Social-Emotional Learning: What You Need to Know

By Alexis Clark, MA, MS

At a Glance

  • Social-emotional learning 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.

  • In schools, an emphasis on social-emotional learning can help reduce bullying and disciplinary incidents.

Have you heard the term social-emotional learning, or SEL? Maybe SEL is something your district has decided to make a priority. Or maybe SEL is a skillset that you’ve been hearing a lot about in professional development.

But what is social and emotional learning? And why is it so important? Here’s what you need to know about SEL.

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning is the process of developing and using social and emotional skills. It’s the skillset we use to cope with feelings, set goals, make decisions, and get along with—and feel empathy for—others. (You also might 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 your students aren’t born knowing how to manage emotions, solve problems, and get along with others. These kinds of skills have to be developed, and you can work to help your students learn them.

Social-Emotional Learning Skills

The leader in the field of SEL instruction is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). It identifies five key areas (core competencies) 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

The Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning

More and more research points to social and emotional skills—like cooperating and helping others—as the foundation of thriving in life. Students with strong skills in these areas get along better with their peers. They’re also more likely to graduate from high school and get a full-time job.

One long-term study looked at the connection between kids’ early social-emotional skills and their well-being as young adults. The study started tracking a group of students in kindergarten. Teachers rated them on a scale of one to five, based on their ability to do things like sharing and listening to others.

The study followed these students for nearly two decades. It found that for every point higher the kindergartners scored on that five-point scale, they were:

  • 54 percent more likely to get a high school diploma

  • Twice as likely to get a college degree in early adulthood

  • 46 percent more likely to have a full-time job at the age of 25

Other research has looked at SEL instruction. Early findings show it can lead to:

  • Less emotional distress

  • Fewer disciplinary incidents

  • Increases in school attendance

  • Improved test scores and grades

Social-Emotional Learning at School

The core competencies can be taught in many ways and across settings. SEL instruction often focuses on kids’ emotional intelligence. The ultimate goal is to teach kids to understand and respect themselves and others. This naturally leads to more positive behavior that promotes social acceptance and friendship. Those skills together are often referred to prosocial behavior.

You may use explicit instruction to outline learning goals for SEL-specific activities and explain the SEL skills to students. But social-emotional learning can happen in more than just a lesson a day. You can provide opportunities to practice these skills in any class or content area.

Making SEL a part of the school culture—across classrooms and throughout the day—is a big part of schoolwide efforts to improve student well-being. A schoolwide emphasis is often implemented as part of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS). PBIS efforts around social-emotional well-being can also help reduce bullying and build community.

Different schools use different approaches to SEL. But there are some common evidence-based SEL programs or approaches that you may be familiar with. These include Responsive Classroom, Open Circle, and RULER. (RULER stands for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing, and regulating emotion.)

These approaches help in the classroom, but they’re often also part of schoolwide efforts that involve your students’ families, too.

Social and Emotional Learning Activities

SEL supports can also help with behavior management. Working on SEL skills can help students understand how and why they’re behaving as they do and what supports they need if their behavior is getting in the way of learning or making friends. This goes hand in hand with PBIS.

SEL can help improve the overall quality and character of school life and improve the school climate. When you’re implementing SEL practices and students get the help they need to understand themselves and one another, SEL can lead to positive outcomes in school and beyond.

SEL skills can be woven into traditional lesson plans. Here are some examples of instruction at different grade levels that you might use:

  • Social-emotional learning activities for preschool: Show students how to work in pairs. You can do this by modeling how to read a book together—pointing out how to hold the book so it’s centered between two students and how to take turns flipping the pages. This kind of explicit instruction can help kids learn about sharing, think about the needs of others, and develop mutual respect.

  • Social-emotional learning activities for grade school: You might ask students to identify their strengths and weaknesses as part of math instruction. You can encourage each child to do things like fill a hundreds grid or a pie chart to show how strong the child feels at a particular skill.

  • Social-emotional learning activities for middle school: At this age, you can focus more on human connection. Do this by getting students to ask one another how their weekend was. Explicit instruction can help make the classroom a safe space where everyone can express themselves and say whether their weekend was good or bad. The class can make an agreement that there’s no teasing or bullying allowed.

  • Social-emotional learning activities for high school: Help teens practice taking the perspectives of other people, like getting them to think about how a character in a book felt or why a historical figure took certain actions. You can ask the class to reflect on how and why someone fought for justice and equality. This builds SEL skills in your students by creating opportunities to discuss these kinds of things in small groups or by having them define and use the word empathy.

SEL skills can also be taught at almost any age through student mentoring. Some of these activities take place in school. Some happen outside of school, like Eye to Eye, whose SEL program was designed specifically for kids who think differently.

Targeted Supports for Social-Emotional Learning

You can teach social and emotional skills 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.

Students 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. Here are some ways you can support them:

  • Know what social-emotional skills to expect at different ages. Knowing what to look for can help you know which skills may need to be taught more explicitly.

  • Talk about challenges. Emphasize that everyone has specific areas in which they struggle. Use examples of ways you struggle to help make the point that they’re not the only ones who have trouble. It can help them feel less alone.  

  • Help students understand how they learn and what kinds of support they need to thrive. Self-awareness is a key part of self-advocacy.

  • Guide students through the process of self-reflection. Targeted supports can help students who struggle with executive functioning issues or impulse control. SEL activities that use yoga or other kinds of movement may help kids slow down and think about next steps.

  • Use Universal Design for Learning (UDL) to give all students equal opportunities to succeed. In school, this approach to teaching and learning gives kids more than one way to access SEL material, engage with it, and show what they know. It can also be used at home. Share with families the story of how one dad tried out UDL at home with his kids.

  • Build social-emotional learning into everyday life. There are fun ways to teach key skills like naming their feelings and learning how to compromise.

Ready to explore more? Learn about the five factors of emotional intelligence in children. Read about self-control in kids and download self-awareness worksheets.

Key Takeaways

  • Working specifically on social-emotional skills can help lead to positive outcomes in school and beyond.

  • Kids of all ages can benefit from SEL instruction.

  • Some kids may need targeted supports to fully benefit from SEL.

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