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Supporting SEL for Non Native Speakers in the Classroom

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Every student brings unique social and emotional challenges into the classroom. As educators, it’s important to be open and receptive to students’ emotional needs. That’s especially true when it comes to non-native english speaking students. Because of linguistic, cultural, and social differences, supporting the SEL needs of non-native speakers takes a careful and thoughtful approach.


Non-native speakers face some unique challenges in American classrooms. Not only are they attempting to process the academic lessons of the day, but they are also trying to absorb an overwhelming amount of social and cultural knowledge. Much of that knowledge is transmitted unconsciously or subtly, making the task of developing social and emotional skills even more challenging.


But knowing how to approach social and emotional learning for non-native speakers is something that every educator, administrator, and teacher can learn. As is the case with all students, the task fundamentally comes down to understanding the needs of the student and designing a curriculum to promote success.

Offering Cultural Support

Educators have long acknowledged that schools are not antiseptic zones free of the influence of culture. For non-native students, then, their time in the classroom can be one of cultural acclimation. At first, this prospect can be rather overwhelming, and students may find it difficult to adjust.


Offering cultural support is a vital task for educators, but it must be approached with sensitivity and intentionality. It’s important to treat every student individually and to avoid making assumptions based on stereotypes. That said, knowing some of the most  likely cultural norms of your students can be useful.


For example, in Japan, students are largely expected to be submissive and quiet. In Turkish school systems, students have the same teacher from preschool throughout their elementary school education. Take some time to research the school systems your student might have come from and accommodate where you can, especially in terms of what’s expected from student-teacher relationships in an SEL space.

Providing Language Support

In many cases, non-native students will be learning English at the same time that they’re learning their other subjects. There are things teachers can do to ensure these students still feel supported:

  • Coordinate lesson plans and topics with any language tutors that the students may have. This can help students prepare with topic-appropriate vocabulary.
  • Check in regularly with ELL students to make sure they’re understanding core concepts.
  • Avoid using too much slang, jargon, or non-standard English while explaining topics.


While they might develop a functional vocabulary somewhat quickly, most ELL students will take somewhere between 3-5 years to learn English to the point where they are comfortable expressing personal emotions and reflecting on their feelings. Educators should plan accordingly. 


It’s also important to keep in mind that SEL topics will add a new wrinkle for English language learners. The social and emotional topics may not translate as easily as some other academic vocabulary.

Support for Learning Abstract Content

Teaching the SEL curriculum is a challenge because it tends to be somewhat abstract. A math problem is relatively tangible. Reflecting on social wellbeing or discussing emotional security in school is much more abstract. That abstract content relies much more heavily on complex language, so it’s no surprise that non-native speakers often report increased challenges in this arena.


As a result, most educators recommend breaking abstract topics down into smaller, more tangible lessons. Educators can look at the school climate not as an abstract entity, but as discreet and practical topics: school safety, disciplinary measures, respect for diversity and so on.


In these cases, discussing the policies of the school and why they exist is often easier to understand and easier to communicate. 

Avoid Triggering Curriculum

One out of four students (that’s all students–not only non-native speakers) have already experienced some trauma before they reach your classroom. If it’s not mandatory, educators may want to avoid topics that can trigger a strong response such as war or child abuse.


Even broaching SEL concepts can be triggering for some students. Non-native speakers may have a hard time expressing the discomfort that these conversations can bring about. That’s why educators should:

  • Coordinate with school counselors to make sure non-native English speakers are getting any additional support they may need.
  • Watch for signs of distress and be ready to change topics or tactics accordingly.
  • Do your research ahead of time; read about ways that other educators have broached SEL topics with students who have experienced trauma


Healthy SEL for Non-Native Students

Non-native English-speaking students may require a different approach, but knowing the challenges can help you plan better. That’s why we’ve developed a workshop dedicated to supporting SEL for non-native speakers. This workshop can give you the tools you need to be confident you’re providing the right support and helping to ensure student success across your classroom or your school district.


Register for our Supporting Non-Native Students’ SEL Development workshop today!


Social 1: Supporting non-native students’ social and emotional learning can present unique challenges. With the right approach, you can provide the support they need most.


Social 2: Teaching social and emotional learning concepts is one of the most challenging tasks for teachers. For educators with non-native students, this task can become even more complex. 

Social 3: With the right approach, you can ensure your non-native students get the same social and emotional learning benefits as all of your other students. It just takes some time, thought, and care.

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