What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Education has shifted in the last few decades due to a better understanding of effective learning. Where once the classroom was stoic, rudimentary, and uniform, it is now lively and complex. We now understand that the way kids walk into the room matters, and how they feel about their teacher matters. The methods of learning go beyond the textbook and the “right” approach is unique to every student.

Focusing on these methodologies has changed classroom environments and the effectiveness of teaching. But do students, particularly young ones, need a different approach? School is about preparing students for the future and social-emotional learning is as important as any math or science lesson.

But what is social-emotional learning (SEL)? Teachers have enough to focus on, so why is SEL so important and how do teachers implement it into their already-packed lesson plans? We’ll cover that and more below.

What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Social-emotional learning in a school setting

Social-emotional learning is the way in which we manage and understand our emotions while responding to the world around us. This includes how we process empathy and maintain healthy relationships. Setting positive goals and making good decisions are a keystone teaching social-emotional learning skills.

Social-emotional education is the concept of teaching children how to respond to the world including:

  • How to solve problems and overcome challenges
  • How to manage their emotions when they aren’t getting their way
  • How to treat others
  • How to control impulses control

These children will one day be parents, politicians, business owners, and employees. It’s vital that they learn, from an early age, how to tackle their role in the world and schools have long been their guide into the future. Apart from home, children spend most of their development time at school, and educational institutions should capitalize on that time by implementing social-emotional learning in the classroom. 

In past generations, developing these skills was a matter of life’s many trials and errors of life with some parental assistance. This might work, but it leaves many gaps. There are so many children without the foundation to develop these skills and since they’re vital to managing careers at work and life at home, it’s important for schools to contribute to their knowledge.

Social-Emotional Learning Theory

The application of social-emotional learning is more intentional in modern education, but it’s not a new concept. In fact, the theory of social-emotional learning stretches back to the ancient Greeks. In The Republic, Plato’s most notable work, he called for an education in character and morals along with the standard lessons in art, math, science, and physical education. 

"By maintaining a sound system of education and upbringing, you produce citizens of good character."- Plato

In the 1960s, James Comer expanded this theory exponentially. During his time at Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, Comer wrote an academic paper for Scientific American. It centered on how “the contrast between a child's experiences at home and those in school deeply affects the child's psychosocial development and that this in turn shapes academic achievement.”

From there, Yale’s Development Program focused on two low-scoring schools with the intention to improve attendance and academic scoring by changing school procedures. They altered social and academic programs that may have accelerated bad behavior and as a result, these two schools exceeded national averages by the early 1980s. Truancy and behavioral issues were also reduced, starting an entire movement and credence to social-emotional education.

It is still an evolving study, and there is plenty of room for improvement as the application of this form of education expands.

Social-Emotional Learning Standards

Social and emotional learning standards aren’t exactly set in stone; many vary from state to state, but they all attempt to define what it means to be socially and emotionally intelligent by breaking down various attitudes and behaviors. 

Though they vary, there are core competencies in every state’s standards. These include the ability to:

  • Identify your own emotions
  • Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses
  • Control impulses
  • Set goals
  • Motivate yourself
  • Organize your thoughts and tasks
  • Have confidence in yourself 
  • Be empathetic and kind
  • Respect others
  • Understand that others have belief systems that may differ from their own
  • Listen attentively
  • Communicate clearly
  • Accept diversity
  • Cooperate with others
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Identify and solve problems
  • Self-reflect
  • Build healthy relationships

Social-Emotional Learning Strategies

When we talk about traditional teaching strategies, we might think of various tools, such as a set of notecards that teachers can pull out of the drawer for instructions on when, where, and how to implement a methodology. However, this isn’t the case for SEL education. Similar to classroom management, teachers aren’t supplied with much instruction on implementation.

Even with significant training on SEL, there’s often little time to focus on it. Teachers are focused on hitting required academic benchmarks and getting through their curriculum. They often spend time attempting to correct students’ behavioral issues, which again, they receive little training on. In fact, only eight hours out of most teacher education programs focus on behavior management, so time is often used inefficiently This results in less time for plan, and even less for social-emotional learning. 

That doesn’t mean there's no hope for the inclusion of social and emotional learning, but it will require dedicated effort. It’s far more effective when the entire school, including the administration, are on board. It should be a program implemented by the institution as a whole. The first step is to understand the strategies to achieve social-emotional learning standards. 

Below are some of the easiest and most effective strategies schools can adopt, although there are many more ways to implement SEL in the classroom.

