What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and Why Do We Need It?

While the concept of social and emotional learning (SEL) is not exactly new, it is now growing in popularity. Many school districts and educators are turning to SEL to help students cope with stress, avoid negative behaviors and achieve academic outcomes that simply wouldn’t be possible without an empathetic approach.

Yet SEL may still be new enough that, at best, it is misunderstood, or at worst, it may seem to be a meaningless buzzword. This article examines why SEL is needed, what it is and how educators can begin to use it.

Why do we need a new approach to learning?
It’s a changing world, and unfortunately, not all change is good. A recent report from the National Survey on Children’s Health revealed that nearly 47% of all children in the United States have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), such as neglect or abuse, the death of a parent, or witnessing violence. Nearly 22% of all children have two or more ACEs. Worse, 35 percent of all children have at least one ACE by the time they are in kindergarten.1

Clearly, these experiences change the ways students think, act and learn. Teachers must devise new strategies to adapt learning experiences to address this new world, and hopefully engage students in ways to overcome this initial disadvantage. This is where SEL comes in.

What is SEL?
According to the leading expert on SEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is “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.”

Yet SEL is more than a program or a particular lesson. Instead, it represents a new way of thinking and a holistic approach to teaching and learning. To help educators understand SEL, CASEL presents it in the context of five core competencies:

• Self-awareness or being able to recognize and comprehend your own emotions, and how they translate into specific behaviors. Self-awareness can also include recognizing stress or other negative emotions and considering your own abilities/weaknesses in dealing with them.

• Self-management pushes the idea of self-awareness one step further, to the point where you begin to control your own feelings and behaviors. Examples of this include managing anger, improving the way you handle stress, self-motivation, and the idea of pushing through various setbacks.

• Social awareness is the part of SEL that begins to look outward. It’s about empathizing with others and possessing a willingness to understand and respect students’ unique experiences, perspectives and behaviors.

• Relationship skills focuses on creating and maintaining healthy relationships through cooperation, active listening, conflict resolution and communication.

• Responsible decision-making encourages making positive, healthy choices that adhere to your own moral code. More, the right decisions will contribute to the well-being of students and other participants.

Does SEL work?
Teachers have always focused on students’ emotions and social skills as part of the overall learning experience. Yet as stress and trauma continue to climb—as evidenced by the increase in children’s ACEs—educators need to do more to incorporate SEL in the classroom. In the SEL community, this means teaching the “whole child,” a concept that must include the many factors that may be part of a student’s background and how to create an ideal learning experience to address them.

Research shows that SEL is working. According to research from CASEL, embedding social and emotional development does lead to better academic results. For example, students who receive high-quality SEL instruction have achievement scores on average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive SEL instruction.2

Like the old saying suggests, “new times call for new measures,” and this is especially true in the classroom. SEL can be an effective way for educators to improve the way they connect and engage with new generations of students in order to achieve better outcomes and prepare them for the road ahead.

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1 The Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative, Adverse Childhood Experiences Among U.S. Children, October 2017.

2 CASEL, Ready to Lead: A National Principal Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Prepare Children and Transform Schools, 2011.

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