How SEL Supports Climate Justice Education

June 4, 2024
Tom Roderick
How SEL Supports Climate Justice Education

Key Points:

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  • 37 percent of teenagers feel anxious when they think about climate change and more than a third feel afraid.
  • Five powerful SEL strategies are essential to prepare ourselves and our students to thrive in this time of climate emergency.

Cheryl teaches middle school students in Brooklyn, NY. The first meeting of the student climate club drew 25 students, many more than expected. Cheryl opened the meeting by asking, “Why did you come?”

The replies, echoed around the circle, were, “I want to live!”

“I want you to live, too,” Cheryl told them. “I hope we can turn this around, and I’m going to work with you so that we can do our part to make that happen.”

Increasingly, climate anxiety and despair are affecting our young people. A 2022 Education Week Research Center Survey found that 37 percent of teenagers feel anxious when they think about climate change and more than a third feel afraid. Many also said they feel helpless and overwhelmed. 

This is not a mental health disorder. It’s an appropriate response to reality. The era we are living in has no historical parallel, given the scale of disruption and threat to life that scientists predict is coming and that is already manifesting itself in droughts, floods, wildfires, and heat waves around the world. How can we as educators meet this moment? How can we prepare our students for the turbulent and uncertain future they are facing?

The short answer is, we must teach for climate justice—and the foundation for our teaching must be social and emotional learning (SEL).

Five powerful SEL strategies are essential to prepare ourselves and our students to thrive in this time of climate emergency and to become courageous, intelligent, and wise fighters for climate justice. 

Engage Students to Build a Caring Classroom Community 

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To face tough times, our students need relationships they can count on and a community that has their back. An array of SEL activities is available to strengthen relationships and build solidarity, including group games, community agreements, cultural sharing, and practice in standing up for kindness and against all forms of meanness, discrimination, and bullying. 

Teach Social and Emotional Skills 

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Being a good listener is essential for developing close friendships, building community, and being a good leader. The Three Ps of Active Listening are a good place to start: 

  • Pay good attention.
  • Provide gentle encouragement
  • Paraphrase to confirm your understanding. 

Students practice good listening frequently in pairs.

We all have feelings, but feelings don’t have to rule our lives. Elicit a chart of feelings words you’ll add to throughout the year. Invite students to choose feelings and share times they felt that way. Have them identify their “anger triggers” and share strategies to cool down so they can think more clearly about what’s best to do.  

Provide Brave Space for Sharing Feelings and Concerns About Upsetting Events

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Jasmine teaches ninth and eleventh graders in Beaverton, OR. When something happens that triggers strong feelings (a climate disaster, for example, or a school shooting), Jasmine begins her classes with a check-in: How is your heart today? What do you need from the community? By the simple act of asking and listening, Jasmine connects with her students, shows she cares, and leads her class to become a loving community.

Teach Students to Have Productive Conversations About Controversial Issues 

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SEL can help students develop an essential attribute for democratic participation: to argue passionately for a belief, opinion, or conviction while listening well to people with different views and treating them with respect. In “Opinion Continuum,” students practice norms and skills for disagreeing without being disagreeable. They begin with low-stakes issues like “Vanilla ice cream is best!” As they internalize the process, they can tackle more challenging issues.

Practice Self Care 

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To be of use to our students, we need to take care of ourselves. Here are regular practices for strengthening our resilience:

Practice Active Hope. One kind of hope is optimism. Another kind is what we hope for. We envision what we hope for and consider how we can best contribute to bringing it about. Once we’ve discerned the place where, in the words of American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner, our “deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger,” we get to work. Active hope is not something we have; it’s something we do. Maybe your sweet place is to teach for climate justice!

Active hope launches us on an adventure. There are risks. But we accept those risks as we work to create a just and habitable world for our children and grandchildren, for all people around the world, for all living beings, and for all we love. We feel privileged to be alive at this critical time and to join millions of others in playing our part to turn things around. 

Pause to Center and Reconnect. Do this in your mind, write in your journal, or share with a partner.

  • Come from gratitude: Remember people or things you’re grateful for. 
  • Honor your own and the world’s pain: Recall something that makes you sad, angry, worried. 
  • Tap sources of inspiration: Call to mind something or someone that inspires you, warms your heart, or brings tears of gladness to your eyes. It could be a leader, a colleague, a child, a poem, a song, a new insight.
  • Decide on a next step, large or small, in your adventure of active hope and consider what or who will support you in taking that step.

Go forth with heart, joy, and a fighting spirit!

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Tom Roderick is the author of Teach for Climate Justice: A Vision for Transforming Education (Harvard Education Press, June 2023). For 36 years he served as founding executive director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, a national leader in partnering with schools to implement high-quality research-based programs in SEL. In May 2018, CASEL awarded Tom its Mary Utne O’Brien Award for Excellence in Expanding Evidence-Based Practice of Social and Emotional Learning. Contact Tom at For updates and resources, visit

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