What Is Social-Emotional Learning? Insights and Resources for K-12 Educators

With the rise of digital technology and social media—along with a renewed focus on mental health, behavioral outcomes, and classroom climate—social-emotional learning (SEL) is in the spotlight for K–12 educators. 

But what is social-emotional learning, and why is SEL important for schools in the 21st century to address?

Social-Emotional Learning Definition

To start, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning as:

The process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

There are five social-emotional learning competencies, according to CASEL.

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing one's own emotions and their effect on behavior.
  • Self-management: Regulating one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors; managing stress, setting goals, and staying motivated.
  • Responsible decision-making: Making constructive decisions in social situations based on ethics, safety, and social norms.
  • Relationship skills: Developing positive relationships with diverse groups and individuals; communicating clearly and cooperating with others.
  • Social awareness: Empathizing and understanding the views of others, including those of other cultures or backgrounds.

What Is the Importance of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools?

“Children are coming to school with increasing social and emotional issues,” said Dr. Bill Daggett, founder of the International Center for Leadership in Education (ICLE), during a recent keynote address at the 2019 Model Schools Conference. “The high-performing schools have said, ‘Time out. Let’s spend our time thinking deeply about these kids in 2019 and how we have to change our teaching methodology and strategies to keep up with this younger generation.’”

You can watch the video below to learn about Dr. Daggett’s thoughts on SEL in schools below.

According to an article by SEL expert Dr. Stephanie Jones and her colleagues at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the number of schools adopting SEL programs has grown alongside scientists' understanding of SEL. According to the article, research suggests that SEL can have positive effects on students' mental health, academics, and behavior, as well as on overall classroom climate.

Studies of the social-emotional learning framework have found that environmental factors such as poverty, chronic stress, and trauma can impact students' brain development and impact their abilities to pay attention, recall information, practice self-control, and get along with their classmates. This makes SEL especially important for low-income and at-risk students, though they are more likely to face challenges, including a lack of financial and personnel resources or poor integration into educational practice.

Educator Views of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

In a 2019 online survey conducted by HMH (in collaboration with Welchans Research Group), a large majority of 600 educators across grades—though primarily K–6—agree that each of the five components of social-emotional learning is highly important to address in schools.

A strong majority also already incorporate SEL into their instruction by combining core instruction with specific social-emotional learning activities. Few have a specific SEL skills curriculum. The graph below offers some ideas for social-emotional learning strategies:

When we asked the question, “What does social-emotional learning mean to you?” educators primarily offered positive, thoughtful definitions with an emphasis on:

  • Learning about emotions
  • Learning to control emotions
  • Learning how to interact
  • Educating the whole child
  • Handling adversity

The survey found that teachers are the dominant drivers of SEL implementation, though district and administrative personnel and students’ parents or families have a notable impact as well. In addition, nearly all of the educators surveyed said they “strongly agree” that their students are in need of SEL.

But many educators also claim that current resources aren’t helping them deliver it effectively, the survey found. Other barriers include time limitations and a lack of teacher training.

Social and Emotional Learning Resources for Teachers

A strong majority of educators incorporate SEL into their instruction, the survey found, especially in Grades K–2, and nearly all teachers use at least some supplemental resources for SEL. Let’s break down by the numbers, per the survey:

  • 90% incorporate SEL into their instruction
  • 26% use mainly core curriculum resources to teach SEL
  • 20% use core and supplemental materials equally
  • 43% use mainly supplemental resources to teach SEL

And here's a closer look at the specific approaches teachers are taking to integrating social-emotional aspects of learning into the classroom setting:

In general, educators are split between incorporating SEL via core instruction versus using dedicated SEL instruction, and most use a combination. The survey respondents were also split between using print and digital materials to teach SEL.

Meanwhile, reading and English language arts are the disciplines where SEL instruction is most likely to be integrated daily or on most days, especially in Grades K–12. Regardless, most educators who incorporate SEL into their curriculum claim it is included in all subjects (with the primary exception being world languages).

In the Phi Delta Kappan article by Dr. Jones and her colleagues, three key findings are identified as to how schools can improve their integration of SEL:

  • Implementing SEL in schools should be organized around a model that identifies necessary age-appropriate skills in Pre-K–12. In other words, the SEL skills taught in classes should change and evolve as students get older.
  • SEL should "focus on flexible, low-lift strategies and practices, not just curricula," according to the article. Prioritize a curriculum where students can practice SEL in various contexts (for example, the hallway, gym, classroom, etc.) and at different times of day.
  • The most effective SEL strategies respond to individual student needs and are reflective of their experiences in school and at home.

Learn More About Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Before you get stated on implementing SEL in your school or district, check out the Shaped resources below for more information!

To hear experts Dr. Bill Daggett and Dr. Stephanie Jones discuss SEL in schools today, watch the Facebook Live below. In this Q&A, she discusses how she develops effective methods to improve SEL in our schools and the challenges teachers may face when incorporating SEL into their curriculums.

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