Train Like A Navy SEAL: #SEL and the Navy’s Big 4

Since the summer of 2018, I have been researching, writing, and trying to incorporate social emotional learning strategies into my classroom that will help my high school students. I try a lot of things during the school year, and some strategies work really well with some students, while other strategies worked with different students. I still wanted more, and then I came across the emotional skills training that Navy psychologists put in place to help raise the graduation rate for the SEAL program. From that, I’ve adapted it for students.

When we were young the future was so bright

The Navy faced the same dilemma teachers all over face: the need for higher success rates without lowering standards. With social emotional skills training, the Navy’s success rate of 1/4 to 1/3 for their SEALS BUD/S training, which according to is a “program will push you to your physical and mental limits, again and again, until you are hard and strong, both physically and mentally, and ready for the adventure of a lifetime in the SEAL Teams.”

The old neighborhood was so alive

The more I looked into their Big 4, and the more I continued to research, I began to see how I could make my own version of the Navy SEAL emotional skills training to help my students. If fact, if I shared with them that the Navy feels this is important, and that SEALs, some of the toughest in our military, benefit from the training, could I help more students? Don’t I owe it to them to try? Yes, and yes!

And every kid on the whole…street

#1 Breathing

I teach high school, so students all day are dealing with stress, drama, and trauma that I sometimes see and sometimes don’t. When a student is demonstrating physical indications of stress or duress, even mild, I turn to strategy #1, deep breathing, which is nature’s way of helping us handle stress. When I present my Train Like a Navy SEAL SEL program, I tell the story about one of my students who suffered a traumatic brain injury during his sophomore year. You can read the full story about that in the book In Other Words: Quotes that Push Our Thinking by my friend Rachelle Dene Poth. His lack of impulse control after being released from the hospital was a source of frustration with him and caused issues in the classroom. Working with that student and teaching him a deep breathing technique had amazing results. I also tell the story about another student who simply hated English and wanted to be in art all day. I worked with him on the down low (you have to protect their reputation in front of peers), and again, I saw immediate results. There are a lot of students who get worked up throughout the day, who need to calm down, and who aren’t sure how to do that. Telling these students to calm down is like telling a hungry person to get full without providing any food. Believe me, they want to, but they have no idea how to do it. So I have learned some basics. I bought Yoga Pretzels, cards that show how to do different poses and breathing techniques to help in different situations. I don’t do yoga with my high schoolers, but I do make use of the various breathing techniques. For older students with high anxiety, Box Breathing can be really effective. For littles, the 5 Finger Breathing is a great strategy to teach.

Was gonna make it big and not be beat

#2 Goal Setting

While the Navy trains SEAL candidates how to set goals in short chunks, we can broaden that a bit in the classroom. For those students who are trying to survive trauma or have lived through it but still suffer, then I talk to them about setting these types of survival goals. Sometimes students who are experiencing a bad breakup or other emotional but otherwise normal trauma can benefit from setting survival goals too. The trick is to work with the student so that they will begin setting a new short term goal right after meeting the previous goal. Things like, “I can survive 1st hour” or “I can make it through lunch” are great places to start when teaching students to chunk up their goals.

Beyond the short or chunked survival goals, we can teach students how to set academic goals and track them, as well as the long term life goals. Vision boards of what they want to accomplish and grow up to be and do is a great project. Using areas of the classroom to place sticky notes with student goals on them is also a good strategy. Students can replace a goal once it has been met. Like a checklist, this strategy will release dopamine each time they meet and replace a goal, much like checking a task off of your to do list. I always have my students with anxiety who struggle academically create a checklist of all work they need to do for their classes. I have them prioritize by which assignments are due first, can’t be turned in late, worth the most points and so forth. Once they have their list, I then have them check off work as it gets completed. Younger students may need some help writing the list, and it would likely be quite a bit shorter, but they can still mark through items as they complete them.

Now the neighborhood’s cracked and torn

#3 Visualization

This one can be a bit tricky, depending on the age of the student, but it is still powerful. In my sessions, I detail professional athletes who have been very successful in their careers and use this strategy. It is amazing, but just by mentally rehearsing a task will create muscle memory, just like physically performing a task. While the applications here for sports are obvious, how do we bring this into the classroom? Have students visualize staying calm and being successful test takers. Start small, with a quiz or formative, at first. When they are comfortable doing that, then move on to visualizing successful test taking in your classroom. Follow that with visualizing themselves calmly and successfully taking the state test. This exercise could be done in about one or two minutes. If you have a rain stick, that is a soothing way to time the exercise. As you turn the stick on its end, students relax, eyes closed, listen to the “rain” from the stick, and picture every detail they can of themselves taking the test. Encourage them softly to picture every detail. When the rain stick finishes, the exercise is over and class can resume as normal.

The kids are grown up but their lives are worn

#4 Positive Self Talk

This can be one of the tougher ones, but teach it we must. To add to the level of difficulty, we need to model this as well. It is too frequent for younger students to hear their parents or other adults say negative things about themselves, such as “I’m so fat” or “I’m dumb” that it becomes normal for children to emulate that behavior. Even knowing better, I did something silly the other day while working on a project during my prep period, and out loud I said, “I’m so dumb” as I quickly fixed it. A student happened to be in my room to ask me a question, and she immediately corrected me. “You’re not dumb, Mrs. Steinbrink.” Ha. I know I’m not, and I didn’t mean it literally when I said it, but this is exactly the thing I work with students not to do, so I modeled how to fix the situation. “You’re exactly right. I am not dumb. I can do this.” Besides pointing out to students that we all talk to ourselves (not out loud) 300-400 times a day, and that when that is positive, we are more likely to be successful and happy, the thing we really need to hone in on is correcting students when they do say negative things about themselves out loud. Regardless of the age of your students, reading the classic The Little Engine That Could to your students and then discussing his “self talk” is a great place to start.

How can one little street

One way to help this sink in is using your “I can” statements or learning targets with a whole new purpose. Use these as positive self talk. Create non academic ones too for students to work on weekly. Have students create a positive self statement that they recite when they wake up each morning is also a helpful strategy. Create and share your own positive self statement with students is another great way to model this skill. A statement can be as basic as:

I am enough. I can do great things today. I am a good person. This is a good day. I am enough.

Swallow so many lives

While there are a lot of other strategies that are very helpful in developing social emotional skills in our students, these big four are a great place to start, maintain, and use regardless of the subject or grade level you teach. Want more? Catch me at TCEA 2020 in Austin, Texas.

Headings are partial lyrics from The Kids Aren’t Alright by The Offspring.

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