Social emotional learning has gained a lot of attention lately. Some questions I’ve seen recently include: What is SEL? Why does it matter? Why are teachers teaching these skills in school? While most are on board with the idea of social-emotional supports in the classroom, there are some who are raising concerns. Some even claim that SEL should not be taught in schools at all. My belief is that the majority of those who make these statements fundamentally misunderstand what SEL is and why it matters for our kids.
What is Social Emotional Learning?
So, let’s start with what SEL is. Social-emotional learning is the process for helping learners acquire skills necessary for success in life. That is for sure a huge umbrella. The 5 core competencies of SEL include:
- Self-awareness – understanding who we are as unique individuals.
- Self-management – managing our behaviors to help us reach goals.
- Social awareness – understanding the social world around us to make good choices.
- Relationships – developing meaningful relationships with others.
- Decision-making – learning to make healthy choices for now and the future.
The truth is that the idea of teaching and supporting social and emotional skills in the classroom is not anything new. For years teachers have been helping kids learn how to work with others, develop meaningful friendships, work towards goals, and make good choices.
Why SEL Belongs in School
Social emotional learning belongs in school. It always has and it still does today. In case you need more convincing, here’s why:
1. Social-emotional skills improve academic achievement.
A meta-analysis revealed that learners who participated in SEL programs made an 11 percentile increase in academic achievement. This makes sense: when kids feel better about themselves, they’re more available to learn.
2. Social-emotional skills are life skills.
Social-emotional skills are literally in everything we do. That’s true whether we are 6 or 60. SEL skills do help in school, but they’re not just school skills; they’re life skills. Working towards goals, understanding emotions, managing tough emotions, building and maintaining friendships, conflict resolution, and staying organized. These are just a few of the SEL skills we are all working on and building now and as we get older. Kids and teens deserve to have a strong foundation.
3. SEL is a process, not a curriculum or program.
Social emotional learning is a process for helping kids acquire important life skills. It’s not one curriculum or program. I’m saying this as a creator of SEL curriculum sets and resources. While there are curriculum sets and activities can make teaching these skills easier for busy educators, SEL is the bigger picture.
Teachers already use social-emotional practices in the classroom, and have for years. Just a few common SEL practices include:
- Morning circle (or morning meeting) when students start their day.
- Classroom greetings at the door.
- Using literature to talk about empathy and other skills.
- Finding ways to connect and build relationships with every child.
- Holding class meetings to work through problems.
4. Strong social-emotional skills means better classroom performance.
In order to perform well in the classroom, students need to acquire certain skills: how to work well in a group, how to work through a tough test independently, and how to manage emotions when something doesn’t go your way. These skills might seem trivial, but many students walk into our classrooms without these skills in tact. It only makes sense to help students learn these skills so they can perform their best in the classroom (and beyond).
5. SEL skills teach academic and study skills too.
SEL skills include many skills that actually help students become better at learning, studying, test-taking, and working on goals. When we teach many SEL skills, we’re teaching kids how to become better learners at the very same time.
6. SEL helps build confident learners.
If we want kids and teens to do their best, they have to feel good about themselves. Just a few confidence-building skills kids learn with SEL include understanding their strengths, working on their challenges, and learning to self-advocate when they need something. Research has highlighted that mentally healthy individuals have optimistic views of themselves. We want students to believe that if they work hard at these skills and believe in themselves, they can change anything. Again, these skills not only translate into kids personal lives, but to their lives as learners in the classroom too.
7. Social-emotional skills build strong decision-makers.
One of the five core competencies that social emotional learning focuses on is responsible decision-making. Emphasizing these skills from every direction is critical for growing kids and teens. There is science behind that idea, too. Kids and teens’ brains are still developing. The thinking part of their brains (frontal lobes) lags behind the emotional part of their brains (limbic system). It’s the reason why children and teens are known to sometimes make impulsive decisions; their brains are still under construction.
This is where social-emotional learning comes in to help. Growing learners need strategies to help them manage their emotions and activate the thinking parts of their brains so they can make good choices now and in the future.
8. SEL improves behavior in the classroom.
Behavior challenges can take up a substantial amount of time in the classroom. This means time away from learning for the whole classroom at times. One of the most obvious solutions to this challenge is integrating social-emotional supports in the classroom. A meta-analysis found that students who participated in SEL programs significantly improved behaviors in the classroom. Again, this makes sense: if we teach the skills and help students be successful, they can be.
Of course, this helps ALL students do better. When the classroom can run smoothly, that’s a win for everyone.
9. SEL builds a strong classroom and school community.
We want kids and teens to wake up and be excited to attend school every day. We want kids motivated to learn. This doesn’t happen magically overnight, but it can happen with intentional supports built into the school day. Morning meeting, for example, can become a safe space for kids to share what is on their minds before moving into academics. Even simple greetings at the door are a research-backed way to improve student attitudes in school.
Research tells us that kids and teens need to feel physically and emotionally safe before they are available to learn at an optimal level; SEL supports are one way we get there.
10. SEL skills can be integrated in current content.
It’s important to remember that SEL itself is process, not a curriculum or class. With that, teaching social emotional skills doesn’t require a separate block of time or special curriculum. While these things certainly make it easier to teach SEL skills, there are many ways teachers can integrate these skills into the current school day. Just a few examples include reading literature, journal writing, and class discussions. Teaching SEL skills doesn’t always mean extra time during the school day.
11. SEL helps partners with families.
Social emotional learning can help partner with families to teach these skills from all directions. In today’s world, kids need strong social skills now more than ever: how to make good decisions, combating peer pressure, managing stress, and working through challenges. These are just a few skills both schools and families work on together.
One of the most common reasons to not teach SEL in school is that families should be teaching these skills at home. And while it’s true that many of these skills are taught at home, the truth is that you can’t over-teach decision-making or self-management skills. Growing minds need LOTS of instruction, practice, and support to learn these along the way. It’s about working together.
Getting Started with SEL
If you are interested in getting started with SEL, feel free to visit some of the links below:
- 100+ Free Social Emotional Learning Resources
- 15 Simple SEL Practices to Start the Day
- SEL Curriculum for Middle School
- SEL Curriculum for Elementary