How to boost students’ SEL skills through journaling

Journaling is a good practice for students of any age, and though some kids might recoil at the thought of expressing their feelings, with effective SEL through self-reflective journaling young people can gain a better understanding of themselves, which helps them become more empathetic and socially-aware human beings. 

As an educator, sometimes the trickiest part to incorporating SEL into the school day is simply getting students started with an effective practice. But with self-reflection through journaling, students might just surprise themselves by how much they actually enjoy it.

Journaling is a good practice for students of any age and self reflection is at the very core of SEL.

The “science” behind SEL and journaling  

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, better known as CASEL, has been studying the long-term effects of trauma and stress on children since 1994. Their work has shown that effective social-emotional learning helps students develop a better understanding of their emotions through five core competencies. These competencies, which include self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making, lead to increased empathy and a better learning environment where students have a higher chance of achieving academic success.

With reflective journaling, students can explore each of the CASEL competencies without even realizing they’re doing it. By giving them a safe way to open up, vent, or simply share their thoughts, they can begin to process how a situation (such as a bullying or peer-pressure incident) made them feel. Identifying these emotions helps them understand their role in a situation, as well as how their reactions escalated or deescalated the incident. This insight can help them manage similar situations in the future. As a result, better decision-making and stronger problem-solving skills are formed, which leads to healthier relationships in the future and a better community overall. 

Self-reflection through journaling can play an important role in this process. Read on to see how you can introduce students to journaling in your classroom.

With reflective journaling, students can explore each of the CASEL competencies for SEL

Simple ways to bring journaling into the classroom (or home)

There are countless ways to get your students involved in journaling. Though sometimes it’s just a matter of sitting down and getting started with a notebook and pen, bringing a creative aspect to the practice can also help some students express themselves beyond words alone.

1. Let students write, draw, or sketch in their journals

Heather McCutcheon, an art educator at Herkimer High School in New York, finds sketchbook journaling to be an extremely effective form of SEL. With each of her art classes she gives students a sketchbook to draw or explore their emotions.

“It’s just so powerful when you can stop, be in the moment, and breathe,” said McCutcheon. “Incorporating mindfulness and really allowing students to explore their own thoughts really helps creativity in so many ways.”

Watch the full interview with Heather McCutcheon to learn more on how she incorporates art with SEL in her classroom.

2. Try visual storytelling

Sandee Darden, an art educator from Virginia, also finds the practice of journaling to be helpful for herself as well as her students. As an advocate for self reflection in any form it takes, Darden finds visual journaling to be an especially impactful practice both inside and outside of the classroom.

Darden began visual journaling prior to the COVID-19 pandemic with personal travel journals. Using a small sketchbook and only three to four colored pencils, she filled her journal pages with simple drawings to remember the emotional highlights of her trips. However, when the pandemic forced her school to close in March 2020, visual journaling took on an entirely new meaning for Darden.

“Like everybody else I was shocked. I was trying to figure out what kind of art I was going to produce because I suddenly had this weird time to be more creative,” she explains. “I started to think about how my travel journals were very specific and for a very limited amount of time. Of course, I was thinking on a positive note that the quarantine was going to be a very specific amount of time, so I thought I might try to produce how I was feeling.”

The result, An Art Teacher’s Quarantine Journal, is a beautifully drawn, heartfelt view of the pandemic from an art educator’s perspective. “It really started out much like the travel journals, with a lot of words and limited colors. But I wasn’t jazzed about it at first and I knew that wasn’t the visual storyteller I wanted to be, so that’s when I decided that I really wanted to be real with it.”

Art educator Sandee Darden uses visual journaling as a form of SEL
Sample pages from Sandee Darden’s An Art Teacher’s Quarantine Journal
Art educator Sandee Darden uses visual journaling as a form of SEL

Though reluctant to share her journal entries with the public at first, when Darden began posting her work online the response was overwhelmingly positive. “I think the message is really important. When you put down on paper the worries and anxieties you feel, and you have such a great community that comes to you and says, ‘I’m feeling that way too,’ that makes the hours of creating the journals really worth it.”

Almost two years later, Darden continues to practice visual journaling as a method of self-care and she encourages students to do the same. 

Maximize your funding for mental health and SEL

Maximize your funding for mental health and SEL

Find out how to make the most of your ESSER funding with this guide. You’ll learn best practices and get tips for effective mental health and SEL support.

3. Create a communal traveling sketchbook

Another way Darden has incorporated visual journaling into her classes is with a “traveling sketchbook.” With this method each student has the opportunity to include a drawing or sketch in a class-specific communal sketchbook throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, the sketchbook is presented at a student art showcase and then raffled off as a keepsake to the students.

“A traveling sketchbook is really a gentle way to introduce students to a sketchbook (and journaling),” Darden adds. “It also really promotes collaboration and community because they’re all in this together.”  

Learn more about visual journaling with Sandee Darden

4. Develop a community journal for sharing stories

In line with the traveling sketchbook idea, another way to promote SEL and journaling is to create a community journal for your students. With a community journal you can select a more specific topic, like culture and diversity, and ask students to contribute an entry about their family or heritage. Like traveling sketchbooks, students can take the community journal home and write a story about their parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. Then at the end of each week, you can select a student and share their story with the entire class. Remember, a journal doesn’t always need to be about personal thoughts, it can also be a vehicle for sharing and learning more about each other, too.   

A simple (and fun) way to get started

The SEL Reflections Middle School Journal Kit includes 30 days of built-in journal prompts based on CASEL’s five core SEL competencies

To start journaling, students can use a simple notebook, sketchpad, and pens or pencils, but if you wish to take a more guided approach, the popular SEL Reflections Middle School Journal Kit is a cost-effective option for supplying your students with their own materials, including a Pacon® Art Journal and five Gelly Roll® gel pens. Along with these essential materials, this kit also includes 30 days of built-in journal prompts based on CASEL’s five core SEL competencies to help students gather their thoughts and put them into words or drawings. The kit easily travels from school to home, and it can be used in other core subjects as well as an SEL-related art project.

Watch this video for a more in-depth look at the kit:

In times of crisis and turmoil (as well as in times of joy and celebration), it’s always important to remember the lessons we’ve learned along the way. Regardless if you, or your students, choose to reflect on paper with words, sketches, doodles, poetry, or whatever comes out at the time, the practice of reflective journaling always leads to personal growth. If you ask students to share these thoughts with others, or even if they prefer to keep the entries to themselves, journaling will allow them to view themselves in a more neutral, and sometimes kinder way. For some students this alone could make all the difference in the world.

Reflective journaling allows students to view themselves in a more neutral, and sometimes kinder way
How to boost students’ SEL skills through journaling

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