How SEL Can Help ELL/Immigrant Students and Educators’ Ability to Support Them

Use SEL to Ease the Transition for ELL and Immigrant Students

It’s not surprising that many educators struggle to understand and address the challenges English language learner (ELL) and immigrant students face. But it’s important to try, since these students’ experiences often create special learning needs.

Many ELL and immigrant students are abruptly dropped into a new culture and are expected to know new rules and norms as well as a new language. At the same time, they may be dealing with the trauma of leaving a war-torn country or being separated from family. This can cause stress, anxiety, and the inability to form meaningful relationships with peers or educators.

The good news is that Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) can help support these students and teachers alike, and promote positive outcomes for both.


According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are roughly 4.6 million (9.4 percent) ELL students in U.S. schools. Spanish is the most common native language (77 percent), followed by Arabic, Chinese, and Vietnamese. ELL populations are generally higher in urban areas, and 13.8 percent of ELL students have disabilities. Additionally, according to 2015 estimates, of the roughly 43.3 million immigrants in the U.S., more than two million are school-aged children.

How SEL Can Help

SEL is effective for supporting immigrant and ELL students. Building strong relationships with educators and peers helps students foster a sense of belonging and eases integration within the community. SEL also nurtures cooperation, clear communication, and conflict resolution. Additional benefits include stress management, motivation, self-efficacy, and confidence to seek and offer assistance when it’s needed.

Developing students’ social and emotional skills makes teachers’ jobs easier by helping ELL and immigrant students become more engaged, motivated, and integrated into American culture. Additionally, research shows that when all students receive SEL instruction this leads to reduced bullying and higher acceptance of diversity.

Here are a few ideas to help promote SEL in the classroom:

  • Prioritize teaching students how to navigate social situations. For example, teach students how to offer help to someone, or use emoji posters to teach social and emotional concepts.
  • Promote a growth mindset to help ELL and immigrant students understand that success is achievable with dedication and hard work. Here is a sample lesson to get started.
  • Teach empathy, acceptance, and relationship-building with activities that celebrate students’ cultures and heritages. This will help ELL students feel connected to their peers while celebrating their own identities.

ELL and immigrant students face unique challenges. Schools can make an impact on how well these students integrate into society and achieve academic success. SEL can help ELL and immigrant students become more engaged, build stronger relationships, and navigate the challenges of learning new cultural norms.

Interested in learning more? Contact our SEL advisors to create a plan to leverage SEL to support ELL and immigrant students.