The role of norms in the SEL classroom


Facilitating Social Emotional Learning (SEL) to a wide range of ages and cultural groups brings with it also certain considerations, to make learning fun, respectful and equitably participative for everyone. This blog brings to you an important element of classroom practices from Apni Shala, called Norming.

What are norms?

“Norms”, according to the American Dictionary, is defined as, an accepted standard or a way of being or doing things. In an article titled “collaborative culture: norms‘ ‘ it was mentioned that “Schoolwide and classroom norms are the foundation for respectful behavior among all in the school community”. There are varied ways norms can be defined. We reached out to Apni Shala facilitators to find out what norms mean to them. When asked, “what do norms mean for you?” Shahbaan Shah (Programme Facilitator and Research & Development Support) and Pooja Gate (Programme Facilitator) pointed out, “norms are a way to create a space of agreement and enhance learning.” Connecting to that Abhijeet Dhurve (Program Lead) conveyed that for him, “Norms are guidelines that are meant to guide learning and behavior to some extent.” 

While we enter our classrooms, as teachers or facilitators, we begin with reminding our students or the participants about the environment we wish to have in our online or offline classroom. For eg., A norm we often use with older students and adults at Apni Shala is “No blame, no shame no guilt (source: National SEED Project)”, used to set an environment of openness and acceptance. Norms are also used to create ways of answering in the class like raising your hand when wanting to speak, or showing thumbs up as a way to communicate an understanding of the instruction given. These are small but very essential parts of our facilitation and learning process.

Further, through conversations with the facilitators, the blog highlights how norms look like within the various programs at Apni Shala, how they are created and their importance in building SEL competencies.

What do ‘norms’ look like in the Apni Shala?

At Apni Shala, norms are an essential part of the facilitation and teaching process that is used in the varied programs which it holds. At Khoj Community Learning Center (Khoj), which is an initiative to create a space for high-quality SEL-integrated education for children in Govandi/Mankhurd, Vanisha (Khoj grade 1 teacher) mentions that “there are many different and simple norms which I and our students follow during the class and after the class. one example is listening to the speaker and waiting for your turn, which shows how actively they are listening  and respecting the thoughts and opinions of the other persons and how patiently we are waiting for your turn.

(Video: In Khoj, we have a gesture of showing a silent hand when you want to speak. This helps to manage the decorum of the class and inculcate a habit of respecting the speaker in students.)

At Youth project, a weekend-based program for youth in the age group of 16 to 20 years, norms were used for different purposes and held a different perspective for the participants. Simran Gala, alumni of Youth Project shared that “being a part of the youth project we were given a chance to create our norms and follow them. This made me feel more comfortable and powerful (it would mean mostly confidence on her part as she mentioned that she is talking from the student point of view and what these norms meant for her). The norms which we followed during the youth project were: 

(1) No blame, No shame, No Guilt

(2)What is shared here stays here, what is learned goes with you

(3) Trust that learning is a process. 

These norms helped me in the program and I tried to apply these norms in my daily life.”

(Source of the norms: National SEED Project)

Talking about norms used in School SEL Programmes, Diksha Pandey mentions “Before lockdown, when sessions were happening offline, sitting in a circle was the first norm of the class. This norm gives every student an opportunity to feel inclusive and also helps the facilitator to conduct sessions more effectively. This also breaks the traditional school set up of sitting on benches, where there is no first or last bencher, but all sitting equally across the room.” The School SEL programme is a year-long program conducted with students of municipal schools and non-profit organizations using a grade-specific curriculum to create a platform where children can easily access SEL education throughout the year.

Along with Khoj, Youth Project, and School SEL programmes we also use norms to guide the SEL and mental health workshops conducted with various children of other organizations and adults coming from different fields. When asked how norms look different for adults compared to children, Shahbaan Shah says “There is not much difference between the two groups when we set norms. With adults, especially in workshops, we introduce two norms to them. If you’re doing an activity, then based on the activity you have to keep specific norms to do that”. Aditi Ganguly (Partnerships Associate) also adds to that “while facilitating a session with adults, certain norms are pre-structured. With several years of experience, the norms/agreements are decided in such a way so that the participants who might be from diverse backgrounds can feel comfortable during the sessions. A lot of our workshops are for open groups thus setting agreements with the group might not be the ideal way thus we share pre-decided agreements with all and then have conversations on what could be the other norms that can support the group”.

As Shahbaan mentioned, the two norms introduced in adult workshops are “No Blame, No shame, No Guilt” and “What is shared here stays here, what is learned goes with you”. The latter norm ”What is shared here stays here, what is learned goes with you”, is a norm of confidentiality that is introduced to create a safe space. So that participants openly express their emotions, thoughts, and stories.

How are norms created ?

Apni Shala holds certain core philosophies like Constructivist Learning Theory, Narrative Practices, Mindfulness, and Diversity and Inclusion which are integrated into our system of facilitation. Hence norms become an essential part of our planning process, where norms in various sections of Apni Shala are extracted from these philosophies. Whenever we take norms to our SEL session, using the idea of co-creation taken from constructivist learning theory, we create the norms to be used in the class along with the participants and students. 

