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5 myths about social-emotional learning

By Amanda Morin

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) at home and in school. In fact, SEL is already being implemented in many classrooms.

Numerous studies show that SEL builds the foundation for thriving in life — inside and outside the classroom. Kids with strong social-emotional skills: 

  • Get along better with others 

  • Have an increased ability to manage stress 

  • Are more likely to graduate from high school 

  • Have key social skills that employers are looking for

  • Are less likely to be involved in the criminal system 

But there are still misconceptions about SEL. Here are five of the most common myths — with the facts to debunk them. 

Myth #1: Social-emotional learning only teaches kids about feelings.

Fact: Emotional intelligence (the ability to be smart about feelings) is only one of the many parts of SEL.

In fact, SEL helps kids develop a wide range of skills, from coping with feelings to decision-making. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leader in the field of SEL, identifies five core competencies that make up SEL:

  1. Self-awareness: Know your own emotions, strengths, and challenges and how they impact your actions. Have a growth mindset about your skills. 

  2. Self-management: Self-regulate and use , like planning and organization, impulse control, and setting goals.

  3. Social awareness: Understand other perspectives, show empathy, respect diversity, and understand social norms.

  4. Relationship skills: Build and maintain relationships, communicate clearly, cooperate, and resolve conflict.

  5. Responsible decision-making: Make positive choices about how to behave and interact with others. Think about how your actions affect yourself and others.

Watch this video from Edutopia to learn how social-emotional learning helps kids become engaged learners.

Myth #2: Social-emotional skills aren’t as important as “hard skills.”

Fact: Social-emotional skills are often referred to as “soft skills,” but they’re just as important as “hard skills.” Soft skills (sometimes called people skills) allow us to get along and work well with other people, communicate effectively, be empathetic, and solve problems. These skills can be difficult to measure, but they’re essential.

Hard skills are the skills required for completing a task. For instance, knowing multiplication facts or being able to read are hard skills. These skills are easily measured and demonstrated.

According to research, developing strong social-emotional skills increases academic achievement. For example, being able to manage emotions while learning something new can help students work through challenges.

Watch this video to learn more about why SEL skills are “essential skills.”

Myth #3: Kids learn social-emotional skills automatically.

Fact: People aren’t born knowing how to manage emotions, get along with others, and solve problems. These skills are learned over time. 

Sometimes kids can pick up social-emotional skills by seeing them in action. But most often, they need explicit instruction to understand and practice these skills. For instance, kids who struggle with executive functioning skills might have trouble paying attention, regulating emotions, or staying quiet in class. Teachers can demonstrate strategies that help students develop these skills. Parents can do the same thing at home.

Myth #4: There’s only one way to teach SEL.

Fact: There’s no one right way to teach SEL. Every child has different needs. Families have different backgrounds and cultures. Teachers, who work with a diverse group of students, can use what they know about their students to design SEL lessons in which all students can fully access and apply these skills.

Teachers may combine culturally responsive teaching with SEL to help students understand one another and to show each student that they’re valued. For instance, nonverbal cues like eye contact can have different meanings in different cultures. In the dominant culture of the United States, eye contact often shows confidence. But in other cultures, it can show disrespect. Knowing their students’ cultural norms helps teachers design SEL lessons.

Sometimes, differences in cultural norms and expectations can lead to hard but important conversations. Older kids may want to talk about how race, gender, class, or other forms of identity affect how different people are expected to act.

Myth #5: SEL is only for kids with behavioral issues.

Fact: SEL is for all kids — and adults, too. We all continue to develop these skills throughout our lives.

Social-emotional skills aren’t only about how people outwardly express themselves. They’re also about how people react inwardly. 

At school, one student might show frustration over a math assignment by shouting or crumpling up the paper. That student needs help with self-regulation. Another might quietly work through a challenging math problem but feel like a failure inside. The quiet student needs help with social-emotional skills, too. 

SEL helps parents and teachers understand that all behavior is communicating something . Then you can talk with kids about what’s behind their behavior and figure out what will help.

Every child needs to know how to recognize challenges, ask for help, and think about how they feel. It’s important to teach those skills so kids can thrive in school, at home, and in the community. 

For educators

Become better informed about social-emotional learning , its benefits, and ways to integrate it into your classroom. 

Use evidence-based strategies to support SEL throughout the day. For instance, use pre-correcting and prompting to tell and remind students of expectations. Use respectful redirection to help students with communication skills like tone of voice and body language. 

Knowing more about your students helps, too. Learn about the science behind connecting with students and building strong relationships with them. Remember to also partner with students’ families . SEL happens in all areas of a student’s life.

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