Supporting social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools is essential for the growth and success of all students, and this is especially true for multilingual learners (MLLs). MLLs face unique challenges that make social and emotional support essential. Beyond the stress that comes with learning an unfamiliar language, many MLLs and their families who have immigrated to the U.S. are likely facing the isolation of leaving their home and social support groups behind, difficulties navigating new cultural norms, and/or the financial and legal stress associated with resettlement (U.S. Department of Education, 2016). Educators need to be aware of these unique stressors and how they can impact the schooling experience of MLLs in order to offer appropriate support and help to ease their transition into the school community. The following are examples of culturally responsive SEL practices that educators can use to welcome MLLs into their classrooms.
Building Cultural Awareness
Cultural awareness is the act of being “cognizant, observant, and conscious of similarities and differences among and between cultural groups” (Goode et al., 2006). Building both educators’ and students’ cultural awareness is an important step in making MLLs feel welcomed and included. When educators familiarize themselves with their students’ varying cultural contexts, they are better able to understand and connect with their students in meaningful ways (Fly Five, n.d.).
At the beginning of the school year, educators are encouraged to learn about the customs, values, and traditions of the cultural groups represented by all the students in their classrooms.
Doing some research online, speaking with students and their families, and holding classroom activities in which students can share about their backgrounds are great ways for educators to build their own understanding of each student’s cultural context and help create a culture of empathy and belonging throughout their classrooms (Responsive Classroom, 2001).
Another facet of promoting cultural awareness is ensuring that the learning materials students are using include representations of a diverse range of cultures and identities. When students can see people who look like them alongside people from other cultural groups reflected in the material they are learning, they will be able to form deeper connections to the material while also building empathy and understanding for those who are different from them (Fly Five, n.d.). For MLLs, seeing cultural concepts they are familiar with in their curricular materials can help them to feel more comfortable as they learn, and it can help their classmates to form an understanding of their backgrounds. Take a look at the textbooks, assigned reading, and other resources that students will be using during the school year. Are students being given the opportunity to interact with a range of cultures and backgrounds—ones that would allow them to better identify with the concepts they are learning? If not, consider adding materials that will help fill in these gaps.
Setting up predictable routines helps students know what to expect when they enter the classroom, which can help MLLs feel more comfortable as they make the transition into a new environment. One strategy, a foundational practice of the responsive classroom approach, is the morning meeting. In a morning meeting, used in grades K–6, everyone in the classroom comes together for 20 to 30 minutes at the start of each day to greet each other and proceed through four components: greeting, sharing, group activity, and morning message (Responsive Classroom, n.d.). The morning meeting is a useful tool in helping MLLs to feel comfortable and welcomed, as it combines the familiarity of routine with the opportunity to interact informally with their classmates, an element that has been shown to aid the social–emotional development of students adapting to new environments (Suárez-Orozco et al., 2008).
While the morning meeting is a great way for students to share and speak with their classmates, it can certainly be overwhelming for MLLs who are still in the beginning stages of learning English and common U.S. cultural norms of communication. To help MLLs participate and feel more included in morning meetings, invite them to use simple greetings that require only one or two words, or even just a wave and smile (Responsive Classroom, 2015).
Using greetings in the form of repetitive songs or chants can also help MLLs to join in and become comfortable with new phrases (Responsive Classroom, 2015). Additionally, having all of the students learn greetings in the MLLs’ native languages is a great way to make the MLLs feel at ease while also giving their classmates some insight into their cultures and the difficulty that comes with speaking in an unfamiliar language (Responsive Classroom, 2015).
Encouraging a Growth Mindset
Encouraging MLLs to adopt a growth mindset about their education is a powerful strategy to help these students recognize that they are capable of achieving success with consistent effort and dedication (Fly Five, 2021). A growth mindset guides students to view learning as an ongoing process and requires them to understand how to put effort into their work and when to seek help from others (Dweck, 2015).
To cultivate a growth mindset in MLLs, encourage them to focus on what they can control (Fly Five, 2021). Many aspects of their transition into U.S. schooling may feel overwhelming at times, but reminding students that there are always elements of learning new skills that they can manage, no matter how small, can help to keep them engaged and motivated. One way to give students a greater sense of control is to show them how to develop an actionable plan, such as a SMART goal, to achieve their new objectives (Dweck, 2016). Creating such a plan will provide MLLs with a clearer understanding of the specific steps they can take to achieve their goals and will make the pursuit of these goals feel more manageable.
Another strategy to encourage a growth mindset is to connect students’ schoolwork to a greater purpose or practical application in their lives (Hulleman and Happel, 2019). Guiding students to see the connections between what they are learning in school and how they can use their knowledge and skills outside of the classroom can help them to persist when they encounter setbacks and to find enjoyment in their schoolwork (Fly Five, 2021).
