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May 1, 2023

SEL Meets ESL: Emotional Intelligence for Non-Native Speakers

Teaching SEL means instilling skills to manage the human condition. But what does that entail for ESL students? Many non-native speakers face an onslaught of academic and social challenges, and that means social–emotional learning becomes every bit as crucial as language education.

In short, everything depends on cultivating empathy.

Scaffolding and differentiated instruction remain major components in providing impactful learning experiences for the English language learner community. And so does fostering a welcoming and empathetic classroom ecosystem where struggle becomes an opportunity for intellectual and emotional growth.

Understanding English Language Learners’ Unique Needs

It bears repeating: Social–emotional learning means kids understand and react appropriately to not only their own feelings, but also their peers’ emotional and social statuses. Despite the oversimplification of that definition, the statement nevertheless sounds as if it’s loaded with subtext, nuance, and footnotes aplenty.

That’s because emotions are, well, inexorably complicated. To that end, no community shares a one-size-fits-all experience. That said, understanding English language learners’ unique needs demands that we understand the following three realities.

The Trouble of Translation

ELLs’ language barriers may lead them to express themselves inaccurately. Let’s face facts: Without language, there is no communication. And without communication, there are no relationships. And with no relationships, there are feelings of seclusion and frustration. Not only that, but it’s more than tough to achieve academically without a clear understanding of what the teacher is saying.

Rising Responsibilities

ELLs may face higher stress and more outside responsibilities than their native-speaking classmates. Statistically, most younger ELLs have higher levels of English than their parents or caregivers. Which means these students often find themselves burdened with responsibilities their peers do not have. This might include translating for their parents, interacting with agencies and customer service representatives, and even paying bills and completing paperwork. Will these outside factors impact their academic endeavors? Indubitably.

Otherness and Isolation

ELLs often feel secluded from their peers. It could be due to the lack of cultural competencies. Or this might happen in light of language barriers. Or, if we’re being honest, and we hope this isn’t the case, there may be bigotry or ignorance causing these feelings. Regardless, when kids feel left out or not part of a group where they have the right to belong, it adds a heavy pall that only social–emotional learning can lift.

The Five SEL Principles for Non-Native Speakers

We can define social–emotional learning as an academic concept that hinges on understanding, controlling, and expressing feelings. We can expand on that by mentioning how SEL means treating others with kindness and respect. Zooming out further, we can proclaim emotional intelligence as the key ingredient in creating more hospitable communities. And all that is still very much true for non-native speakers.

But given the complex nature of SEL needs, there is no template for instruction. The only notable exception, of course, comes in these five major (albeit malleable) pillars of social emotional learning.


Emotional intelligence starts from within. It doesn’t matter how fantastic of a teacher you are—you’re no mind reader. It’s up to each individual student to form a basic understanding of their own thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes, and motivations. To tap into that, teachers encourage students to identify their feelings, cultivate an accurate self-perception, recognize strengths and weaknesses, and demonstrate self-efficacy.

When it comes to helping your ELLs thrive in a social and emotional capacity, this tenet might prove the most difficult. By observing some of their outward behaviors (namely, their self-expression and interactions with others), you may be able to gain some insight into their inner worlds. However, it often proves helpful simply to ask individual ELLs questions about their thoughts and feelings. Of course, time is always limited in any given school day. Though not every teacher has the luxury, instructional aides are unbelievably helpful with these kinds of tasks.


This pillar takes self-awareness a step further, going beyond consciousness to action. At this point, teachers can become more involved in their students’ social growth by helping kids mitigate heated emotions and respond well to external circumstances outside of their own control. Serendipitously, these endeavors will help students lower stress and better manage their time, as well as establish self-motivated academic goals.

Have you ever been in a truly unfamiliar environment? Do you remember how isolated you felt? Non-native speakers experience this situation quite often, which makes self-management that much more important. Effective coping mechanisms help ELLs come to terms with unfamiliar social customs and interactions. In concrete terms, it stings when you don’t love the same cartoon or rock band that most of the other kids do. Self-management empowers ELLs to mitigate these cold emotions and replace them with equal parts comfort and curiosity.

Social Awareness

SEL is not only about the self. Really, it’s more about our interactions with other people. In the classroom ecosystem, given the still-progressing maturity of young people, these social exchanges are prone to messiness. In helping kids navigate their relationships with classmates, you set the framework for empathy and compassion that becomes integral in adulthood. And that respect, tolerance, understanding, and all-around good nature extends to those from different cultures, backgrounds, and dispositions.

How does this pertain to non-native speakers? Insufficient social skills often happen in the wake of language barriers, a challenge only ELLs face. In providing SEL training, you help ESL students gain greater confidence in the realization that their thoughts and ideas matter. At the same time, they gain a keener understanding of social cues.

Relationship Skills

Establishing and nurturing healthy relationships means cultivating meaningful communication, navigating conflict, mending emotional wounds, and setting and understanding boundaries. Interpersonal skills, on that note, also allow students to converse and work with those with whom they don’t get along.

Of course, relationship skills translate social awareness into practice, which means the thoughts and actions of other students enter an already complicated equation. In teaching other students to value otherness and celebrate (not fear) differences, this process becomes a little more streamlined. This doesn’t mean ELLs should remain exempt from this endeavor, of course. But serenity happens much easier without ignorance in the picture.


This SEL pillar involves gaining a full understanding of a situation, solving problems in the most effective way, weighing the ethics of a choice, and reflecting on the outcomes of the decision. As an SEL concept, quality decision-making embodies everything we know about the concept of “think before you act.”

When bad decisions happen, the culprit is usually a combination of factors. Since ELLs face language and sociocultural barriers, simple misunderstanding might sometimes lead to a less-than-stellar choice. If you (or someone you have helping you) can outline scenarios and situations for your class, those examples will provide a guiding light to improved decision-making.


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