Social and Emotional Learning

What Is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?

  • Courtney Adams

The pandemic has made a striking impact on students academically, but also socially and emotionally. As students return to classrooms, the need for social and emotional learning is more critical than ever before. This article explores what social and emotional learning is and its influence on students and classrooms alike.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a term that you have likely heard in relation to school or classroom settings. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, SEL was gaining traction and attention in schools as more than just a set of “soft-skills” to teach students alongside their academic content.

Numerous research reports across decades began to demonstrate that social and emotional learning could have a positive impact on students' academic performance and beyond.

When the pandemic hit and resulted in extensive school closures, students across the country lost access to the basic supports that schools provide. These prolonged closures led to reduced student performance in academics and diminished social and emotional well-being for both children and adults alike. As such, the need for SEL is more crucial than ever. 


What Is SEL?

It is best to first get a clear understanding of what exactly SEL is before implementing in the classroom or at home.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization devoted to students and educators to help achieve positive outcomes for PreK-12 students, SEL involves five core competencies that can be applied in the classroom, at home, and in students’ communities.

CASEL defines SEL 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.”


CASEL's framework for teaching SEL across a variety of settings identifies five core competencies: 

1. Self-Awareness

The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. 

    • What are my thoughts and feelings?
    • What causes those thoughts and feelings?
    • How can I express these respectfully?
    • How can I have a growth mindset?

2. Self-Management

The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations.

    • What different responses can I have to an event?
    • How can I respond to an event as constructively as possible?
    • How can I set personal and collective goals?
    • How can I use planning and organizational skills?

3. Social Awareness

The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.

    • How can I better understand other people's thoughts and feelings?
    • How can I better understand why people feel and think the way they do?
    • How can I show empathy and compassion for others?
    • How can I identify strengths in others?

4. Relationship Skills

The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups.

    • How can I communicate effectively with other people?
    • How can I adjust my actions so that my interactions with different people turn out well?
    • How can I practice teamwork and collaborative problem-solving?
    • How can I demonstrate cultural competency?

5. Responsible Decision-Making

The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.

    • What consequences will my actions have on myself and others?
    • How do my choices align with my values?
    • How can I make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, and facts?
    • How can my role and behavior promote personal, family, and community well-being?


These five broad and interrelated competencies help guide students and educators alike in the ongoing quest for learning how to better understand ourselves, create relationships with others, make responsible and caring decisions, and work together to achieve goals.

At first, it may seem overwhelming to read through the CASEL framework and consider how to individually address each of the five competencies and their related skills in your classroom or household. However, keep in mind that these five competencies are interrelated and are intended to promote the growth and learning of the whole child. If you have ever established consistent routines, tapped into community and family partnerships, built trusting relationships with students, and/or given space and opportunity to let students learn about themselves and those around them, then you are well on your way to implementing SEL practices!


The Importance of SEL and Its Impact on Student Learning

Social and emotional learning is the foundation for safe and positive learning upon which academic content delivery can be built. Students of all ages who enter a classroom with skills to self-regulate, create relationships, and who feel trusted and valued are often primed to experience successful academic outcomes in their core academic content. In fact, an analysis of hundreds of research studies over three decades found that SEL interventions using the five competencies increased students' academic performance by 11 percentile points, as compared to students who did not participate in such SEL programs. 

SEL is certainly not just for school-age children, as both children and adults with strong social-emotional skills are better able to manage daily challenges and advance academically, socially, and professionally. In fact, research shows that the positive effects of SEL are wide sweeping.


“In the long run, greater social and emotional competence can increase the likelihood of high school graduation, readiness for postsecondary education, career success, positive family and work relationships, better mental health, reduced criminal behavior, and engaged citizenship.”

      • Hawkins, Kosterman, Catalano, Hill, & Abbott, 2008; Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015


While the research is clear, it is important to remember that teaching social and emotional learning is for all students and is not just an intervention for at-risk students. SEL skills are not innate, and people are not born knowing how to manage feelings, establish positive relationships, set goals, or make decisions. When SEL is modeled, taught, and enforced across environments and over the course of many years, the impact is greatly maximized.

It is never too late to adjust teaching practices or make additional time at home or in the community to address social and emotional learning. Combining SEL skills with strong academics creates high-quality learning experiences and environments that give students the tools to be more collaborative and engaged in their classrooms today, and in their communities and workplaces in the years to come.



Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Chicago, IL.

Durlak, J., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students' Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions (PDF).

Hawkins, J.D., Kosterman, R., Catalano, R.F., Hill, K.G., & Abbott, R.D. (2008). "Effects of social development intervention in childhood 15 years later." Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 162(12), pp.1133-1141.

Vega, Vanessa. (2012, 2017). “Social and Emotional Learning Research Review.” Edutopia.


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