Key takeaways

  • English language learners (ELL) are much more susceptible to facing challenges at school than their native English-speaking counterparts.
  • SEL can help ELL students with key skills such as relationship building, stress management, and communication.


Research has shown English language learners (ELL) are much more susceptible to facing challenges at school than their native English-speaking counterparts. SEL programs have major benefits to ELL students when it comes to relationship building, stress management, and communication. ELL students, who at times are even misdiagnosed as Special Education students, encompass learners from a variety of backgrounds. This blog will highlight some primary SEL challenges faced by English language learners and offer guidance for schools to teach them social emotional learning.

Challenge #1

Insufficient communication skills to express themselves accurately

Learners of the English language lack the verbal skills to express themselves and contribute effectively in conversations. Developing fundamental communication skills in any native language takes time which is compounded even further for English language learners. SEL programs foster confidence building, navigating social cues, and nurturing a growth mindset; all are core tenets for any learner to be successful in the classroom and beyond. English language learners are more likely to be delayed in developing these skills due to the language barrier alone than their peers. SEL programs promote building foundational coping skills when integrating within a new community, culture, and environment. Students are less likely to be bullied and more likely to form a sense of belonging because SEL programs create a safe space of inclusivity.

Challenge #2

Facing external problems and responsibilities

For learners who have ELL caregivers with a lower level of English than them, translating and interpreting for their caregivers becomes a common responsibility. Older students are likely to additionally take on more responsibilities like supporting sibling childcare or even part-time employment on top of the advocacy role for their caregivers. The emotional load of these tasks leads the student’s attention and energy further away from their academic and SEL development. Their progress in developing effective coping strategies for managing stress or reducing anxiety is further hindered in comparison to their peers. For more information on the burden of young learners translating for their caregivers, click here.

Challenge #3

Feeling isolated from their peers

It is common for English language learners to feel isolated from their peers who speak different languages than they do. The inability to talk to each other and communicate naturally encumbers the progression of their social awareness and relationship-building skills. Acclimation to a new culture is intimidating and can inhibit one’s own sense of identity in multiple ways. SEL development promotes celebrating differences while at the same time understanding and challenging norms for all learners. ELL students integrate and acclimate with their peers and community at a much better rate with SEL programs that breed self-efficacy and positively impact self-esteem.

Challenge #4

High affective filter

Speaking a language that you do not have a high proficiency in is nerve-wracking and stressful, especially in a situation where you are trying to communicate your emotions or in an environment where you must understand the other language to take part in activities. This stress is referred to as the affective filter, which is an emotional response that prohibits the mental process of learning the language. The higher the stress level, the more difficult it is to learn and synthesize information. Once an English language learner has experienced this affective filter, they’re less receptive to learning. SEL programs provide students with the tools needed to avoid such a major setback and stay motivated. Satchel Pulse's SEL Solution

How to teach SEL to ELL students

Target particular SEL competencies 

Focus on the subskills they could benefit from most, such as relationship building (making new friends, appreciating diversity) and self-awareness (ability to recognize their emotions). Use an SEL screener to help you if you’re struggling to pinpoint the exact areas in which they need help. Translated student self-assessments are especially helpful for this, too.

Use graphics and images as much as possible.

When words fail, allow the option for students to use pictures to help express themselves instead. For example, when they would like to tell someone how they’re feeling but are struggling to find the words, why not let them use a developmentally-appropriate emotion wheel instead? Using images alongside basic vocabulary means they begin to connect the English word with the associated picture, resulting in English language progress being made as well as social emotional.

Be age-sensitive

When providing literature and other materials for your students, bear in mind that the age equivalent of their English comprehension level is unlikely to match their real age. This means that although a 14-year-old student may not understand English-language materials designed for English-language natives of the same age, giving them a book created for Kindergartners may not be beneficial to them. Instead of helping, the student could feel insulted, frustrated, and mentally shut down from the learning process.

Do cultural roleplays and scenario walkthroughs

Sometimes it’s not only vocabulary that can pose an issue for ELLs, but also the cultural norms and systems that they’re also getting used to. For example, although this may be common knowledge for students already familiar with the education system, a new ELL student may not know how to get a teacher’s attention if they have a question about their work, how to go about asking a peer to play during break, or that they have to ask for permission to go to the bathroom during class. Including roleplays of these scenarios in your lesson plans is particularly useful for younger students to help solve this problem - not only will they learn how to do these things, but will also passively learn the vocab to use from their classmates.

Be positive

Give your ELL students reassurance that they’re making progress and let them know that you’re recognizing and appreciating their efforts. Frequently giving your students these encouraging messages will help with their self-esteem, which could take a tumble if they’re feeling isolated.

Engage their caregivers

Reach out to the parents, families, or other caregivers of your ELL students and welcome them into the school community. Keep them updated on their child’s progress and remember to ask their opinions, too. This is easier to facilitate via online school surveys that are translated into the caregivers’ strongest language. Additionally, when the caregivers of ELL students are reinforcing the same SEL competencies at home in the student’s native language, their skills are more likely to improve.


How do we support newcomers' social emotional needs? US Department of Education. Read it here.

Author: Fern Dinsdale

Posted: 26 Sep 2022

Estimated time to read: 5 mins

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