April 2, 2019

What Is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

GoGuardian Team
A teacher works with a group of students on their laptops in the library

On any given morning, each of us awakens with a mental checklist of tasks to complete throughout the day. We shower, we get dressed, we go to work. We might have errands to run after work, groceries to pick up, meals to cook, and kids or pets to care for. As you go about completing your own checklists, how often would you say you give thought to the skills, understanding, and abilities necessary to complete each of those everyday tasks?

I’m sure most of us consider the academic skills and knowledge we use in our careers—various types of math, reading, writing, etc. But what about the organizational skills necessary to prioritize tasks and juggle our individual or households daily schedules, the conflict resolution abilities used in assessing and solving problems around the house (from restocking groceries, to major household repairs, and everything in between), or the empathy in making sure children and/or pets are fed and cared for before bed? Each of these scenarios and abilities described above are examples of social and emotional intelligence and its uses and benefits in our lives.

Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is the construction and usage of educational processes that help students learn to understand and regulate their emotions, feel and express empathy, communicate, set and achieve positive goals, and make decisions responsibly.

How Does SEL Work in Schools?

SEL-based educational processes focus on educating and nurturing children as whole people and have been shown to be instrumental in facilitating both short and long-term personal and academic success.

The SEL framework centers around five core competencies that can be applied to school settings:

  • Self-awareness: a student’s ability to recognize and understand their own emotions and behavior.
  • Self-management: a student’s ability to practice goal-setting, personal organization, self-discipline, impulse control, and healthy coping strategies.
  • Social-awareness: a student’s ability to engage respectfully with peers, including understanding and respecting different perspectives, social norms, boundaries, and cultures.
  • Relationship skills: a student’s ability to initiate, build, and maintain healthy relationships with their peers, families, and faculty members.
  • Responsible decision-making: a student’s ability to make choices that consider the interest, safety, and wellbeing of themselves and others.

CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) advises that SEL approaches are most effective when they are SAFE: Sequenced, Active, Focused, and Explicit. What this means for teachers is that SEL approaches should be incorporated into curriculum and classroom activities as targeted and intentional attempts to teach students social and emotional skills at school

Types of SEL Approaches

There is no one way or right way for schools and teachers to implement SAFE approaches to SEL in classrooms, however, here are some examples:

  • Pairing younger students with older students for cross-mentorship - this helps create a sense of fulfillment in older students and belonging in younger students.
  • Modeling appropriate behavior and communication to students - children learn best through seeing and doing. What we show them and how we interact with them influences their learning as much as anything we say.
  • Coaching students on appropriate responses to challenges and conflict - social and emotional skills, like any other skills, take practice and repetition to learn. We must commit to modeling patience and encouraging students to remain patient with themselves and the process when they struggle.
  • Curriculum that incorporates opportunities for teamwork, collaboration, and skill development allow students to build interpersonal skills and practice other developing social and emotional skills.
  • Developing new and creative ways for students to communicate with one another and members of faculty.
  • Classroom meetings and opportunities to engage in moderated dialogue among their peers - having open dialogue with peers helps students learn to communicate more effectively, practice conflict-resolution in talking through any disagreements that might arise, and to be receptive and empathetic toward the opinions and feelings of others.

Whatever approaches to SEL that you implement in your classroom, it’s important to show commitment to and operate with the intent of creating enriched, nurturing classroom environments that actively promote social, emotional, and academic learning.

Partnerships with parents, other faculty, and administrations, as well as schoolwide programs and initiatives that highlight SEL objectives are also fundamental to its successful implementation and utilization. For students to fully benefit from it, social-emotional learning must be a group objective achieved through collaborative efforts.

Impact of SEL on Students

SEL helps empower students with the skills and understanding necessary to succeed academically, in the workplace, and in all other aspects of life. It has been researched and determined to have immediate and positive impacts on students’ moods, behavior, social skills, and teamwork, all of which lead to increased academic success.

But recent studies have also documented the long-term impacts of SEL for students on the overall quality of their lives well into adulthood. SEL has been inversely linked to poverty, unemployment, housing instability, substance use/abuse, and criminal activity. Students who were exposed early to environments that promoted the development of social-emotional skills showing decreased likelihood to experience any of the former social phenomena.

Learning environments that incorporate SEL practices encourage students to grow into adults who can communicate needs and boundaries, set and achieve their goals, and tackle problems and obstacles with the confidence and knowledge necessary to navigate, solve, and surpass them.