As Pranali Patil (Curriculum Lead, SEL Programmes) shares with us  “Whenever I am facilitating a new group, I facilitate a norm-setting process where every student in the classroom gets an opportunity to share what kind of norms they would want to have in the classroom. The students suggest norms based on their own experience of being in the classroom. As the students share the norms, I keep in mind the following points before keeping the norm or discarding a norm-

  • There is equitable space for expression
  • There is respect for one another
  • It is helping everyone in the class to feel safe
  • The norm is supporting the well-being of each and everyone in the classroom. 
  •  It allows one another to take ownership of their actions
  • Creating a space in the classroom which is supportive to collective learning.”

The idea of co-creation of norms by the participants and facilitators is also so that it is not seen as punishment which is ideally perceived in schools. As Abhijeet Dhurve (Programme Lead) says “Students mostly follow the norms in the classroom, but there is an understanding among students that they will be punished if they don’t follow the norms because they have seen teachers and caregivers punishing them. So they sometimes follow these norms to avoid punishment and this fear among students of being punished needs to be taken out, and a sense of ownership should be instilled in them.”

Among younger children, some norms are created for classroom management by the facilitator, who decides which norms are essential considering the group they are facilitating. Sangeeta Zombade (Director at Khoj Community Learning Center) shares “one thing considered while setting norms is putting forward what is expected to be done rather than what is supposed to be done, basically stating the task –  for example instead of ‘don’t speak out of your turns’ can we say ‘raise hands to speak’. Hence we also consider the use of words and sentences framed in a way to not make it sound harsh, but allow students to understand why the norms are set in the first place.”

Another core philosophy “Narrative Practice” uses a non-blaming approach towards learning along with the idea of understanding diversity and inclusion together which is used to create the norm of  “no-blame, no shame, no guilt”. As Simran Gala (Youth Project Alumni) mentioned how she applies norms in her daily life and shares, “The norm: No Blame, No Shame, No Guilt,  helped me to overcome the fear of being ashamed and guilty to speak out and ask for help. I tried not to judge myself and communicate with others. The norms helped me to be more confident.”

How do norms help in understanding SEL competencies: 

In Apni Shala, we use the CASEL (Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning ) framework which identifies five key “competencies” which are  self-awareness (understanding emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts), self-management (managing one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations.), social awareness (Ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.), relationship skills (ability to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups.), and responsible decision making (Ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.)

When asked, whether norms help in understanding SEL competencies, many facilitators agreed and shared various examples through certain observations from their class. Pranali Patil shared “the norm, ‘Take turns to speak’ which allows the participant to wait back, pay attention to the speaker and listen to the perspective of peers in the classroom. This allows the participants to show respect for others and show empathy.” Pranali also added “In one of my classes, students decided to have a norm of supporting one another if any person in the class is not understanding any word/concept/or has difficulty in following instructions. This norm helped the students in the classroom to display the skill of seeking and offering help to each other in the class and at the same time, create a space for compassion and non-judgment.” 

Shahbaan Shah also shared that one such competency he observed in the classroom is self-management where we talk about impulse control. “ नॉर्म्स आपने सेशन में एक पॉज लता हैं जहा पे स्टूडेंट्स अपने आप को रोक सकते है। ( Norms bring a certain pause in the sessions, where the students can control their impulses if they want to share anything which is out of their turn,) for eg. We have a norm where we ask students to raise their hands when they want to talk. They can stop and know that they have to raise their hand and talk, so it also gives a sense of self-awareness. Further, he added, “There are other norms that we use called to step up and step back, where we can see social awareness. In this norm step up indicates answering or talking in class and step back means stopping and letting the other person talk.  Whenever we are in class this norm is used when some students talk a lot and they are very studious and like to answer., so this norm helps in letting the other students give a chance to answer who are shy and not answering, so in this norm, we also remind students who have answered a lot of times that will it be okay for you to step back and let the others who haven’t answered yet to step up and answer instead. It is like positive reinforcement for many who aren’t able to answer in class.”


These insights from our facilitators and alumni show how imperative norms are in their classrooms and in their lives too. We have seen incredible changes in our students on how they use these norms while interacting with one another. One such experience is shared by Shahbaan Shah, where he says, “I was working with a group, and there was a kid, who had some difficulty sitting in class, she never answered or didn’t talk to anyone much, so once we set a norm, that every session everyone had to share something in class. So after that day once she came to me and said ‘भैया मुझे क्लास में  बहुत अच्छा लगता हैं मेरी एक बात शेयर में में। (“bhaiya I feel nice, to share one thing in this class.”) I feel norms are an effective tool in terms of, to help open or close a conversation.“ 

Sangeeta Zombade mentions “Norms bring a lot of cognitive, physical, social and emotional development for the child. It pushes them to be aware of one’s classroom demographics which leads to being patient, active listener, advocating for self and self-management”. And we have seen this resonate in our work. 

Norms create a sense of trust, compassion, and a space for students as well as facilitators to express and accept their feelings, thoughts, and emotions. 

About the authors:

Rochelle Dsouza has completed her Masters’ Degree (MA) in Applied Psychology specialized in clinical psychology from the Mumbai University. Rochelle has worked as a clinical intern and as a coordinator for a research journal. At present she is a fellow at Apni Shala for the year 2021-22 . When Rochelle is not working she is either traveling or painting.

Diksha Pandey is a Programme facilitator with Apni Shala. She has been facilitating sessions with adults and children of different age groups for the last 3 years. She has completed her graduation with B.Sc.(Mathematics), currently pursuing B.Ed. When she is not in the classroom you can find her reading mythology books or dancing.

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