Acceleration that Supports the Whole Child

Acceleration that Supports the Whole Child

By Peter Tierney-Fife

In our October Math for All blog, Charlene Marchese wrote that unfinished learning should be addressed by engaging the whole child in grade-level content. Her emphasis on the whole child resonates powerfully. As the 2021–2022 school year progresses through winter, uncertainty, hardship, and trauma continue or are worsening for many students. Surveys and early clinical data show increased rates of youth anxiety, depression, emergency room visits related to mental health, and suspected suicide attempts during the pandemic (Chatterjee, 2022; Office of the Surgeon General, 2021; U.S. Department of Education, 2021). So many students are struggling socially and emotionally, as well as academically.

Schools have responded by increasing and deepening social and emotional learning (SEL) supports for students. While the current situation has seen coordinated support efforts made at the state, district, and school levels, there are ways individuals or groups of teachers can infuse specific SEL strategies in mathematics instruction to bolster whole-child well-being. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework provides five SEL competencies to consider:

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

One way to plan so your focus on SEL competencies supports your mathematical goals is to use the Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP) as a filter. As you consider upcoming grade-level content and prerequisite skills, consider also an SMP focus area for your students and, based on that, consider one or more related SEL competencies.This could be included in the first step of the three-step process Charlene described in her October blog about addressing unfinished learning:

  1. understand how the concepts embedded in upcoming grade-level content develop over the years—know the related learning trajectories across multiple grades;
  2. pre-assess students to determine what, if any, previous skill(s) need to be reinforced;
  3. provide “just-in-time” instruction on those skills.

Here is how it might look In the context of Charlene’s example of a 4th-grade unit on multiplication.

Identify the content standard(s) being addressed (as discussed in step 1 in Charlene’s blog); the unit includes lessons during which students explain their calculations of products using algorithms, rectangular arrays, and/or area models (standard 4.NTB.5).

Determine an SMP focus based on the content standard(s) and your students’ strengths and challenges. For example, a lesson could focus on attending to precision (SMP 6), where students “give carefully formulated explanations to each other.”

Determine a SEL focus that aligns with the SMP focus for the lesson and your students’ context. An associated SEL focus for this example might be social awareness. CASEL worked with Inside Mathematics, a site with tools and materials for mathematics educators, to create resources for connecting social and emotional learning and mathematics. The resources include lists of SEL competencies by SMP (see Making the Case, page 17) that can be used as a reference. Some districts and states have worked with CASEL to further define SEL for the classroom. For example, the Delaware Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Competencies includes SEL benchmarks and grade-band SEL performance indicators and aligns with their SMP and SEL Crosswalk. The CASEL Website also includes multiple resources for aligning SEL and academic objectives.

Plan for SEL instruction and practice within the lesson; consider how to ensure all your students learn about and practice the skills of the SEL focus while doing the mathematics. In this example, when formulating their explanations students could be encouraged to consider other students’ understandings, thoughts, and feelings to communicate effectively through (1) written prompts (Will everyone in my group understand my explanation? or How can I add details to make it more likely everyone in my group will understand my thinking?); (2) a sentence starter (To help my classmates understand my thinking, I… ); or (3) a short list of possible strategies (I did these things to help my classmates understand my thinking: __ wrote labels; __drew my array neatly with straight lines; __used the equal sign only between equivalent expressions; etc.). You also could include a time for a teacher think-aloud or use a peer feedback process for students to comment on each other’s precision in their explanations before having additional time to modify work.

Although the approach described above is to determine a SEL focus for instruction within a learning acceleration planning process, it may be worthwhile to have a longer-term goal related to SEL and your mathematics instruction. This goal may even be something you decide collaboratively with students. For example, it may be most important to increase everyone’s sense of belonging to the classroom community, in which case your SEL focus might often be helping students develop social awareness or relationship skills while learning mathematics. Alternately, if supporting students’ sense of competency and growth as mathematicians is most important, your long-term SEL focus might be helping them develop self-awareness or self-management skills.

I am impressed and inspired every day by the courageous and amazing work being done by teachers during this crisis. Hopefully the current critical need to focus on students’ SEL will not persist much longer, but I hope the emphasis on engaging the whole child by explicitly infusing SEL within mathematics and other disciplinary instruction continues long after the pandemic.


Chatterjee, R. (2022, January 7). Kids are back in school—and struggling with mental health issues. National Public Radio.

Office of the Surgeon General. (2021). Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory. United States Public Health Service,

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. (2021). Supporting Child and Student Social, Emotional, Behavioral, and Mental Health Needs.

Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.

Our Newsletter Provides Ideas for Making High-Quality Mathematics Instruction Accessible to All Students
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