Train Like A Navy SEAL

In the attempt to bring Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into my classroom routinely to help students, I spent a year researching different strategies. In that research period, I stumbled across the History Channel’s episode on the brain, and within that episode, the Navy Psychologists explained how they isolated 4 big areas that could be embedded in the Navy SEAL training to increase the amount of those completing the training without lowering their standards. I was immediately struck by how those components can fit education and help our students. Here is a brief breakdown of the Big 4. Contact me if you would like me to work with your district on how to uses these with students to support the SEL and trauma informed strategies you already may be using.

While the Navy trains SEAL candidates how to set goals in short chunks, we can broaden that a bit in the classroom. For Goal Setting, there are four areas that I cover for students:

Long Term

Work with students to set goals for what they want to accomplish or be, 3-5 years in the future. Digital vision boards or spreadsheets can be used, as long as students also record or chart the steps it will take to achieve that goal. For high school students, have them look toward college and career goals. Middle schoolers can begin planning for their high school years (sports, areas of study, clubs) and elementary can do the same for planning to hit the next level (could be the next grade, teacher, or middle school).

Short Term

These types of goals can be weekly, monthly, or even by semester. Like the Long Term goals, students need to record or chart in some way the steps needed to reach these goals. You can have digital goals or classroom charts where students can write their goals on sticky notes and place them in a designated area. As the goals are reached (teachers should be encouraging them daily or weekly), students remove the sticky note and replace it with a new goal.


For those students who are trying to survive trauma or have lived through it but still suffer, then I talk to them about setting the types of survival goals that the SEALs are trained to use. 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. Think in terms of:

  • What does the student need to get through your class right now?
  • What does the student need to get through the next class, bus ride home, lunch?
  • What does the student need to get through the night at home or weekend?


This type of goal setting can hit the mark for Hattie’s work on Self Reported Grades and the effect size it has on student learning. Teach students to use spreadsheets, set goals before the unit starts, chart performances on formatives daily, then chart quiz or test score. The teacher needs to encourage students to beat their goal during the week as well, in order to capitalize on Hattie’s system. After a few weeks, students can see growth, have data to use for goal setting, and will become better at knowing what is within their comfort zone and what is within reach but above their comfort zone.

While this technique is used by the SEALs and other military units, it is also used by professional athletes. For high school students, have them visualize step by step through a test, activity, or big event coming up. While they should envision the best possible outcome and visualize themselves going through each step to get to that awesome outcome, they also need to think about setbacks that can occur and what they will do to still reach that best possible outcome despite or because of those setbacks. It’s rather like the old adage, “Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst.”

One way to implement time for whole class to practice visualization is the SEAL method, which I learned from a video on YouTube by a retired Navy SEAL, is to have students:

  • Sit
  • Eyes closed
  • And
  • Listen

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, catching up on school work, doing well in the game, etc. Encourage them softly to picture every detail. They should also visualize things going wrong and actions they could take in response. When the rain stick finishes, the exercise is over and class can resume as normal.

When a Navy SEAL is trying to get through a tough exercise or activity, telling themselves that they can’t do it, haven’t trained enough, etc. is a sure way for them to fail. Instead, they practice telling themselves that they have trained hard enough and that they can do it. This has similar components in education for each level, but the skinny involves these embedded classroom practices:

  • Explain the brain science & how it is used by the Navy SEALs.
  • Model positive self talk
  • Read books to them, like the Little Engine Who Could & discuss what the engine could have said that would have prevented him from making it.
  • Have personal affirmation cards available for students in crisis to spend 5 minutes looking at & quietly telling themselves that message (can be ordered from Amazon).
  • Transforming “I can” statements or learning targets into positive academic affirmations.
  • Hang up positive statements around the classroom that either you purchase, make yourself, or have students generate.

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. This is usually something done one on one with students in need, and not whole group, but when first starting out, do teach students how to do it and when to do it. The following are common methods you can use with students:

  • 5 Finger Breathing or Take Five Breathing (elementary)
  • The Clenched Fist Method (upper elementary/middle school/high school)
  • Standard deep breathing (high school/middle school)

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