SEL in Action: Photos from Salina

Impacts of SEL and Lessons Learned

When asked what the impact of these efforts have had on students, teachers' responses are overwhelmingly positive. Here are what the teachers who completed our survey had to say:

  • Ms. Kdouh: "Students enjoy coming to school and don’t feel uncomfortable or scared."
  • Ms. Goodhue: "Many students have taken charge of their own mental health, taking breaks when needed, asking for help when they need to, and working on communicating with friends when there are issues."
  • Ms. Wagner: "Student self-regulation has improved, and students are able to guide themselves through calming practices. Students think more deeply about their emotional state and can identify ways to help themselves feel better."
  • Ms. Rosemary: "I am seeing fewer abrupt meltdowns in the classroom, and students are able to have more of a discussion when they are having strong feelings."
  • Ms. Tokko: "I have been able to instill empathy and compassion in our classroom. Students also have respect for me as well as their peers because I have showed them that I have respect for them as well. Students are more eager to learn and listen....and I try my best to help students build confidence in themselves."
  • Principal Stanley: "I am amazed at the gains we are making in behavior...The overall impact on the SEL focus is the safe space that is created in our school.  This space is here for everyone.  The comment that everyone makes when they walk into Salina is that it has such beautiful energy.  That can only be achieved by everyone in the building feeling that way.  The positive energy is there because everyone, both big and small are emitting it.

We also asked teachers to share their lessons learned about SEL. Here's what they shared:

  • Ms. Kdouh: "There is no one size fits all. All students convey emotions in a different way. This is why I use more than one SEL strategy."
  • Ms. Rosemary: "The importance of how SEL can help within other aspects of the school day."
  • Ms. Wagner: "Students are very responsive to routine, and SEL can easily fit into the academic routine."
  • Ms. Tokko: "Being calm in the classroom goes a long way. I have a student who is sensitive to loud noises. Incorporating Calm Classroom and creating a stress-free environment is crucial. Also, building a classroom community full of respect, trust, and confidence helps academics. SEL is the foundation...Students need social and emotional learning in order to succeed."
  • Ms. Goodhue: "It doesn't take a lot of effort to make it work. A little bit goes a long way to helping a lot of kids. You can grow as you go."

Support from Leadership

As noted throughout the article, this strong emphasis on SEL is made possible through direct and ongoing support from the school leadership team. From the teachers' perspectives, they shared that direct feedback, training, and dedicated time and resources for SEL were key ways in which school leaders were supporting their efforts in SEL.

The staff also note that the leaders have:

  • Shown appreciation and emotional support for teachers and students
  • Given staff opportunities to show their appreciation for each other
  • Provided opportunities for staff to build community through activities such as sharing a favorite photo with colleagues
  • Modeled the practices that are highlighted
  • Supported collaboration among team members and with social workers
  • "Tried to keep up staff morale even through a rough school year with the pandemic"

Ms. Tokko writes, "Our principal is like our cheerleader. She is always there for the teachers and staff and helping us get through the toughest times, especially during this pandemic."

For her part, Ms. Stanley knows that what she does matters, not only in terms of the support and resources she provides but also in terms of her example and priorities. She writes, "We will collectively discuss how to move students forward rather than 'catching up.' As a leader, I know I must model that behavior for staff as well. Teachers feel continual pressure to fit all the academics in.

"While we understand students cannot learn until they feel safe and connected, that takes time. I will continually be the reassurer and voice for that. I will commit to creating that same type of environment for them through thoughtful and intentional planning. And as their leader, I will be standing shoulder to shoulder with them and reminding them of this every step of the way."


Principal Sue Stanley: Why creating a calm, safe environment in schools matters

Principal Sue Stanley: When loud noises in school cause post-traumatic stress

A warm welcome for immigrant families in the front office

Norieah Ahmed, the Child Accounting Secretary at Salina Elementary School in Dearborn, MI, talks about her role in welcoming newcomer immigrant families to the school from the moment they walk in the door.

Looking at the whole child: Conversations with an award-winning social worker

Meet Dr. Rola Bazzi-Gates, a special education coordinator for Dearborn Public Schools and Michigan's 2016 Social Worker of the Year. Learn how her personal experience living through conflict helped prepare her to support students and families today.


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Setting the Tone for the Day, for the School, for the District Through Social Emotional Learning

Setting the Tone for the Day, for the School, for the District Through Social Emotional Learning

Student meditating

Learn how Virginia’s Alexandria City Public Schools formalized social-emotional learning during the pandemic for diverse groups of students of different ages.

Photos by Susan Hale Thomas, Videographer/Photographer, ACPS

Settling into a sixth grade science class at George Washington Middle School with Science Teacher Ms. Desiree McNutt and ELL Specialist Elkin Rodriguez, students turn their chairs to face forward then close their eyes as Mr. Rodriguez leads the class through the day’s guided meditation.