One way to make these connections is by creating a dialogue with MLLs about their interests and cultural backgrounds and to relate parts of the curriculum and instruction to practical applications that are relevant to their lives outside of school (American Psychological Association, 2017). This will help keep students engaged and thinking deeply about the material.
Partnering with Families
Staying in communication with MLLs’ families is an important part of making sure these students have the support they need both in and out of the classroom. Maintaining an authentic partnership with families can help educators gain valuable insight into their students’ lives outside of school, including their interests, the types of learning that have worked well for them in the past, and any struggles they may be dealing with as they adjust to a new language and environment.
When engaging with parents, educators can create more genuine connections by viewing them not only as parents but as people with their own challenges (Starker, 2020).1 If the family has recently relocated to the U.S., it is likely that the parents are facing their own struggles as they acclimate to a new place, and it is important to keep this in mind and approach conversations with empathy and understanding. Instead of educators talking “at” parents and focusing only on the information they want to relay, taking the time to actively listen to parents’ concerns and allowing them to take the lead in the conversation can help to make them feel heard and create a stronger sense of partnership (Bickhart, 2020).
Forming these connections with the parents of MLLs is also an opportunity to involve families in the classroom. Having parents volunteer in the classroom can put MLLs more at ease by providing the comfort of a familiar face as well as an opportunity to take language breaks with someone who can speak with them in their native language. Additionally, some parents may feel comfortable speaking with the class about an aspect of their culture or even offer something as simple as teaching students to count to ten in their native language. This is a nice opportunity for students to get to know more about the MLLs’ backgrounds and to make the MLLs and their families feel heard and appreciated (Berger, 2020).
Creating the conditions under which MLLs can thrive as they adapt to a new language and new customs is an essential component in helping them achieve long-lasting success in and out of school. SEL strategies offer powerful tools educators can use to make sure that each student feels welcomed and appreciated as part of the classroom community.
For the purposes of this article, parent refers to, in addition to a birth parent, any legal guardian or caregiver responsible for a child’s welfare.
American Psychological Association (2017). “Social Emotional Learning: Teaching principles for creative, talented and gifted students.” www.apa.org/ed/schools/teaching-learning/top-twenty/creative-talented/social-emotional
Berger, L. (2020). “Working with Families: Meet them where they are.” Journal of Social and Emotional Learning, 2(5), 32–33.
Bickhart, T. (2020). “Taking the Time to Listen Well.” Journal of Social and Emotional Learning, 2(5), 15–17.
Responsive Classroom (n.d.). “Principles & Practices.” www.responsiveclassroom.org/about/principles-practices
Responsive Classroom (2001). “Welcoming Second Language Learners.” www.responsiveclassroom.org/welcoming-second-language-learners
Responsive Classroom. (2015). “Adapting Morning Meeting Greeting for ELL Students.” www.responsiveclassroom.org/adapting-morning-meeting-greeting-for-ell-students
Dweck, C. (2015). “Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset.’” Education Week. www.edweek.org/leadership/opinion-carol-dweck-revisits-the-growth-mindset/2015/09
Dweck, C. (2016). “Growth Mindset Doesn’t Promise Pupils the World.” Student Experience Research Network blog. https://studentexperiencenetwork.org/growth-mindset-doesnt-promise-pupils-the-world/#
Goode, T. D., Dunne, M. C., and Bronheim, S. M. (2006). “The Evidence Base for Cultural and Linguistic Competency in Health Care.” Commonwealth Fund. www.commonwealthfund.org/publications/fund-reports/2006/oct/evidence-base-cultural-and-linguistic-competency-health-care
Fly Five (2021). “The Growth Mindset and SEL.” www.flyfivesel.org/the-growth-mindset-and-sel
Hulleman, C., and Happel, L. (2019). “Three Mindset Shifts That Can Help Students Succeed.” Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/three_mindset_shifts_that_can_help_students_succeed
Fly Five (n.d.). “Representation in the Classroom and the Curriculum.” www.flyfivesel.org/research/representation-in-the-classroom-and-the-curriculum
Starker, S. (2020). “Building Solid Relationships: A personal journey.” Journal of Social and Emotional Learning, 2(5), 22–23.
Suárez-Orozco, C., Suárez-Orozco, M. M., and Todorova, I. (2008). Learning a New Land: Immigrant Students in American Society. Harvard University Press. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for English Language Acquisition. (2016). Newcomer Tool Kit. www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oela/newcomers-toolkit/ncomertoolkit.pdf
Katie Shea is a content specialist for Center for Responsive Schools, a nonprofit educational development organization, where she writes articles, blog posts, and marketing copy promoting social and emotional learning.