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Adolescence is a time of phenomenal physical and cognitive growth. For the cohort of young people arriving on college campuses this fall, these internal changes have unfolded amid an external world that is evolving even more rapidly, causing intense growing pains in the process.

The meteoric rise of social media and smartphone technology has mirrored a similarly steep increase in adolescent mental health concerns, prompting the surgeon general to warn about a potentially “profound risk of harm” to young people. Meanwhile, COVID-19 has increased both adolescents’ struggles with mental health and their reliance on screens.

In college classrooms across the country, kids’ faces are aglow not with the love of learning but with the light emanating from their phones. Instructors are wondering: How can I help these students activate the emotional and social skills required for academic engagement and success?

As co-founders of cor creative partners, an organization that provides instructional coaching, educational consulting and professional learning experiences for K-12 educators, we answer this question by offering instructors manageable tools for teaching emotional and social skills within their subject-specific curriculum. In classes from pre-K to precalc, we have seen students’ outcomes and educators’ experiences improve through the incorporation of social-emotional learning (SEL). Research confirms that SEL improves students’ relationships, reduces their emotional distress and increases their academic engagement and accomplishment. Plus, it does so sustainably and equitably, across categories including race, ethnicity, income, gender and age.

Below, we outline ways higher ed instructors can support social-emotional learning by incorporating reflection and sharing activities that build skills related to setting and achieving goals. Educators can assign these reflection and sharing prompts for homework, include them on an assessment or offer in-class time for students to answer them independently before pairing and sharing. Integrating this work into standard class and homework assignments signals it is an integral, invaluable element of the learning process in any discipline.

  1. Teach Students to Set Goals

Ideally, instructors establish explicit objectives at the start of each course, each unit, each class period and even each individual academic exercise. However, students can only squeeze so much motivation from someone else’s goals. Educators can increase motivation by offering learners opportunities to set their own objectives, share them with others, and connect them to the instructor’s objectives.

A good start is to ask simple questions:

  • What do you want to accomplish during this course, unit, period or activity?
  • What will success look like?
  • How will you achieve this success?

Research shows that goals are effective when they are SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound. SMART goals, meanwhile, are particularly effective when they connect to what we call “heart goals,” those greater goals that serve as enduring sources of motivation. It is worth asking students the following:

  • What motivates you to work toward your SMART goals?
  • How do your core values motivate you? (Elena Aguilar’s core values list can assist this reflection.)
  • How do your core identity markers motivate you? (Students can decide which markers—including race, ethnicity, age, gender, body type, religion, political affiliation, education or family status—are most important to them.)
  • What problems would you like to solve?

Research suggests that when learners name their SMART and heart goals, and connect them to classwide curricular goals, they are more likely to work deliberately and consistently toward these ends. Additionally, when students share their goals with educators and peers—particularly in larger lecture settings that are not conducive to connection—they strengthen social skills, build academic community and benefit from collegial support and accountability.

Katie Fallon, a middle school science teacher at Immaculate Conception in Newburyport, Mass., asks her students to select their own science project topics by examining their heart goals. While students pursue diverse areas of focus—from women’s rights to video game technology—they share a common motivation to investigate questions that matter to them, strengthening their scientific skills and their sense of self-worth stemming from the fact that the teacher has validated their values and interests.

  1. Teach Students the Self-Regulation Skills Needed to Achieve Their Goals

After learners articulate what they want to accomplish and why, they must persevere through the challenges standing between them and their desired outcomes by activating self-awareness and self-management skills. These skills, like any academic skills, develop through deliberate practice. Thankfully, as all educators know from their own academic and professional journeys, every discipline offers endless opportunities to deliberately practice perseverance.

The way to capitalize on these opportunities is to design appropriately challenging academic tasks that are adaptive to students’ goals and needs, and then to name perseverance—an outcome of self-awareness and self-management—as an explicit objective on the syllabus, on assignment directions and lecture slides, and through ongoing instruction.

Like goal-setting, explicit attention to emotion can foster the self-awareness that perseverance demands. Maeve Williams, the district SEL coordinator for Northbridge Public Schools in Massachusetts, has seen student outcomes improve using emotional awareness tools like the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence’s mood meter, or the “peace path,” a protocol prompting people to pair and share how they are feeling and then reiterate what their partner has shared. When working with college students, a resource like the Center for Nonviolent Communication’s Feelings Inventory offers an appropriately nuanced emotional vocabulary for this reciprocal sharing.

After activating self-awareness skills, individuals must self-manage to achieve their goals. At Weston Public Schools in Massachusetts, Michael Sanford’s digital literacy students leverage technology platforms like Google Jamboard and Google Slides to share with their peers about their emotions and how they regulate them. Through this process, students learn about individual strategies and school-level supports.

We recommend co-constructing a self-management strategy bank, which students can regularly reference and revise, and then pairing academic tasks with reflection prompts:

  • When did you feel yourself slowing or stopping? When did others notice you were not moving toward your goal? What was happening?
  • Why do you think you slowed or stopped? How did you feel?
  • What did you do when you slowed or stopped? If you tried a strategy, what did you try? What was the result?
  • What might you try in a similar situation in the future?
  • What next step can you try?

Our Perseverance Reflection Tool incorporates multiple strategies described above, including setting goals, co-constructing self-regulation strategies and tracking the results of their implementation. Through these cyclical practices, students develop skills of self-awareness and self-management. They also learn to build relationships, contributing to a connected classroom culture in which everyone feels safe and supported enough to take academic risks.

Explicit social-emotional instruction might sound like an added responsibility, perched precariously on top of a tower of other tasks. But when instructors incrementally incorporate SEL strategies, their other instructional responsibilities actually start feeling more manageable and rewarding. The result is an equitable academic community in which students and instructors are motivated to engage and achieve.

Maureen Chapman and James Simons are K-12 educators with experience as classroom teachers, school leaders, instructional coaches and educational consultants. As co-founders of cor creative partners, they support the integration of academic, emotional and social skill development at all levels. Visit their website or email them at to learn more.