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.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Alexis Clark, MA, MS is a freelance editor for Understood and an adjunct professor at Columbia Journalism School.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Lynne Kenney, PsyD is a Harvard-trained pediatric psychologist and international educator in Scottsdale, Arizona.