How to Teach Social and Emotional Skills Without Being a Therapist

By: Tim Elmore



Last month, I asked a group of educators a question, and the answer was revealing. A group of 21 teachers who use our Habitudes for Social and Emotional Learning all said they enjoyed the classroom conversation our images sparked but admitted: 

“Whenever I teach social and emotional skills, it inevitably brings up emotional issues like conflict resolution or anger management. At that point, I feel like I need to be a therapist to handle the topic. And I feel ill-equipped to do that.”

These teachers bring up a great point.

Perhaps you graduated college with a degree in secondary education. You got a job teaching math or science. You begin your career, and a pandemic hits. Now, kids need social and emotional skills as much as they need math and science skills. Yet, you have no preparation to teach these. Most teachers I meet have experienced a quandary: 

  • They believe social and emotional literacy is essential for students today.
  • They admit this is more than they signed up for or feel ready for as a teacher. 

The landscape of students in 2022 remains fluid but frightening. EdWeek editor, Sarah Sparks, writes, “From the very first waves of school closures and lockdowns in 2020, the pandemic significantly damaged children’s mental health in ways teachers are still coping with and researchers are still struggling to understand.” A recent analysis of research across 11 countries, including the United States, in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found widespread anxiety and depression among those 19 and younger in the earliest days of the pandemic, exacerbated by greater screen time and less physical activity, and coupled with fewer adult supports to ensure children stayed out of dangerous situations. On top of that, child protection referrals dropped measurably. “The data showed much of this decline came from a lack of school referrals, suggesting that because students were in less day-to-day contact with educators and other adults, signs of abuse or neglect were more likely to go unnoticed.” 

Our problem, says author Robert Pondiscio, is this: Regardless of good intent, teachers are not mental health professionals, counselors, or clergy. They should not be asked—nor is there any reason to expect them—to perform competently in these roles . . . With every new demand or concern placed in the laps of schools and teachers, the likelihood decreases that they will be effective at any of them.”

So, is it possible to teach social and emotional skills without being a counselor?


How Do We Teach S.E.L. as Teachers or Parents

I received one solution for this dilemma from a homeschool mom, who asked to remain anonymous. This mother is actually a teacher by trade but is choosing to focus on educating her six children for the next few years. The kids range from age seven to sixteen. 

She admitted it was impossible for her to keep up with such an age range among so many kids, but when she gave up her traditional style of teaching, she experienced a breakthrough. She said, “I was still in the old paradigm of teacher-imparts-knowledge and student-imbibes-pre-digested information… In a surprising twist, I realized that the ideal teacher for the child can be found within.” 

Did you catch that? The student has a teacher within himself.

My friend’s daughter loves artwork, but this mom has no graphic design background. She felt she was failing her daughter, until she heard that many aspiring artists take an anatomy course to learn how to better depict the human body. When she suggested this to her daughter, the young girl rolled her eyes and showed her mom she was already searching websites on how to draw a knee and an elbow, since that’s where she was stuck. Eureka! When the daughter had no one to provide the answer, she found it herself. The mom said later, “I now see that children are naturally curious.” Our job is to be available as guides and guardrails. So, let me offer some action steps.


Five Simple Steps


  • Understand the fundamentals. 

Refuse to be intimidated by what you don’t know about S.E.L. Learn the core competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management, and responsible decision-making. That’s enough to be a guide for the conversation, and that’s all your administrators can ask of  you.

  • When a deeper issue arises, journey together to search for a solution. 

Be a fellow learner. When a complicated issue surfaces, smile and say, “Let’s figure that out together.” Have your students search websites; ask your school’s counselor to join you the next day to address the issue, or role play with your students to gain the insight they need. 

  • Trust your parental instincts. 

Often, responding to these difficult topics merely requires good common sense, which comes from your instincts as a leader and a parent. If you have kids of your own, what would you say to them in the same situation? Bounce that off of a counselor later. 

  • Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”

I believe your supervisor or school administrator would rather you acknowledge you don’t know an answer than to fake one that may harm a student’s mental health. At times, just admit you’re a lifelong learner and need to research the issue.

  • Do not negate students’ emotions, just translate them. 

Author Adam Saenz reminds us of this truth. “A basic principle in therapy is that emotions are neither right nor wrong—they simply are. Any individual has the right to feel any feeling in response to any stimulus. Our job is not to judge the appropriateness of the emotion but to show interest in it, which ultimately positions us to be most effective in our instruction of how to manage it. When we invalidate emotion, we teach students that they cannot trust their emotional landscape. The inferred message the student receives is that since something is wrong with my emotions, something must be wrong with me.”

  • Prepare your students to depend on the teacher within them.

Young people are naturally curious and have a teacher inside of themselves. Smartphones have conditioned them to be self-reliant for searches. Guard them against fake news, but equip them to be resourceful and teach themselves the life skills they need.

Someone once said to me, “The advice you need most can almost always come from yourself.” Remember– the teacher your students need may well be inside of them.


How to Teach Social and Emotional Skills Without Being a Therapist