What is Social-Emotional Learning and why is it important?

What is social-emotional learning (SEL)?

Helping students to become knowledgeable, responsible and caring is an important priority for us all.

However, today’s young people face unparalleled demands in their everyday lives. They must achieve at school, understand and appreciate others, make the right decisions about social and health practices, resist negative influences both online and offline and contribute to their family and community. It’s a lot!

The primary goal of social-emotional learning is to improve student's capacity to establish and maintain healthy relationships through establishing a safe, positive, and mutually beneficial environment. It’s every teacher’s job to focus on teaching skills around managing emotions and building relationships. These skills are essential to our students' ability to learn and grow. SEL refers to the journey a child embarks on towards independently understanding self, showing empathy, regulating emotions, and managing behavior.

What are the benefits of SEL?

An SEL approach helps students process and integrate their social and emotional skills in school.  According to research, social/emotional learning offers many benefits including: 

  1. Increasing self-awareness, academic achievement, and positive behaviors both in and out of the classroom. 
  2. 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. 
  3. SEL can help set students up for success throughout their school years and beyond. 
  4. 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.

What are the fundamentals of SEL?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) coined the term ‘social and emotional learning’ in the early 1990s. The multidimensional nature of the definition does lead to a variety of approaches and applications. However, CASEL’s framework is the most widely known, and used.

ASEL’s five-point model helps cultivate skills and environments that advance students’ learning and development.

The framework can be used to foster knowledge, skills, and attitudes across five areas of social and emotional competence. It can also be used to establish equitable learning environments and coordinate practices across four key settings that support students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

You can learn more about the CASEL framework on their website.

At the center of the framework are the five core social and emotional competencies—broad, interrelated areas that support learning and development. Circling them are four key settings where students live and grow.


To recognize your emotions and how they impact your behavior; acknowledging your strengths and weaknesses to better gain confidence in your abilities.


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.

Does SEL support equity?

SEL and equity are current buzzwords. But let's think beyond that.

SEL and equity are ideas whose time has come. When we’re thinking about social-emotional learning, we’re thinking about the whole student, the rounded individual. We’re moving past the individual subject matter that we’re teaching. Our K-12 students aren’t simply here to just learn content. The school-home-community environment gives students the opportunity to learn how to be great human beings; how to be kind and understanding, how to be good listeners, and how to care.

Our equitous classroom is crammed full of a diverse student population. Every student’s background, family and community comes to the classroom with them. And we want to elevate each and every one of them, no matter what their background is. 

This video from the American Institute for Research shows the link between social-emotional learning and equity in our classrooms. 

SEL is a way to uplift student voice and promote agency and civic engagement. The goal of SEL is to build skills and competencies that help students successfully navigate and meaningfully contribute to their schools, careers, families, relationships, and multicultural communities.

Want to build an equitable classroom? 

Start with social-emotional learning. SEL can support equity by making children feel safe, strengthening their relationships with peers and teachers, and helping children manage and express their emotions. SEL programs build upon individual student strengths to ensure that they can access and benefit from high quality educational opportunities. 

How to incorporate SEL into your classroom

There are lots of strategies out there to help you to incorporate social-emotional learning into your classrooms. We’ve rounded up the most popular and successful ones below.

1. Be Present and Observant

In order to figure out what students are struggling with, we have to be present and observant. Listening to the words they use to speak with their peers and their responses to negative situations. Making ourselves available, means that our students become open to sharing stories about words that trigger them, peers who hurt them, experiences at home they wish they could change, and even what we can do to make our classroom a more positive environment. We can then start to base discussion topics on what’s important to them, or where the conflict lies.

2. Create a Supportive Atmosphere

Try creating a supportive atmosphere by having students sit in a circle, so they can all see each other. There is one speaker at a time, and students are allowed to step out if they need a moment to collect their feelings. Everyone is asked to be respectful, and accept everyone’s experience as their truth.

3. Share Life Experiences

When possible, try to share experiences from your own life that relate to what the class is discussing. We may not always identify with our students’ life experiences. We might even have a completely different experience based on upbringing, and we should be honest about that. By giving the kids insight into our lives they can feel more comfortable sharing their own experiences. 

4. Celebrate Diversity 

Spend time discussing and learning about people from diverse cultures, backgrounds, and ability levels. Kids need to hear, see, discuss, and understand that we are part of a larger community within our countries and world. Early discussions about diversity can help promote tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion for everyone.

5. Make space for reflective writing

Give students time to journal and free-write. Put on quiet music. Dim the lights. Make writing time a quiet, soothing break from busyness that students will look forward to. For reluctant writers you can provide a menu of optional prompts and even some digital tools to help them to get started. We’ve got a bank of writing prompts to help you to get started. 

