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Social and Emotional Learning

What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in Education? Insights for K–12 Educators

5 Min Read

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.

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

Dig Into CASEL's Definition of SEL

SEL stands for "social-emotional learning," which the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines as:

The process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

The five social-emotional learning competencies developed by CASEL are crucial to students’ learning and development.

  • 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 SEL in Education?

Now that you have a better sense of the meaning of SEL, let's look at its role in education. Learning is social and emotional. A whole-child approach to education moves beyond focusing on academic achievement alone to incorporate life skills—building relationships, controlling emotions, making responsible decisions—that children must develop for long-term success.

Schools are one of the main sources of SEL in children’s lives. To ensure students thrive, they should get opportunities to practice SEL skills throughout the school day, in their academic work and in personal interactions.

“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.’”

Why Is SEL in Education Essential?

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. This is good news, since research suggests that SEL can have positive effects on students' mental health, academics, and behavior, as well as on overall classroom climate.

Studies have shown that environmental factors such as poverty, chronic stress, and trauma can impact students' brain development and ability to pay attention, recall information, practice self-control, and get along with classmates. This makes SEL especially important for low-income students who are more likely than their affluent peers to face social, emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges.

How Do Educators View SEL in Schools?

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

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

Selschools Graph3

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 effectively deliver social-emotional learning in the classroom, the survey found. Other barriers include time limitations and a lack of teacher training.

How Do Teachers Incorporate SEL Into Instruction?

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. 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:

Social Emotional Chart3

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 SEL in Education

Before you implement SEL in your school or district, check out these great social-emotional learning resources from Shaped.


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.

This blog, originally published in 2019, has been updated for 2021.

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

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