Buzzword Alert: What is "Social-Emotional Learning?"

Tahlea Jankoski | Published  June 16, 2017



If you are one of many educators you may have heard the new buzz about "social-emotional learning." What is this concept and what does this mean for your classroom?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a concept that has been around for several years and has recently been gaining more attention. In fact, a growing number of districts and schools are finding it important to focus on a social-emotional learning framework to improve academic outcomes and help students develop social and emotional skills that are necessary for life. 

What is social-emotional learning? Why is it building momentum as an education strategy?

SEL is the process by which children and adults learn to apply their knowledge, attitudes, and skills to manage emotions, develop empathy for others, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. 

The SEL framework is used by schools to help educators, families, and communities support each student's social, emotional, and academic learning. The hope is that teaching social and emotional skills can help children avoid conflicts or disciplinary actions arising from challenging student behavior, although educators see benefits that reach far beyond the classroom. 

How is SEL integrated into the classroom?

In everything from curriculum to classroom interaction, educators choose lesson plans that fit within the SEL framework and integrate core subjects to create a more meaningful and applicable learning experience. 

SEL has a wide range of influences: 

  • Informs curriculum choice and classroom instruction
  • Improves partnerships among families, educators, and the community
  • Helps students recognize and manage their emotions
  • Develops effective problem solving skills
  • Helps students develop empathy for others
  • Creates positive relationships
  • Teaches responsible decision making

Beyond managing students or teaching social skills

SEL doesn't feature typical classroom rules or employ strategies to get students to be kind to each other: it helps students create their own successful learning environment, rules, and consequences with the support of their teachers, peers, and families. 

Using SEL principles, students practice role playing to learn to manage their emotions. Life skills are combined with core classroom subjects to create an active learning environment that also provides opportunities for reflection and awareness. 

A common way for SEL to be applied in the classroom starts by a teacher explaining a concept with a variety of tools, for example, pictures, videos, audio, and words. Students then practice the concept through group discussion, individual writing, working with a partner, or practice developing a related skill. 

The teacher reinforces the concept throughout the week and sends materials home so that parents can help their children deepen understanding of the concept. Students are evaluated by the teacher to see if the concept has been applied and understood. 

Opposing viewpoints on SEL in the classroom

Applying SEL in the classroom does not have universal support. In the debate over its use, many believe it is the parent's responsibility to teach their child SEL skills; some feel that implementing SEL in the classroom oversteps what should be taught at home. Opponents of SEL in the classroom also raise concerns about how schools assess this learning style, as it requires a subjective analysis. 

How does social-emotional learning influence students?

Researchers are finding that SEL helps improve academic achievement. A study by the Collaboration for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) reviewed over 700 programs with quality SEL curriculum, finding improved student behavior and an increase in test scores. A meta-analysis of 213 schools found that SEL students had significant improvements in attitudes, behaviors, social-emotional skills, and academic performance. 

Integrating SEL into the curriculum helps students feel safer in their learning environment, build healthy study habits, develop social skills, and deepen relationships; it also helps increase the effectiveness of the teaching. Educators explain that when children feel supported by their families and teachers, academic performance, test scores, and graduation rates can increase. 

SEL in all aspects of life

Ideally, SEL skills should not be learned solely in school, but also within the family, in the community, and among peers. With these skills and tools, taught and modeled in a variety of settings, students can more fully achieve academic success and develop life skills for the future. 


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