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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) in schools. In fact, you may already incorporate SEL in your classroom.

Numerous studies show that SEL builds the foundation for thriving in life—inside and outside the classroom. Students 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 

Despite the research and increased presence in schools, 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 students 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 students 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:

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

  • Self-management: Self-regulate and use executive functioning skills, like planning and organization, impulse control, and setting goals.

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

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

  • 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 more about the five dimensions of social-emotional learning and how they help students 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.” So-called 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.

Both types of skills are teachable and play an important role in academic success. Having strong social-emotional skills has been shown to increase academic achievement, according to research. 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: Students learn social-emotional skills automatically.  

Fact: Knowing how to manage emotions, get along with others, and solve problems aren’t skills people are born with. They’re learned, developed, and honed over time. 

Sometimes students can pick up social-emotional skills by seeing them in action. But most often, students need explicit instruction to understand and practice these skills. For instance, students who struggle with executive functioning skills might have trouble paying attention, regulating emotions, or staying quiet in class. Explicitly teaching these students to use a strategy that helps them regulate their emotions (as one example) is especially important. 

Myth #4: There is one way or one curriculum to teach SEL.

Fact: There is no one right way to teach SEL to all students. You know that you walk into your classroom each day to diverse students with equally diverse needs. You also bring your own background and biases. You can use what you know about your students to design SEL lessons in which all students can fully access and apply these skills.

Combining culturally responsive teaching with SEL can help students navigate multiple contexts—and show them you value who they are. 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. Get to know your students’ cultural norms so you can take them into consideration as you design your lessons.

Sometimes these cultural norms and expectations can lead to difficult but important conversations. For older students, this may result in conversations about how students’ race, gender, class, or other forms of identity affect how they are expected to act. Talk about how students may already draw on social-emotional skills like self-regulation based on societal expectations.

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

Fact: SEL is for all students. Social-emotional skills aren’t only about how students outwardly express themselves. They’re also about how they react inwardly. 

For example, one student might show frustration over a math assignment by shouting or crumpling up the paper. That student needs help with self-regulation. Another student 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 you and your students understand that all behavior is telling you something. It gives you a language for discussing what’s behind the behavior so you can support students. All students need the tools to recognize challenges, know how to ask for help, and think about how they feel. It’s important to teach those skills to all your students before they know they need them. 

SEL makes sure all students have a safer, more positive learning environment. It gives students access to the skills they need to thrive in school, at home, and in the community. 

What You Can Do Next

SEL starts with you. Become better informed about social-emotional learning, its benefits, and ways to integrate it into your life and 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 can be helpful as well. Learn about the science behind connecting with and building strong relationships with your students. Remember to also partner with students’ families. SEL happens in all areas of a student’s life.

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  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom