Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a type of curriculum-based approach created for the promotion and development of self and interpersonal skills. SEL is typically incorporated into daycare and educational settings and targeted to support the social and emotional growth of children and youth from pre-k through high school. Ideally, SEL prepares children and youth to address and successfully handle personal and interpersonal challenges as they age.
What Is Social & Emotional Learning?
Both educators and mental health professionals recognize social and emotional learning as being critical to healthy child development. SEL is designed to promote self-expression, which in return, teaches students to manage their emotions, invest in interpersonal relationships, and maintain those relationships.1
SEL is skills-based and typically includes components of emotional regulation and the development of a healthy sense of self as well as prosocial, interpersonal health. Through the promotion of self-empowerment, SEL also teaches young people to address social issues and inequities which, in return, impact the health of communities at large.2
Successful SEL can also positively impact academic performance.1 The management of emotions is a life-long skill that directly affects behavior and a student’s ability to perform inside and outside of the classroom.3 Today, more school administrators recognize emotional health as being just as important as academic success.
In order to prepare young children to manage interpersonal challenges, all 50 states have mandated preschool SEL competencies; only about 20 states have adopted K-12 competencies.2
Who Is Able to Teach SEL?
School counselors, school social workers, and mental health therapists can incorporate SEL into their curriculum or framework for intervention, but teachers are the primary instructors of SEL in academic settings. SEL instruction can be as intensive or as lengthy as the deliverer may choose or have the capacity for.
Teachers or other providers are not required to go through special training or certification to use SEL, but there are many higher education institutions that offer certification in SEL competencies. For teachers who are not certified in SEL, resources and training are available and accessible online.
There are many variables that contribute to program success such as the teacher’s confidence, commitment, or general attitude toward the programming, as well as whether or not the school’s culture as a whole adopts SEL programming.3 Ideally, a socially and emotionally sound classroom positively impacts the health and wellness of teachers and administrators, cutting back on teacher burnout.
The 5 Core Concepts of Social & Emotional Learning
At its core, SEL is an investment in the development of long-term and global well-being for individuals and communities. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is the leading, non-profit organization that is dedicated to researching, evaluating, and implementing social emotional learning.
CASEL defines the five core concepts of SEL as the following:
Self-awareness is the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values, as well as how they influence behavior across contexts. Being self-aware is a skill that requires individuals to be able to name feelings, develop an identity, and examine one’s own thoughts, actions, or beliefs.2 Self-awareness also builds confidence and fosters emotional maturity.
Self-management is the ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations to achieve goals and aspirations. Schools are high-stress, competitive environments that provide opportunities for young people to manage stress, take initiative and develop a sense of agency.2 The ability to manage one’s emotions better prepares children and youth to cope with school stress and successfully navigate social demands later in life.
3. Social Awareness
The abilities to understand and empathize with the perspectives of others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts. Empathy, compassion, and acceptance are key social awareness skills. Being socially aware also means being able to recognize the influence that systems have on social norms.2 Young people need to be able to adopt other perspectives in order to think, behave, and perform ethically and compassionately.
4. Relationship Skills
Relationship skills include one’s ability to establish and maintain healthy, supportive relationships and effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. Relationship skills might include communication skills, negotiation skills, conflict resolution, and cultural competency.2 The earlier people learn to effectively set and maintain healthy boundaries, the better.
5. Responsible Decision-making
Good decision-making is the ability to make caring, constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.Learning to be responsible also means demonstrating curiosity, being open-minded, having the ability to identify solutions, and having reasonable judgment.2 Young people need to be taught to make positive choices and deal with making mistakes by processing and learning from them.
What Instructional Methods Are Used In SEL?
CASEL recommends that teachers use evidence-based programs and tools. The acronym SAFE (sequenced, active, focused, and explicit) is suggested as a guide to help teachers select the most appropriate and effective SEL activities and curriculum to use in classrooms.2
SEL activities are usually instructed in group form, allowing for active participation vs. lecture. Skills taught in SEL are transferable and designed to support academic growth. For example, if a student is struggling in a certain subject, that’s a good time to remind them to practice self-compassion and ways to love themselves.
SEL For Young Children (0-5)
SEL looks different across all levels of education. In preschool, learning these skills can be through instruction, practicing classroom management, and by modeling what healthy personal and interpersonal skills look like.2,4 In the 0-5 age range, SEL may look like teaching children to reduce anger or aggression, interact within a healthy classroom, and practice self-control through physically and emotionally-regulating activities.5
SEL For Children & Teens
Children ages 6-10 start to experience mixed emotions, which can be confusing; this is a good time to foster opportunities for peers to learn and accept differences or perspectives.5 For older children experiencing puberty, their interest and investment in relationships becomes greater, so SEL may be focused on increasing emotional intelligence.5
Do Schools Track SEL Scores?
Some schools require SEL benchmarks to be reported and accounted for while others do not. Many districts and states have their own assessment guides readily available for instructors to utilize at their own will. Some education departments at the state or district level provide guidance on standards that are outlined by CASEL.