ELL Specialist Elkin Rodriguez leads his students a guided meditation.

"Through our meditation practice, we motivate our students to better recognize and embrace their true nature, which is to be kind, helpful, and compassionate to ourselves and others," says Mr. Rodriguez who has been meditating for more than a decade. It’s been five years since the co-teachers introduced the practice, and those few minutes at the start of each class have changed everything — for their students and themselves.

Although many teachers like Ms. McNutt and Mr. Rodriguez have been incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into their classes for years, because of the pandemic, Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) has been formalizing — and embracing — the effort district-wide.

What is SEL, and why now?

Social and emotional learning is an integral part of education and human development. As defined by Casel, the organization of researchers, educators, practitioners, and child advocates that developed SEL with all students in mind, "SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions."

Principal Jesse Mazur speaks to a teacher at George Washington Middle School.

"When you talk about school, everything starts with relationships. Relationships come before the introduction of content because in order to feel ready and open to learn, students need to feel safe, seen, and valued. No one can learn algebra or history if their brain is overwhelmed with emotions. And part of building relationships is understanding the hopes, needs, and desires of our students," says Jesse Mazur, EdD, the principal at George Washington Middle School (GWMS), who adds that ACPS uses the acronym SEAL — with "academic" integrated into the SEL equation.

"The pandemic has made SEAL vitally more important because we see the signs of stress and trauma that our students have experienced as expressed through the inability to engage in conflict resolution, interpersonal skills, advocacy, and managing their anxiety."

Setting the Tone

Students in Ms. Cottrol's classroom

After arriving at school and having breakfast, students enter Dora Cottrol’s kindergarten class at Ferdinand T. Day Elementary School and head to the Mood Meter where with a paint chip they can identify and label how they are feeling. Not only does the Mood Meter help Ms. Cottrol get a sense of where all her students are that day, it also helps the students themselves, over time, become more mindful of how their emotions change throughout the day and how their emotions can affect their actions.

The Mood Meter is one of several tools included in RULER, the SEL program that ACPS has been training faculty and staff to use. Developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, RULER is a systematic approach to teaching SEL with the five main skills of:

  • recognizing emotions in oneself and others
  • understanding the causes and consequences of emotions
  • labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary
  • expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context
  • regulating emotions with helpful strategies.

“The kindergarten curriculum already lends itself to the concepts of SEAL since a lot of kindergarten is about learning social skills. The Mood Meter gives us an actual tool to help kids identify and understand their feelings beyond simply good or bad. Maybe a student is feeling brave or proud, maybe angry or overwhelmed. Being able to more specifically identify how we’re feeling — and all feelings are okay to have — helps us focus on strategies for when we’re feeling a certain way,” says Ms. Cotroll.

Teacher Dora Cottrol leads a class activity in her kindergarten class.

“What does frustration feel like in our heads, in our bodies? Then, how can we bring ourselves into a place where we can move from frustration to calm? Having these ‘feeling words’ and being able to recognize them and why they might be happening at any given moment is powerful for anyone, especially a kindergartener. Since we’ve started using RULER, I have definitely seen a difference in my kids, especially with how they’re able to express themselves.”

A similar scene unfolds in Anne Booth EdD’s fifth grade class at William Ramsey Elementary School. During Morning Meeting, a designated 30 minutes, district-wide, devoted to SEAL, students have marked the Mood Meter, maybe glanced proudly at the class charter they created together, and are gathering in a circle on the floor.

"Morning Meeting can include a circle or ball-toss greeting for community building, a quote when we are working on growth mindset, a silly stat for humor and connection, or a game or movement activity like 'I Have, Who Has,' in which teamwork is essential. These rituals and activities are for everyone to participate; they offer a pocket of time devoted to group connection, collaboration, and social- and emotional-skill building. It's proved to be incredibly meaningful," she says.

Mood meter in Ms. Booth's classroom

"Teachers have always tried to include SEAL in their classrooms, but I’ll have to say that now that ACPS is systematizing it, those 30 minutes first thing in the morning make a huge difference in how much time you have to spend dealing with student behaviors that are not positive during the school day."

At GWMS, Morning Advisory includes Mindful Mondays and Student Wellness Thursdays for students and teachers to discuss topics like eating well or bully prevention or do activities around door decorating, which involves teamwork, creativity, and community.

"It's important that we honor the experiences of all of our students, to understand the impact of the pandemic and the capacity of middle school students to reason through and recognize within themselves how they’re coping," says Dr. Mazur. "All of that requires trusted adults and a community foundation. Our common purpose, after all, is to support our students socially and emotionally as well as academically."

Along with Morning Advisory, mentoring, and counseling services, clubs also play a large role in SEAL. "Prior to the pandemic, SEAL generally came from a need exhibited by a student and our school counselors would then create specific clubs to promote and model behavior for students around those needs," says Dr. Mazur. "Our clubs, which include LGBTQ+, Latinas Leading Tomorrow, and Minority Student Achievement among many others, offer students the opportunity to talk about issues that are impacting them with trusting, nurturing adults."

