Social Emotional Learning (SEL) & Why It Matters for Educators

As an educator, some of the worst things you can hear a student say is, “This is stupid,” or “Why are we learning this?” Think back to when you were in school and the subjects that caused you the most frustration. You’d likely find some common ground with your students in wishing you were given clear reasons why something was important and how learning a subject or skill would benefit you now, as well as years later. 

That frustration and finding constructive ways to deal with emotions and interact with one another in respectful ways are just a few of the guiding principles behind social emotional learning, or SEL. 

Today, in an ever-diversifying world, the classroom is the place where students are often first exposed to people who hail from a range of different backgrounds, hold differing beliefs, and have unique capabilities. To account for these differences and help put all students on an equal footing to succeed, social and emotional learning (SEL) aims to help students — both children and adults — better understand their thoughts and emotions, to become more self-aware, and to develop more empathy for others within their community and the world around them. 

By developing these qualities in the classroom, it can help students become better, more productive, self-aware, and socially-aware citizens outside of the classroom in the years ahead. Learn more about the importance of social emotional learning, as well as its benefits both in and out of the classroom. 

What is SEL in Education?

Social emotional learning (SEL) is a methodology that helps students of all ages to better comprehend their emotions, to feel those emotions fully, and demonstrate empathy for others. These learned behaviors are then used to help students make positive, responsible decisions; create frameworks to achieve their goals, and build positive relationships with others.

The Five Social Emotional Learning Competencies

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization devoted to students and educators to help achieve positive outcomes for PreK-12 students, SEL involves five core competencies that can be applied in both the classroom, at home, and in students’ communities. These five core competencies are:

  • Self-awareness – To recognize your emotions and how they impact your behavior; acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses to better gain confidence in your abilities.
  • Self-management – To take control and ownership of your thoughts, emotions, and actions in various situations, as well as setting and working toward goals. 
  • Social awareness – The ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person who may be from a different background or culture from the one you grew up with. To act with empathy and in an ethical manner within your home, school, and community. 
  • Relationship skills – The ability to build and maintain healthy relationships with people from a diverse range of backgrounds. This competency focuses on listening to and being able to communicate with others, peacefully resolving conflict, and knowing when to ask for or offer help.
  • Making responsible decisions – Choosing how to act or respond to a situation based on learned behaviors such as ethics, safety, weighing consequences and the well-being of others, as well as yourself. 

How Educators Approach SEL

While SEL isn’t a designated subject like history or math, it can be woven into the fabric of a school’s curriculum. When educators make academic lessons more personal and relatable to students, students may be more inclined to participate and may be less likely to mentally check-out during their subjects. By fostering a sense of empathy, self-awareness, and feelings of safety and inclusiveness in the classroom, SEL can have a positive impact that lasts a lifetime. 

There are several different approaches to SEL. Some teachers have a more formally designated portion of the school day devoted to SEL — sometimes taught in homeroom. These lessons become a recurring theme throughout the rest of the school day to help make the core competencies of SEL more real to students. Teachers may want to have students journal or write about their thoughts and feelings on a particular SEL lesson, or even have younger students partner with an older “buddy classroom” (or vice versa) to help students across different age levels bond or find common ground.

Other teachers work SEL-related lessons into more formal subjects, like math, history, or reading. For instance, examples of SEL-in-action can include assigning a group project where students self-delegate roles to work together for the good of the group, role playing as historical figures to understand the rationale behind a person’s actions, or for students to conduct formal interviews with one another to take a pulse-check on current events. Teachers can also work with students to set goals in areas where they may need improvement and help chart their progress, giving them a measurable way to show their achievement and feel a sense of accomplishment. 

The Benefits of SEL

SEL is helpful to both children and adults, increasing self-awareness, academic achievement, and positive behaviors both in and out of the classroom. 

From an academic standpoint, students who participated in SEL programs saw an 11 percentile increase in their overall grades and better attendance. On a more individual level, the skills learned within an SEL program have been shown to help students better cope with emotional stress, solve problems, and avoid peer pressure to engage in harmful activities. 

Students who are equipped to deal with problems that affect them on a personal level are then better able to navigate the pressures of adult life. A 2016 report by the AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity noted that, “despite their importance to education, employment, and family life, the major educational and social reforms of the K-12 system over the last few decades have not focused sufficiently on the socio-emotional factors that are crucial to learning.” 

A 2015 study published by the American Journal of Public Health tracked students from low-income or rural areas over a period of 13 to 19 years to look at how they were impacted after having taken part in an SEL program during kindergarten. The study showed that exposing students to an SEL program at a young age helped educators evaluate which children may have been at-risk for mental health issues, substance abuse, or criminal behavior.

When educators are able to see which students do not grasp the core pillars of SEL, they can better work with them at an early age and help these students develop better self-control, empathy, and other positive qualities. Learning positive behaviors that extend beyond a purely academic level of achievement can help these students develop the “soft skills” required of many jobs, such as teamwork, an ability to understand others, and problem-solving. This can help set these students up for success throughout their school years and beyond.

Why is SEL Important?

While SEL has been more formally stood up as a program in preschools throughout all 50 states, very few states have made SEL a designated part of school curriculum at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. To date, only three states have a fully-designed set of standards for SEL programs with benchmarks for students at every grade level from K-12, according to the AEI/Brookings report. These states are Illinois, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. 

Because so few states have made SEL a part of their curriculum for K-12 students, statistical evidence showing the benefits of SEL has been anecdotal. However, preschool-age children who were able to participate in an SEL program and learned these principles early on in their school career were able to reap the intended benefits. As more states and schools consider weaving SEL into their curriculum, it can provide educators with more statistically significant evidence of the program’s positive impact. 

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