Teachers may create their own standards for measurement, too. At this time CASEL does not officially recommend any specific measures but does provide resources to support the quality of implementation of SEL.2
What Can Social & Emotional Learning Help With?
Social and emotional learning reminds students to be in tune with their own emotions by recognizing them, learning to cope, and pushing forward. Having a healthy sense of self means being able to recognize emotions – positive, negative, or neutral. SEL also decreases the stigma attached to talking about mental health issues like generalized anxiety disorder by recognizing commonly experienced anxiety symptoms in children and teens.
Many students feel social pressure to fit in, even at early ages, and experience highs and lows related to confidence and self-esteem. Just knowing what is or is not an appropriate response to what they are going through provides a pathway to navigate feelings of insecurity.
The National Center for Education Statistics suggests that 1 in 5 children ages 12-18 will experience bullying.6 Bullying comes in all forms including physical, emotional, or psychological. It’s no question that optimal learning environments are free from violence, intimidation, or threats. Teaching students empathy is critical to social cohesion. SEL is a way to teach students that not only is bullying unacceptable, but it’s unhealthy and harmful.
CASEL recommends that teachers and instructors use evidence-based activities and curriculum for social and emotional learning. Many lessons incorporate instruction on more than one of the five competencies at the same time.
Here are three SEL examples:
1. Dealing With Anxiety
Children experience anxiety, so it’s important for them to understand what’s normal. For example, it is normal for students to feel somewhat anxious before a test. That anxiety may motivate them to study and prepare to take the exam. However, if they’re losing sleep, experiencing significant distress, feeling physical pain, or having test anxiety that consumes their thoughts, these are warning signs to look out for.
This is an opportunity for students to pause, recognize, and get in tune with their emotions and learn some techniques like mindfulness to combat overwhelming feelings.
Presenting social scenarios (“What would you do?”) is a great way to get kids talking about bullying and cyberbullying, fostering ethical decision-making, and practicing empathy. Social scenarios also provide an opportunity for young people to voice their opinions and address conflict. They can be administered in individual or group settings, but they make for a great opportunity for rich, open dialogue among classmates.
Social scenario discussions are used with students in late elementary all the way through high school and the subject matter can be altered to match the appropriate emotional maturity at any grade level.
For young children, instructors may select activities that promote healthy social interaction like sharing. Something as simple as playing among the group is a good opportunity for adults to model and narrate what appropriate socializing looks like. Children at this age thrive on validation and seek guidance for how to behave.
Although young children may not fully grasp the concept of conflict resolution yet, they learn through repetition and by watching adults manage such conflict and reflect back solutions.
How Can Parents Promote Social & Emotional Learning?
Parents can be engaged with SEL outside of the classroom and at home. There are many components of the family system that are impacted by parental influence; however, children have just as significant an impact on the family.7 Children and youth who learn self management and social awareness may have more positive experiences at home.
Parents communicate what healthy relationships look like. Children pick up on cues from adults and learn how to handle conflict by reflecting back what is presented to them. In some cases, parents and teachers should be partnering together to provide skill-building solutions that are congruent across systems and not confusing for the child.
When parents struggle, they may also benefit from adopting SEL competencies.7 Adults who can self-regulate may have more capacity to co-regulate with a child. Knowing how to react in complex parenting situations is a skill that can be learned and relearned throughout the life cycle.7
What if SEL Is Not Taught In My Child’s School? What Techniques Can I Use?
Not all states require schools to enforce social and emotional learning instruction, but these skills are still important. Parents may want to have conversations with their child’s teachers about what social and emotional learning is being promoted in the classroom. Additionally, if your child is being bullied or involved in bullying, SEL group activities are a great way to address issues with classroom culture and climate.
Is Social & Emotional Learning Effective?
Those who work in school systems generally agree that SEL is not only a good investment of time and tax dollars, but critical to the development of well-rounded citizens.2,3 CASEL is involved in congressional conversations about the state of the education system and plays a big role in the responsibility of informing policymakers about the developmental needs of children and youth.
Here are studies that support the efficacy of SEL programs:
- The 2015 review from Columbia University suggests that for every $1 spent on SEL instruction, there is an $11 return on that investment.2
- In 2016, the National Convention on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released a report called From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope, outlining the benefits of SEL investment.
- Additionally, CASEL provides a summary of the four major meta-analyses on SEL that were conducted in 2017. This review of studies suggests that SEL produces long-term effects.
The History of Social & Emotional Learning
CASEL was founded in 1994 as a local non-profit based on decades-old research at Yale University that supported the development of the whole child. CASEL and the term SEL were born and the collaborative eventually became a global leader in the concept of social and emotional learning.2,8
Social and emotional learning became recognized as critically important to early childhood development at the federal level and all 50 states adopted pre-k competency standards.2 In 2004, Illinois became the first state to require SEL instruction in K-12th grade, with additional states following suit.2,8