11 Easy Strategies to Implement Social-Emotional Learning into Classrooms

  1. Start the day with encouragement
  2. Work in partners and groups
  3. Nurture kindness
  4. Add inspiring messaging to classroom walls
  5. Mediate problems
  6. Roleplay
  7. Talk time
  8. Play games
  9. Teach students how to monitor their own progress
  10. Interview each other
  11. Art and writing

Start the day with encouragement

Greeting students at the door in a unique way helps to develop personal connections. For some, this may mean a handshake, for others, a hug. Understand your students and what they need from you. At the very least, say hello to each of them as they walk through the door.

Work in partners and groups

Learning doesn’t have to be a solo experience. Working together to finish projects benefits students  through collaborative problem-solving. It also fosters a sense of community in the classroom. The same goes for group projects. They’ll learn to deliberate, lead, and understand their unique strengths.

Nurture kindness

There are many ways to foster and nurture kindness in the classroom. One way is to praise those who behave kindly to others. Sometimes, it doesn’t bode well to punish those who misbehave. Instead, bolstering good behavior can act as a deterrent to bad behavior.

You can encourage kindness by placing a kindness bucket in the classroom where kids can write nice messages about others to be shared each week. You may encounter some less-than-kind notes in there. If so, it’s best for them altogether. Once they see those messages aren’t getting the reactions they desired, they’ll see no reason to continue.

Add inspiring messages to the classroom walls

This is perhaps one of the easiest strategies for building social-emotional skills. Hang signs such as “treat others the way you wish to be treated” or inspirational quotes about overcoming difficulties. Surrounding them with positive messages is very effective. Environment is everything, and your classroom should reflect positivity.

Mediate problems

Students are going to have disputes with one another, but how they manage those disputes differs based on their social-emotional intelligence. In the case of a dispute, have students sit together in a quiet area to work out the problem. Having a third person who is trained in conflict resolution there to mediate is most effective. It’s a great method for fostering healthier relationships and developing communication skills. It also helps them reflect on their emotions and how to voice them.


Acting out the lives of others is a great method of teaching emotional intelligence. Sometimes you have to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand them. This could be a part of the academic curriculum, too. Have the students pick a historical figure to do a project on. You may want to create a list to help narrow it down, though giving them the freedom to choose is beneficial. Instruct students to learn about that person’s life, not just the things that made them famous.

Talk time

Talk time is an effective way of letting students learn on their own. Children naturally develop the neural pathways for skills like communication. If they’re stuck in a class all day, looking at a whiteboard or computer, they don’t have much opportunity to talk. Even in group projects, educational topics preside. Giving them a five-minute break helps to reset their minds. It also makes them more productive and focused once the break is over.

Play games

There are many games students can play that promote critical thinking and team-building. This will help keep the lesson engaging and interesting, as well as build their social skills.

Teach them how to monitor their progress

Developing social-emotional intelligence requires the acknowledgment of one’s emotions. By asking students to think about the personal progress they’ve made, you’re teaching them self-reflection. It will help them learn that they can improve by fostering a growth-mindset through recognition of abilities and weaknesses. From there, they can learn to make modifications and improve even more. At the start of the school year, instruct them to write down their goals. Every few months, they should revisit these goals, check off what they’ve accomplished, and write down new ones.

Interview each other

Having students interview each other is a great method of teaching empathy. They should ask each other about their hobbies, interests, and unique family traditions. This will help students to see that everyone’s experience is different from their own. Not every student will be comfortable with this, so it’s important to personally know your students and what the limits of the interview should be. A confidential questionnaire at the beginning of the year can be helpful.

Art and writing

Some students have a harder time expressing themselves in words. This is where art and writing come in. We all know that art is expression, and sometimes it’s the best way to get out the deeper emotions. It’s also a good way to get students to reflect on their lives and emotions.

How to Implement Social-Emotional in the Classroom

Knowing and applying the strategies isn’t enough to provide a social-emotional education. It requires the effort of the entire school, the students, and their parents—but it starts with you. Even if they don’t engage in SEL, you can. 

Create a solid foundation for your class. Start small by simply greeting students at the door. Acknowledge kindness and remind students that mistakes are natural. Reflect on your own flaws and be open with students. Establish a relationship with them based on the idea that they are equal to you and play a role in their education just as much as you do. Listen to them. Discover their goals and help them find their own. Focus on building a positive community in the classroom—everything else will follow.

Implementing changes to your teaching style can be difficult, and it can be even harder for students. Start by focusing on mindfulness. From there, you can slowly adopt other strategies in the classroom.

As more time is spent online, it can be harder for kids to develop the social-emotional skills they need. GoGuardian filtering and monitoring software keeps kids safe online and offers a chance to teach digital citizenship. 

Learn more about digital citizenship, content filtering, and easy classroom management at GoGuardian.

  1. GoGuardian Beacon serves as one data point of a school's overall suicide prevention program.