Skip to content
  • Managing emotions
  • School supports
  • Social skills

What is social-emotional learning?

By Alexis Clark, MA, MS

At a Glance

  • Social-emotional learning (SEL) helps kids work on things like coping with feelings and setting goals.

  • It also helps with interpersonal skills like working in teams and resolving conflicts.

  • SEL can help kids who learn and think differently talk about their challenges and build self-esteem.

Do you ever have trouble setting goals or making decisions? What about coping with emotions? Or getting along with — and feeling empathy for — others? These are all important social and emotional skills. And some schools are explicitly teaching them to kids.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing and using social and emotional skills. (You also may hear SEL referred to as socio-emotional learning or social-emotional literacy.)

People with strong social-emotional skills are better equipped to manage daily challenges, build positive relationships, and make informed decisions. SEL helps students and adults thrive in school and in life. And the skills can be taught and learned from preschool all the way through adulthood.

That’s important because people aren’t born knowing how to manage emotions, solve problems, and get along with others. These kinds of skills have to be developed, and schools can help students learn them. It’s also important to know that some students may need targeted supports to fully benefit from SEL.

See an expert explain what SEL is and what it can look like in school.

Dive deeper

5 types of social-emotional learning skills

The leader in the field of SEL instruction is CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning). It focuses on five key areas that make up SEL:

  • Self-awareness, like identifying emotions, recognizing strengths and needs, and developing a growth mindset

  • Self-management, like managing emotions, controlling impulses, and setting goals

  • Social awareness, like seeing things from other people’s perspective, showing empathy, and appreciating diversity

  • Relationship skills, like communication, cooperation, and conflict resolution

  • Responsible decision-making, including thinking about the consequences of personal behavior

Learn  how kids develop social-emotional skills at different ages.

How social-emotional learning helps kids

More and more research points to social and emotional skills — like cooperating and helping others — as the foundation for thriving in life. Research shows that SEL instruction can lead to:

  • Less emotional distress

  • Fewer disciplinary incidents

  • Increases in school attendance

  • Improved test scores and grades

One study started tracking a group of students in kindergarten and followed them for nearly two decades. It found that young kids with strong SEL skills were more likely to graduate from high school and get a full-time job. 

Learn more about how SEL helps kids as they grow up.

Teaching social-emotional learning in school

SEL can be taught in many ways. But there are some common SEL programs or approaches. These include:

  • Responsive Classroom

  • Open Circle 

  • RULER (which stands for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion)

SEL instruction isn’t limited to a lesson a day. Teachers can help kids practice SEL skills throughout the day in any classroom. SEL is often part of schoolwide efforts to promote positive behavior. 

Learn more about positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) and how schoolwide SEL can help prevent bullying.

Examples of social-emotional learning activities

Social and emotional skills can be taught to students of all ages. The younger kids are when they start learning how to build these skills, the better. But research shows that working on them during adolescence can also help. The key is to meet students where they are.

Here are examples of how SEL can be woven into traditional lesson plans at different ages:

  • Preschool: Show students how to work in pairs, like reading a book together. Point out how to center the book between two students and how to take turns flipping the pages. This helps kids learn about sharing and think about the needs of others.

  • Grade school: Ask students to identify their strengths and weaknesses as part of math instruction. Encourage students to fill in part of a grid or a pie chart to show how strong they feel at a particular skill.

  • Middle school: Show students how to make the classroom a safe space where everyone can express themselves, like saying whether their weekend was good or bad. For example, the class can agree that there’s no teasing allowed.

  • High school: Help teens practice taking the perspectives of other people. Have them define and use the word empathy and break into small groups to reflect on how and why someone fought for justice and equality.

Parents and caregivers: Check out social-emotional learning games to try with your child.

Supporting kids who learn and think differently in school

Kids who learn and think differently often struggle with self-regulation and other SEL skills. They may also struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem. But targeted supports can help them fully participate in SEL. 

Here are some ways teachers can support struggling students:

  • Talk about your own challenges. Make clear that everyone has specific areas in which they struggle. This can help kids see that they aren’t the only ones who have trouble.

  • Guide kids through the process of self-reflection. Try SEL activities that use yoga or other kinds of movement. This can help kids slow down and think, especially if they struggle with or impulse control.

  • Give all kids equal opportunities to succeed. Offer more than one way for kids to access SEL material and show what they know. 

Learn more about Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

Next steps

The ultimate goal of SEL is to teach kids to understand and respect themselves and others. 

When kids get the help they need to understand themselves and one another, SEL can lead to positive outcomes in school and beyond.

Related topics

  • Managing emotions
  • School supports
  • Social skills

Tell us what interests you

See your recommendations

Tell us what interests you

Select the topics you want to learn more about

See your recommendations


Did you know we have a community app for parents?

Learn More About Wunder

executive function challenges

Share What is social-emotional learning?

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom

Share What is social-emotional learning?

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Email
  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom