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Tapping Into the Teenage Brain: 5 SEL Strategies that Build Relationships in the First Week of School

#theteenagebrainthing Aug 17, 2023

First - let’s address the elephant in the room. I know what some of you are probably thinking … 


“Not another thing about SEL?! I’m SO SICK of hearing about SEL!”


A former colleague said that to me earlier this summer, and my response to here is that same that I'm going to give here: "Well, I hate to break it to you but SEL is not going away. Nor should it!"


SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) often gets a bad rep for being “too soft”, especially when it comes to older students. We think nothing of using SEL strategies in a classroom full of elementary students, but suddenly, when a student hits middle school or high school, we automatically assume that student can handle things and they simply don’t need as much social-emotional support. 




Social-emotional learning gives students the tools and skills to deal with stress, anxiety, feelings of not belonging etc., SO THAT they can make room for all of the higher-order thinking skills we want them to have! They can’t get to the learning if they aren’t supported, socially and emotionally. The SEL stuff - soft as some people may see it - MUST come first, in order for learning to take place. Period, full-stop. It’s a non-negotiable. 


So here are just a FEW things you can do in the first WEEK of school that help your students feel a sense of belonging to your classroom so that their brains can start to absorb all of the important things you’ll teach them this year 🙂


These relationship-building strategies are specifically targeted to the brain! There are several parts of our brains that are activated when a relationship is developed, including dopamine, noradrenaline, and oxytocin. All of these live in the limbic system of the brain and when that system is relaxed, new information can enter the brain in a calm way, which makes it easier to retain and live there for a while. 


1). Greet Students at the Door

For the first full week of school (at the very least! - honestly, it would be amazing to do this every day, all year long!), greet your students when they enter the room. A simple, “hey”, “hi there”, “awesome shirt!”, “what’s that? Dunkin?! Yum!” (really, whatever you want!) - goes a long way. It makes students feel seen, appreciated, and welcomed. Let’s be honest: school is often not the #1 place a student really wants to be, but when a teacher greets and welcomes them in, it’s a small step toward building a relationship and opening up the brain to new learning.


2). Say Their Names

At least once in every class that first week, say each student’s name at least once! Self-improvement author Dale Carengie once said, “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Say your students’ names out loud and correctly (no “A-a-ron!” - if you haven’t seen that Key and Peele skit, please Google that now!). Also, saying a person’s name has the “cocktail party effect” - if you’ve ever been to a party where everyone is mingling and talking together and suddenly, from somewhere in the crowded room, you hear your own name, you immediately perk up and listen intently for what’s being said. It’s the same thing in your classroom - when a student raises their hands or you call on them on your own, say their name - it helps them to focus but also lets them know they’re being seen AND heard. 


3). Be Vulnerable - Share Your Story

Share parts of your life with your students. During that first week, talk about what you’re interested in, what your hobbies are, what you’re scared of, what you’re good at, what you’re awful at. Showing your own vulnerability - even if it’s a simple as “I didn’t get a lot of sleep last night because my 8 month old was up again” or “I started this new hobby - tap dancing! - and I think I look like an idiot!” - makes it easier for your students to admit to a vulnerability too. 


4). 2x5

Every day, for FIVE days, talk for TWO minutes about anything and everything EXCEPT for school! Set a timer for two minutes and talk with your whole class, or have them talk in small groups and then share-out with the rest of the class about what they talked about. Talk about the weather, the latest episode of whatever show they’re watching, share jokes, play “Head’s Up” … literally ANYTHING but school! When the timer goes off, thank everyone for talking and then get started on your lesson for the day. 


You can also practice this strategy with just one student, a student who you’ve already identified as someone who may be disruptive or difficult to handle in the normal classroom setting. This might seem super awkward and uncomfortable at first but the goal is to get to know the student. Kids - all kids - want to feel like they belong and they’re cared for … even the kids who we struggle with the most. Talking with them for just two minutes about anything except school will help to build a relationship and may help to diminish the times throughout the year when that student may act out. What we know can only help us; what we don’t know, can’t. Knowing more about your students will benefit your job as the teacher - and their job as the student - in so many ways. 


5). Say Goodbye

Along the same line as greeting at the door, say goodbye at the door too. As students walk out, position yourself either at or near the door they’re exiting and say goodbye. Wish them well, thank them for learning, say “til next time!” or whatever you want - saying goodbye helps close off the day and helps students to feel like their time with you was valuable … to you and to them. 


Bottom-line, relationship-building is super important! It opens up connections in the brain by making students feel safe and seen, leaving so many opportunities for new learning! 


Try these out and let me know @ the_teenage_brain_thing … I’d love to hear how it went! 

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