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What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning (SEL), as defined by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 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.” It is a framework that guides the teacher and student relationship. It can be integrated into standard curriculum, or taught explicitly as its own subject.

5 Categories of SEL

CASEL’s framework focuses on five core competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

These competencies are designed to promote intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive competence in order to teach students to incorporate skills, attitudes and behaviors to deal with daily tasks and problems effectively and purposefully.

Some Examples:

As mentioned, SEL can be taught explicitly or incorporated into existing teaching methods and lesson plans. Here are a couple of examples of how teachers incorporate social-emotional learning into to their lessons:

  • Teachers use modeling and coaching to help children recognize each other’s emotions.
  • Solving problems using conflict resolution skills and dialogues.
  • Promote group decision-making through class meetings to set classroom rules.
  • Team sports and games promote cooperation and teamwork.
  • Using problem-solving models to provide in-depth analysis and heighten understanding of a current or historical event.
  • Cross-age mentoring to build self-confidence and help students feel accepted.
  • Reflective listening can be practiced by having pairs describe a situation or picture and have the partner repeat what they said.

Benefits of SEL

2011 meta-analysis involving over 270,000 students across 213 studies concluded that students who were a part of evidence-based SEL programs scored an 11 percentile-point gain compared to students who did not. SEL students also were seen to behave better in the classroom, manage stress and depression in more mature ways, and had better attitudes towards themselves, others, and school.

Criticisms of Social Emotional Learning

Critics of social-emotional learning point mainly to the increased responsibility of teachers. When SEL is implemented, teachers are expected to assess and develop children’s social and emotional skills. Critics argue that non-psychologists are not equipped to make informed analyses, and wonder where and how the training to effectively implement these standards will come from.


Social-emotional learning is a very popular framework that is making its way into classrooms around the country. 20 school districts around the nation have partnered with CASEL, including Anchorage, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore City, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Dupage County, El Paso, Guilford, Minneapolis, Nashville, Oakland, Palm Beach, Sacramento, Tulsa, Warren City, Washoe County, and Washington, DC. Whether the rest of the country will choose to do so remains to be seen, but this is a movement that is making a big impact on American classrooms.

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