Social and Emotional Learning

Teach the 5 Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Competencies

8 Min Read
CASEL SEL competencies

Social and emotional learning (SEL) equips young people with the tools they need for success in school and for leading healthy, purposeful lives.

"We know social and emotional competence can impact attendance, academic performance, and graduation rates," says Melissa Schlinger, vice president of programs and practice at CASEL. "Prioritizing SEL is critically important if we want to promote health and well-being as well as a compassionate, more just society."

Research has shown that the effects of high-quality SEL can last for at least six months and up to 18 years. To get these benefits, students need opportunities to practice SEL skills throughout the school day, in academic work and personal interactions, in and outside of the classroom. Start with an understanding of the 5 SEL competencies developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Then, try the activities below with your class.

A Look at CASEL's SEL Competencies

The five social-emotional learning competencies developed by CASEL are crucial to students’ learning and growth. The chart below, known as the "CASEL wheel," provides a quick breakdown.

Self-Awareness: Recognizing one's emotions and their effect on behavior

Self-Management: Regulating emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to achieve goals

Responsible Decision-Making: Making good choices and evaluating consequences

Relationship Skills: Developing positive relationships; resolving conflicts constructively

Social Awareness: Empathizing with others and understanding their perspectives, including those from diverse backgrounds

CASEL 5 SEL competencies

Teach CASEL's SEL Competencies

Now let’s dig a little deeper into each of the CASEL core competencies. We’ve also included activities that will help students develop each one. For more ways to develop these competencies in your students, check out our archive of SEL resources and articles. And to ensure you are meeting the needs of all learners in your classroom, you should also explore approaches to inclusive SEL for students with disabilities and English language learners.

Competency 1: Self-Awareness

Students who are self-aware understand themselves, their emotions, their cultural identity, and have a healthy sense of their own capabilities.

Develop Self-Awareness: One way for students to develop self-awareness is to reflect on an experience (losing a game, arguing with a friend, struggling with a math problem) and how it made them feel. Once they’ve identified their feelings, they can start to deal with them. Educators and caregivers can model this process. They might share their own experience and how they’re working through their feelings about it. For example, on a particularly taxing day, a teacher might say, “It feels like everyone is talking loudly today and all at once. I’m going to stop and take a deep breath.”

Students of all ages can benefit from identifying their emotions, but they may not always have the words. An emotion wheel highlighting a range of emotions—from angry to apathetic, to jealous or joyful—can help. Support students who are learning English with a game to familiarize them with the words on the wheel. Have students look up the unfamiliar words. Then have them act out an emotion or draw a picture of it, challenging classmates to guess which emotion is being conveyed.

Use the wheel to do check-ins throughout the day. Students can choose the emotion that best describes how they feel, then reflect on why they're feeling that way in a journal entry or with a classmate. When students identify a negative emotion, they should have a range of strategies (outlined in the "self-management" section below) for dealing with it.

Competency 2: Self-Management

How students regulate emotion is self-management. Good self-managers know how to behave in various situations. They also know how to set goals and work toward them.

Develop Self-Management: Create a calming space in the classroom for students to step away, take a breath and relax when they are anxious or angry, or just need time to themselves. Post a list of self-management techniques in the space that you have practiced with students, such as taking deep belly breaths, counting to 10, drawing a picture of how they feel, or engaging in positive self-talk.

When you see students using self-management strategies like taking a breath or simply removing themselves from a stressful situation, acknowledge them for it. You might say something like, "I noticed how excited you were to share your ideas during our class discussion, and how you took a deep breath and waited your turn. How did that feel?"

Another part of self-management is setting goals. Have students brainstorm a list of the things they do well. Ask: How does it feel to be good at __________? What steps did you take to get good at__________? Did you begin by setting a goal? Next, have students identify two things they'd like to become better at. One should be a personal goal, and the other academic. Have them write the steps that they will take to achieve each goal. Our free graphic organizers include a cluster map that you can provide to students for brainstorming and a step-by-step chart for writing the steps they will take to achieve their goals. Model this process for younger students by setting whole-class goals.

eBook: The Educator's Guide to Social and Emotional Learning

View this eBook for facts, insights, and advice related to shaping students’ social and emotional well-being.

Sel ebook cover

Competency 3: Responsible Decision-Making

Students who make responsible decisions can analyze a situation, understand its ethical implications, and evaluate the consequences: How will other people react to my decision to do x? These students try to understand a problem from every angle and don’t make impulsive decisions.

Develop Responsible Decision-Making: Adults can support kids in making responsible decisions, but the goal is to have students make decisions and deal with the consequences on their own. Let’s say one student hurts another’s feelings. Start a discussion by asking: Why did you make that choice? Was that the best choice? How did your choice make others feel? What could you have done differently? How can you make things right?

When a student makes a poor choice, it’s better to reflect on the choice than to punish them by taking away recess or giving them a time out. The discussion allows them to understand what happened. Students need time to analyze the situation and figure out how to repair the damage. This way, they internalize the lesson, rather than repeat the same mistake or simply stew in their anger.

Competency 4: Relationship Skills

Will students succeed in school, and later, in the workforce? Will they become leaders? Will they have a sense of fulfillment? The answers to these questions lie in students’ ability to build positive relationships. Students who can communicate clearly, work well with others, and settle conflicts, are forging a path to future success.

Develop Relationship Skills: Students need to work in pairs, small groups, and large groups. This gives them ample opportunity to learn how to settle disagreements and work toward a common goal. They’ll learn how to share opinions, while being respectful of other perspectives. They may even get a chance to lead a project.

Before having students do group work, there should be a discussion of problems that could arise: What if some students are contributing more than others? What if someone is disruptive, or not participating at all? What roles— notetaker, timekeeper, group leader, or speaker—do we need to fulfill as part of this group?

Competency 5: Social Awareness

Social awareness is the ability to understand others and how they feel. This involves recognizing emotions and reading body language. It also involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and seeing a situation from their perspective. Students who can empathize with others from backgrounds that are different from their own will build stronger relationships with classmates and future co-workers.

Develop Social Awareness: In the classroom, students should have opportunities to consider perspectives other than their own. Start with characters in a book: What are they feeling right now? What might they do next? How would you feel in that situation? Challenge students act out a pivotal moment in a book, when a character has made an important decision. As the audience, the class can ask questions including, Why did you make that choice? Do you think it was the right choice? Why or why not? Remind the student "actors" to answer from the character's perspective.

Teachers can model empathy by talking over disagreements and listening to students' feelings without making judgments: "It sounds like you're feeling..." Caregivers might help elderly neighbors and encourage kids to do the same, whether it’s carrying groceries or helping with yard work.

Students should also have opportunities to practice empathy. Take on a service project as a class. You might create cards for seniors in a local nursing home, or collect items for donation to a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. For more ideas, check out these volunteering ideas for students. Afterward, discuss with students how they feel about the project and why it's important to help others.

Share Lessons on SEL Competencies

Do you have ways to incorporate the CASEL competencies across the curriculum? Tell us about the activities and lessons that have proved successful with your elementary, middle, and high school students. Connect with us on Twitter (@HMHCo) or Facebook or email us at


Looking for a social-emotional learning curriculum for your school or district? Discover how SEL embedded throughout our core, intervention, and supplemental programs can help your students thrive.

Get our free SEL guide full of research-backed information.

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