6. Teach students to monitor their own progress

Make personal goal-setting (academic, emotional, social, etc.) a regular activity with students. It’ll strengthen their intrapersonal skills and give them ownership of their own learning. Help them develop the habit of revisiting and adjusting their goals often to monitor progress. Am I meeting my goals? What do I need to work on next? How do I want to grow? 

7. Use Read Alouds 

A quick win for integrating SEL into everyday learning is using read alouds. Because it is something educators do so often already. While reading, spend time talking about how some of the characters might think and feel. Use this time to highlight that this is perspective-taking, a skill we use to understand others’ emotions and thoughts. Best of all, it can be done with any text students are already reading. 

Tech tools to strengthen social emotional learning

One of the biggest benefits of using EdTech in social-emotional learning is enabling students to direct their own learning experiences. When they’re learning things they actually want to learn and care about, students tend to engage more and achieve better results. Incorporating technology in SEL helps students work to their strengths and enjoy a more personalized experience in the classroom. Technology in the classroom also helps move towards a more equitable learning experience for students. 

EdTech tools also help with assessment. We can use various tools to better understand how students are doing with SEL skill development and their overall mindsets. Trying formative assessments or capturing other forms of data to show students how they can improve.

1. Personalizing learning and student agency

Personalized learning environments should strive to integrate social-emotional learning into every aspect of the school and classroom culture. It’s no secret that technology allows for greater levels of personalized learning for students. They can stay in their comfort zones when using tech tools. This ensures that they’re not too bored with what they’re learning nor moving too fast. With higher comfort levels often comes increased performance. 

Technology also helps students to build agency. By taking more ownership of their own learning, they’re often able to explore new problem-solving methods and get the chance to make their own decisions.

2. Monitoring student progress

With Edtech comes the ability to track performance, this increased access to student performance data can go a long way. It can show how students are sticking to what they need to learn or changes in their emotional state.

3. Creating deeper relationships

While technology can help students build relationships and give them a starting point for connecting with each other, this is nothing new, so it’s important for teachers to use technology in the ways that work best for their students. Services like Google Hangouts or Skype, for example, often include live translation features powered by artificial intelligence. This allows students to communicate and connect with others in a way that was not previously possible.

Webinar: Social-emotional learning and the role of confidence

If this has sparked your interest in learning more about social-emotional learning and how you can integrate it into your classroom, school, or district. We have even more content for you.

  1. Listen along to this recorded session from Andratesha Fritzgerald, Founder Building Blocks for Brilliance and Allison Posey, Senior Content Editor & Producer at CAST. Andratesha and Allison will discuss identity, learning, and healing through the lens of social-emotional learning. 
  2. Check out our recorded webinar with Michele L. Haiken, Ed.D. on Literacy Tools & Strategies to Strengthen Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Listen along as Michele guides you on how to incorporate SEL in daily and weekly lesson plans in creative ways.

Is there research around SEL?

Several studies explore the long-term benefits of social and emotional learning programs. In one, researchers examined how SEL intervention programs (such as social skills training, parent training with home visits, peer coaching, reading tutoring, and classroom social-emotional curricula) for kindergarten students impacted their adult lives, and found that these programs led to 10% (59% vs. 69% for the control group) fewer psychological, behavioral, or substance abuse problems at the age of 25 (Dodge et al., 2014). 

Another study examined kindergarten teachers’ ratings of their student’s prosocial skills (e.g. kindness, sharing, and empathy) and discovered a strong correlation to adult outcomes such as higher educational attainment, stronger employment, and better mental health, in addition to reduced criminal activity and substance use (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015).

In 2015, researchers analyzed the economic impact of six widely-used SEL programs and found that on average, every dollar invested yields $11 in long-term benefits, ranging from reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and better mental and physical health (Belfield et al., 2015). 

Additional research supports the long-term benefits of SEL programs, finding evidence that investing in high-quality programs for all children can increase the number of productive, well-adjusted adults and yield positive economic benefits in the future (Jones et al., 2017). Finally, a 2017 meta-analysis of 82 school-based SEL programs found long-term (between 6 months and 18 years) improvements in four areas: SEL skills, attitudes, positive social behavior, and academic performance. Additionally, decreases were found in three areas: conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use (Taylor et al., 2017).

From an equity perspective, SEL may be particularly beneficial for children from poorer backgrounds as research shows they tend to exhibit worse emotional health and lower self-control than wealthier peers, a gap evident by age three.[ix] From an economic perspective, the Early Intervention Foundation reports that £17bn was spent on ‘picking up the pieces’ of damaging social issues facing young people through late intervention and essential services.[x] Needless to say, these issues are a complex interplay of multiple factors, and SEL does not address their structural causes. However, SEL can help young people in dealing with adverse circumstances in a constructive way, thereby promoting wellbeing and fulfilment.

Keep reading

Why does equity in education matter?

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Closing the achievement gap

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What is student engagement and student agency?

Discover how student agency and engagement differ and how they affect education outcomes.