SEAL in the Curriculum

Ms. Booth with students

Recently, for her Social Issues Book Club unit, Dr. Booth’s students read Kelly Yang’s Front Desk about the experience of a Chinese family that immigrated to America. From the voice of the feisty and determined 10-year-old daughter, the story includes heady themes like extortion, fraud, and racism. “There’s one part of the story where some of the people taking advantage of this immigrant family are immigrants themselves,” says Dr. Booth. “That shocked the kids and we ended up having a rich discussion, in particular about the importance of empathy.”

Dr. Booth says that one of the best parts of her school, William Ramsey Elementary, is its racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. All but one of her students this year are ELL students … she has Farsi, Urdu, Spanish, and French speakers, and kids wo speak several languages. She has students from Ghana, the Sudan, and recently from Sierra Leone. “SEAL happens organically when students teach each other — and me — simply by sharing their cultures. This is the kind of food I eat, there are traditions linked to the clothes I wear, I’m Sikh and I don’t cut my hair ... Their curiosity and openness seem to develop directly into so much of what we are trying to teach through SEAL.”

Dr. Mazur talks about seeing SEAL integrated into the curriculum long after Morning Advisory is over. “Maybe this is due to our teachers’ growing knowledge around the benefits and importance of SEAL, but it could also result from the fact that teachers inherently interject social and emotional learning throughout the curriculum because it’s part of the human experience,” he says. For example, sixth grade students recently read John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, which focuses in large part on balancing the good of the group versus the good of the individual. “Thematic-type books like The Pearl engender conversations that touch on many of the topics that we talk about in SEAL — understanding our reactions and how they impact others, being reflective and thoughtful, and communicating in a way that’s respectful. They can also lead to conversations that connect a book’s themes to current events around racism, inequity, or Black Lives Matter, for example.”

Kids Regulating Selves

Science Teacher Ms. Desiree McNutt

Sixth grade science at GWMS is about to begin when Ms. McNutt sees one of her students slamming his locker. "I can tell he is totally off track, angry about something," says Ms. McNutt. "'Baby, what's wrong? What can I do?' I ask. 'I'm angry. Something happened at lunch,' he says. 'I see that you're angry.' He says he wants to go to the front office instead of coming to class.

"So, I say to him, 'You want to try meditating first before you go to the office? I'll write the pass and if you still feel like you need to go see an administrator after we meditate, you can leave.' He came in, he quieted himself, he meditated with the group, and he stayed in class … that was my goal."

As part of their meditation practice, Ms. McNutt and Mr. Rodriguez show their students videos about the science of the brain and its neurological reactions to emotions. The visuals of the different parts of the brain make the meaning of the practice more real.



SEAL for Faculty and Staff

Students are not the only ones affected by the pandemic. School faculty and staff continue to deal with the stress, the anxiety, and the constant changes and unknowns of the last few years. And it’s not over. For Ms. Cottrol, not only did she rely on her colleagues and school leadership for support, she also used some of the lessons and tools from RULER to deal with her own emotions. “When we teach our kids about respecting and caring for others, we also talk about respecting and caring for ourselves. When we need to reset and calm ourselves, we take a deep breath in, then out: ‘Smell the flower, blow the soup.’ It works and it brings levity. I find myself using this technique when things feel chaotic,” she says.

For Dr. Mazur — who knows all too well the demands on a principal and an administrative team to run a school during a pandemic with all the relentless shifting and moving parts — the pandemic has taught him that you can’t let perfection get in the way of progress. “The intersection of home and work collided, and we had to work through that, which took some time to fully understand. I think I have become a lot more self-aware because of the pandemic and that self-awareness has helped me become more empathetic towards the needs of my 185 staff members and all our students and their families.”

Fortunately, when the pandemic does end, school faculty and staff as well as students and families will have more tools and strategies to use in times of small and large crises.

“What I tell our students — and what I know myself — is that it’s easy to find peace. It’s right here, right now. It’s right inside all of us,” says Mr. Rodriguez. “If we can teach that, we have accomplished something life-changing and life-lasting.”

Videos & Photos

Slideshow: SEL in action in Alexandria, VA

Related video

Dr. Christina Cipriano: Why we need to make family engagement a top priority in social-emotional learning for diverse language learners

Dr. Christina Cipriano from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence explains why social-emotional learning for diverse language learners cannot simply be a translation of emotions, words, and terms since it wouldn't take into account the rich variability of cultural and linguistic nuances. To help learners from all cultures and backgrounds, the first and primary part of the SEL program approach includes full family engagement instead of considering it as an after-thought or add-on.

See the full interview with Dr. Cipriano below.

Recommended resources

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You are welcome to print copies or republish materials for non-commercial use as long as credit is given to Colorín Colorado and the author(s). For commercial use, please contact