SEL and Math Instruction

Posted by Richard Kingham on September 22, 2021

Math is often valued for its objective quality. We all know the saying, “The numbers don’t lie.” Math may be a matter-of-fact discipline, but students have a lot of feelings about math, and those feelings aren’t always warm fuzzies. Some love it. Others hate it. Many stress over it. The emotional quality of these reactions makes math uniquely well-suited to the teaching of social emotional learning (SEL).

The goal of SEL is the cultivation of the entire person, not just the mind, aiming to mold confident, empathetic students capable of solving the humanitarian and ecological problems facing us today. SEL is often divided into five core competencies: self-management, self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills. STEMscopes Math helps teachers integrate SEL methods into their regular mathematical instruction and develop students in these core competencies.


Self-management is largely about emotional regulation, the discipline of identifying emotions and acting or not acting upon them in a reasonable and judicious manner. My Math Thoughts is one STEMscopes Math feature that enables students to practice self-management. My Math Thoughts is a writing exercise in which students express their intellectual and emotional reactions to math content. My Math Thoughts includes three sections: content, process, and affective. Here, students reflect on their engagement with the math lesson. Below is an example of my Math Thoughts:

Students can ask themselves if they’re comprehending the lesson. Which parts, if any, do they struggle with? Are they feeling frustrated? Angry? Accomplished?

Instead of merely being immersed in an emotion, such as insecurity, or repeating damaging thoughts to themselves, such as “I will never understand this,” My Math Thoughts helps students slow down, put words to their emotions, and stop to question the veracity of their own judgmental thoughts. Doing so will help them keep their emotions in check, control their impulses, and focus on their work.


A self-aware student will be confident in their values and know their strengths and weaknesses. STEMscopes Math’s Decide and Defend helps students become attuned to their limitations. Decide and Defend poses an open-ended question to students, who, in turn, make a claim that they will support mathematically. After formulating their argument, students debate their ideas in a large or small group setting. By doing so, they affirm their knowledge and discover gaps in their understanding as they exchange ideas. Students also practice self-awareness during this exercise by monitoring what they say and how they say it. Below is an example of Decide and Defend:

Teachers should encourage students to approach this exercise as a learning opportunity, clarifying that it is not about who’s right or who’s wrong. Rather, it’s a chance to become a mathematical thinker capable of gracefully disagreeing. 

Social Awareness

    We live in a complicated and tense world. Students deserve to know the problems that will affect them and their families when they grow up. Fortunately, STEM offers a path toward designing solutions to these problems. In Math Today, we provide informative articles and videos that cover relevant social and ecological issues and how people are using math to address them. These videos serve the dual purpose of making students socially aware and demonstrating the importance of math. Indeed, real-world connection is at the heart of STEMscopes Math, revealing the relevance of math in ordinary life and its role in the development of world-saving technology. Below is an example of Math Today. 


Relationship Skills

    Developing good interpersonal skills is one of the most important aspects of SEL. Daily numeracy is a 15-minute exercise in which students practice relationship skills while reasoning with numbers accurately, efficiently, and effectively. 

The setup for Daily Numeracy lends itself to the cultivation of all these qualities. The teacher poses a series of open-ended questions to their students, who must respond in an appropriate manner. Below is an example of a Daily Numeracy activity called Not Like the Others: 

    The teacher should not fire these questions in rapid succession. Students should have time to observe and formulate their answers. Of course, some students are prone to blurting out answers before the rest of the class has had time to respond. This kind of behavior hurts the overly eager student and their peers. The one fails to learn listening skills and may develop a sense of superiority, while the others rarely have an opportunity to reason aloud in a group setting. To prevent this from happening, we suggest that teachers incorporate hand signals into Daily Numeracy. 

    When posing Daily Numeracy questions to the class, the teacher can encourage students to use the above gestures instead of blurting out their answers. Hand signals are an effective way to help shy students answer and build confidence, while helping the eager students to slow down and pay attention to their peers. They give students an option to indicate that they are thinking, assuring them that it is all right to not know the answer immediately. Students also learn to listen, respect their peers, communicate questions clearly and succinctly, grow comfortable asking for help, and resist social pressures that discourage curiosity.

Responsible Decision Making

    The preceding core competencies all lead to the ultimate goal of responsible decision making. Students who learn to regulate their emotions, identify thought patterns, respect their peers, collaborate well, distinguish between right and wrong, communicate effectively, and understand boundaries are well equipped to make healthy decisions. STEMscopes Math provides a tangible way for students to see if they are being responsible decision makers: the Student Goal Setting sheet located in the teacher toolbox:

The Student Goal Setting sheet helps children gain a sense of autonomy by encouraging them to establish self-directed objectives. As students develop SEL skills, they can track their progress toward concrete goals and assess whether they are making responsible decisions. 


    In recent decades, American education has focused primarily on developing the mind. While intellectual growth should continue to be our focus, we should strive toward shaping compassionate, socially adept critical thinkers in the process. Many great educators have championed the cultivation of different forms of knowledge and identified various goals for education. Socrates asserted that the greatest kind of knowledge is self-knowledge. Malcolm X suggested that education bolsters self-respect. Hannah Arendt argued that “education is the point at which we decide if we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it.” When integrated appropriately into the classroom, SEL has the potential to produce a generation that loves the world enough to save it. 

Topics: math, equity, SEL

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