Building SEL Skills to Lessen Summer Slide


By Sarah Tantillo and Meredith Murray

Every summer it seems, two questions leap to many educators’ minds: (1) How can we lessen summer learning loss? and (2) How can we help build students’ social emotional learning skills? On behalf of the Princeton-Blairstown Center (PBC), the nonprofit we represent, we’re pleased to share some useful ideas to address both these questions.


At PBC, our mission is to empower young people, primarily from under-resourced communities, to strengthen their social-emotional skills through experiential, environmental, and adventure-based programming. Last year, we served nearly 8,000 participants, including students and their chaperones, as well as teachers and other adults who participated in professional development and team-building activities at our Blairstown, NJ campus.

What Is SEL?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) includes five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. PBC’s Summer Bridge program encompasses each one.

Summer Bridge Program

The problem of summer learning loss is significant. According to the National Summer Learning Association, most students lose TWO MONTHS of mathematical skills every summer, and low-income children typically lose another two to three months in reading.1

In 2015 PBC launched our Summer Bridge program to target summer learning loss. In small cohorts of 10-12, approximately 600 students from Trenton and Newark, NJ and New York City receive individual attention from dedicated PBC Facilitators and Specialty Staff who work to implement traditional academic learning via three hours a day of hands-on literacy, STEM, and project-based learning lessons.

They also experience nontraditional learning through leadership, team-building, and problem-solving activities using our high- and low-ropes courses and waterfront activities that challenge students on their levels. A chaperone from the partner organization joins each cohort throughout the week so that the lessons learned can be referenced when students return to their home environments.

Each week of Summer Bridge opens and closes with evening campfire circles focusing on values clarification and celebrating accomplishments, and students learn to value our 264-acre campus by participating in environmental and household restoration activities that teach community responsibility alongside nature appreciation.

This year, PBC was awarded the prestigious New York Life Foundation Excellence in Summer Learning Founder’s Award, which recognizes outstanding summer programs that demonstrate excellence in accelerating academic achievement and promoting healthy development for low-income children and youth between pre-kindergarten and twelfth grade. The program was cited for its attention to culture, excellence, use of nature, and outstanding staff.

Sample Lesson: Webbing Intro Wrap

Here’s a sample lesson you can use with your students at the start of new school year.

  • Estimated Length: 15 minutes
  • Number of Participants: 8 to 12
  • Challenge Level: Beginner


The purpose of this activity is for group members to get to know each other on a more personal basis.


  • A piece of tubular webbing 15 to 20 inches in length.

Steps (Description of Activity):

Have your participants stand in a circle.

Role model for the group what is expected.

Do the following: Slowly wrap the piece of webbing around your hand while telling the group about yourself… hobbies, favorite foods, sisters, brothers, favorite place, where you are from, etc…

Going around the circle, have each student talk about themselves for the length of time it takes them to wrap it around their hand.

Have each participant start by saying their name, and at least one fact about themselves, and then finish by saying their name again.

Once everyone has shared, ask if there is anyone who can go around the group and say everyone’s name. Try it yourself, and applaud all efforts.

Suggested Processing Questions (3-5 for each Code):


What helped you to learn and remember the person’s name?
Why is it important to remember a person’s name when you first meet them?
Have you ever had someone remember or forget your name? What was that like for you?


What is a team?
Why is it important for members of a team to know each other’s name?
Do you feel like you are starting to be a part of this team right now?


When you are introduced or meet a person for the first time, what do you normally do?
Why is it important to learn a person’s name?
What does your name say about you?

Anticipated Challenges (Safety, Physical, Emotional):

Be aware that initially most group members will be sharing superficial info about themselves. As they gain trust in the group, members will share more detail as they feel comfortable. Remind the group that challenge by choice always applies because the number one goal is their safety, both physical and emotional.

Hints You Can Give:

Point out to students that they have the choice to share as much or as little about themselves as they would like.  If a student is struggling, prompt them with an easy question, such as favorite food, dessert, or what meal they last ate.

Additional Resources

At PBC as we serve students and adults throughout the year, we continue to explore ways to support teachers and school leaders in strengthening students’ SEL skills. For a complete middle school SEL curriculum and additional resources to support SEL work with students, check out the PBC Resources page.

[1] Afterschool Alliance. (2009). America after 3 pm: The most in-depth study of how America’s children spend their afternoons. Retrieved from

Images: PBC videos


Sarah Tantillo is Board Chair and Meredith Murray is Director of Development and Communications at the Princeton-Blairstown Center. Tantillo is a frequent contributor to MiddleWeb. For more information about PBC, go to


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