There's no such thing as a “math person”: Embedding SEL in mathematics curricula

No Math Person, green, pro

by Kris Good, Director of Professional Learning, and Gita Dev, Director of Quality and Alignment for Math

When a curriculum doesn’t have sufficient embedded social-emotional learning (SEL) supports, teachers are left to cobble together a patchwork program to accommodate student needs, often leaving their students confused, frustrated, and isolated. No one wins.

 Most people associate SEL skills with ELA programs. Today, regardless of the subject, any curriculum worth its salt should have SEL woven into its very fibers—and that includes math programs.

 High-quality math programs empower students to become effective problem-solvers, rather than to quietly decide they’re just “not good at math” or that they’re not “math people.” The emergence of new standards for mathematics curriculum and instruction dovetailed with the development and adoption of SEL.

 Here’s a quick primer on SEL and math—for more info, please get in touch.

First, the players


The organization that challenged the long-standing expectation that mathematics instruction produces one right answer, was algorithmically generated, and was passive in nature. Instead, NCTM asserted that mathematics instruction should be constructivist by design, student-centered, and active.

Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP)

Eight practices that form what many call “the heart and soul” of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics serve as a “decoder ring” for teachers helping students increase achievement in mathematics.

By definition, these practices tapped into not only the mathematical reasoning ability of students, but also the skills associated with learning. These skills form the basis of SEL.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)

The organization that defined SEL more than twenty years ago. CASEL established five SEL domains:

  1. Self-awareness SEL-chart
  2. Self-management
  3. Responsible decision-making
  4. Relationship skills
  5. Social awareness

CASEL sees SEL as a two-part process: acquisition and application.

High-quality curriculum brings out the embedded SEL in mathematics instruction

Each of the eight Standards for Mathematical Practice have connections with the five SEL competencies. At these intersections lie the need for rich mathematics curriculum.

Open Up Resources’ math curricula offer clear guidance on how to promote SEL skill development. Our problem-based mathematics programs are built on the premise that math is not a spectator sport, but one that is engaging, constructivist, social, flexible, and rigorous in nature.

Mapping SMPs to SEL competencies

Our academics team carefully and critically reviewed our math curricula to ensure the materials connect clearly to the SEL competencies and SMPs.

For example, SMP 1—“Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them”—calls for students to “start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.” This maps to the SEL competency of self-awareness: “Be aware of their strengths and what they know; recognize when they lack the knowledge to solve a problem.”

Supporting this SMP/SEL alignment, Open Up Resources 6–8 Math embeds active participation within every lesson to support high-quality mathematical conversations between students. This requires students to be self-aware of their own thinking as they actively engage in conversations with their peers.

There’s an easy way to test if your current math program is up to snuff: try to identify the points of connection between the curriculum, the eight SMPs, and the five SEL competencies.

How does your current math curriculum shape up? We’d love to hear your thoughts.