Teacher Voice: Prioritizing SEL in Our Schools


As we come together face-to-face this school year, creating spaces and time for building relationships, setting routines and regularly checking in with one another will be paramount.

By Nicole Heinlein

After a full year of distance learning, Hawai‘i educators have become acutely aware that mental health support is necessary for both teachers and students. Many have reported feelings of isolation, anxiety, or nervousness. As we come together face to face this school year, creating spaces and time for building relationships, setting routines and regularly checking in with one another will be paramount.

Each morning I walk through my middle school campus and see a variety of students: some glued to their phones (no doubt watching TikTok), some jovially hanging out with friends, and some waiting for the bell alone. Whether in a group or solo, I make a point to say good morning to as many students as possible. If one looks up from their phone and interacts with a human—score! If I inspire a group of seventh-graders to enthusiastically say hi—winning! If I can connect with lonely students so that they know they are seen and cared about—that’s the best! It’s amazing what a genuine hello can do for all of us.

During the fourth quarter last year, I partnered with Grow Some Good, a local Maui school garden organization, to help students experience the positive benefits of being outside in our ‘āina and interacting with plants. Medical professionals agree that gardening can improve focus, concentration and overall mood. 

My fully distant eighth-graders picked up supplies and participated from their homes. Students who came to school did the project at school. We planted seeds, learned about the plant life cycle and cared for our plants. After selecting one plant to keep, students gave the remaining plants back to Grow Some Good for community distribution, a true two-way partnership. We also read “Seedfolks,” a book about a diverse neighborhood that cares for one another as they create a beautiful community garden. 

In our end-of-the-year student survey data, students said gardening was their favorite learning experience of the year! Gardening motivated them to participate as I also saw increased attendance for the quarter. Students were excited to come to school to see how their plants had changed each day. I want many more students to feel the same positive effects, so I am starting this year with “Seedfolks” and a gardening unit to bring joy to our learning community and strengthen the sense of a caring ‘ohana that will benefit students from Day One.

To stretch beyond my own perspective, I asked Hawai‘i State Teacher Fellows how they plan to incorporate SEL this year. CJ Ancheta, math teacher at Lahainaluna High School, implements CASEL Core Competencies of SEL activities. Ancheta utilizes simple breathing exercises and a “moodmeter,” where students can describe their current emotional state. From these quick, but purposeful check-ins, Ancheta helps students value the present moment and feel heard. He can then identify students who would benefit from personal follow-ups.

Chayanee Brooks, ELA department head at Kaʻū High and Pāhala Elementary School, embeds social-emotional learning she gleaned from facilitating last spring’s Choose Love 2.0 Virtual Conference breakout sessions. Brooks encourages students to use writing as a way to identify their feelings and become more self-aware. This practice helps students when reflecting on important relationships in their lives.

As our students face yet another transition in their learning, as they go from virtual to in-person, we would do well to strive to support one another’s mental health and social-emotional development. Let’s commit to help our students “Maslow before Bloom.” When we put all of our basic needs first, learning will flourish. Here’s to having a great year together. 

Nicole Heinlein is a Hawai‘i State Teacher Fellow and a National Board Certified EL Coordinator and teacher at ‘Īao Intermediate School on Maui. She is passionate about equity and loves finding units and activities that excite and engage her students. In her spare time, Nicole volunteers for her local HSTA chapter as the Human and Civil Rights Committee member and teaches tap dance classes for youth and adults at Maui OnStage.

Contact Information

Communications Branch

Phone: 808-784-6200

Email: doeinfo@k12.hi.us

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