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What Is Social and Emotional Learning?

How SEL programs help kids succeed in school

Writer: Jessica Souza

Clinical Experts: LaKisha Hoffman, MSW , Caroline Mendel, PsyD

en Español

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a term for the way children acquire social and emotional skills. It includes things like managing difficult emotions, making responsible decisions, handling stress, setting goals, and building healthy relationships.

Social and emotional learning is often assumed to happen naturally in the course of a child’s development without being taught. But when children don’t master these skills, they often develop behavior problems that, in turn, can interfere with their functioning in school and their ability to learn.

That’s why programs that teach social and emotional skills are now taught in many schools, from pre-kindergarten all the way through high school.

“When kids don’t know math, we teach them math — we don’t punish them for not knowing how to do math,” explains LaKisha Hoffman, MSW, a social worker and a Senior Director of School and Community Programs at the Child Mind Institute. “But when kids don’t know how to regulate themselves, we punish them for misbehavior.”

Instead, she says, we want to teach kids the skills they’re missing — to fill those gaps so they’ll be able to manage their emotions, get along with other kids, and succeed in school.

“These are not things that humans naturally just know,” adds Caroline Mendel, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and Senior Director of Clinical Services, School, and Community Programs at the Child Mind Institute. “They do need some explicit instruction and then ongoing reinforcement.”

What are the basic social-emotional skills?

One widely used framework for SEL is the CASEL framework, named for an organization that introduced the term SEL over two decades ago. (CASEL stands for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.) 

According to the CASEL framework, there are five interrelated areas of competence that makeup SEL:

  1. 1. Self-awareness: The ability to identify and recognize one’s own emotions and thoughts and understand how they impact behavior.
  2. 2. Social awareness: Having empathy and respect for others and the ability to take on different perspectives.
  3. 3. Responsible decision-making: The ability to make ethical, constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions. 
  4. 4. Self-management: Being able to manage one’s emotions and impulses, manage stress, and set personal goals.
  5. 5. Relationship skills: Having the capacity to establish and maintain healthy, supportive relationships.

Why is SEL beneficial for children?

It’s been shown that SEL can help children feel more confident and happy in the classroom and in life in general. Research shows that SEL consistently has positive effects on students’ success — from their academic performance and behavior to their ability to manage stress.

Other research has shown that these long-term benefits are consistent across demographic groups — meaning that SEL instruction can support the positive development of children from diverse backgrounds and geographies.

There is also evidence that SEL supports educational equity and classroom inclusivity.  “When I talk to parents and school leaders,” Hoffman adds, “it’s clear that another benefit they see from students engaging in SEL is a sense of belonging.”

What does SEL look like in the classroom?

Educators usually integrate SEL into their curricula through both explicit instruction on the competencies and, equally importantly, through ongoing reinforcement of these skills.

Explicit SEL instruction might include lessons on how to identify and label your feelings, build your emotional vocabulary, consider other people’s perspectives and experiences, and brainstorm solutions to problems.

But then, the key to effectively teaching SEL competencies is reinforcing these lessons every day in the classroom. “It’s not about a standalone activity,” explains Dr. Mendel. “It’s about having a school culture that’s committed to engaging in social-emotional learning — where it’s infused into every day, with repetition of the lessons and skills.”

For example, while teaching children a lesson on conflict resolution is important, so is coaching them through conflicts when they happen in real-time — reinforcing those skills and giving them a safe space to practice them.

“It’s not always activity-based,” Hoffman says. “It’s thinking about what skills they need to know and how to engage in conversations about them. When they’re doing things that cause harm to other people, you’re practicing, ‘How did that make someone else feel?’ to build empathy. It’s taking the times that they don’t do things right as teaching moments.”

SEL programs in schools are often structured across three tiers based on children’s needs. Tier one is the standard program, taught to all students, with the aim of helping them develop the competencies and prevent behavioral or emotional problems from developing. Tier two is for children who haven’t responded to tier one and show some signs of risk, such as behavioral issues, social difficulties, or academic struggles. Tier three is for students who require more intensive support, potentially through individualized counseling or a behavior intervention plan.

For parents interested in learning more specifics about how evidence-based school programs are rooted in research, the CASEL website provides a lot of information on SEL in the classroom.

How can parents support their child with SEL at home?

Parents are their child’s first teachers, and how they model and reinforce SEL competencies at home is essential to kids’ social-emotional development. And if they work in partnership, families, and schools can learn from each other about what works best for each individual child.

“I think the partnership between parents and schools is really important,” Hoffman says. “There are skills that students are learning in school that they can apply at home, and there are things at home that are working really well for parents — that they may not even define as an SEL skill — that they can communicate with teachers.”

For example, a parent could share with the teacher that taking a moment to meditate or focus on deep breaths helps their child handle emotions at home and see if there’s a way to integrate that practice into the classroom when needed.

“We have to really value the expertise of the home, as well as the school,” concludes Hoffman.

For resources on supporting social-emotional development at home, the site Confident Parents Confident Kids has a lot of helpful books, games, and more.

What to do if you think your child needs additional SEL support

If you think your child is struggling with social-emotional competencies, the first step is to start a conversation with their teacher about evaluating their progress and considering if they need additional SEL support.

“It’s great for all kids to get SEL instruction — these are skills that will help them be successful in their lives,” explains Dr. Mendel. “But in terms of whether they might need more than what they’re getting, we’d look at how they’re functioning. How are they doing academically — is there a decline in their grades? How are they getting along socially with peers — are they getting into frequent conflict? Are they able to manage frustration, sadness, or anxiety in a way that doesn’t get in the way of their life?”

If they’re struggling with behavior or academics, getting counseling at school or setting up a behavior intervention plan may help. It’s also important to consider whether there are underlying issues affecting your child’s behavior, Dr. Mendel notes. For example, if a child is depressed and that’s making them irritable, they may lash out at other kids, and their behavior can be confused with simply lacking basic relationship skills. Or if they have ADHD, impulsivity may make it very challenging for them to manage their emotions. Getting treatment from a mental health professional for those challenges may be what your child needs to thrive.

What if you would like to see your child’s school give more priority to SEL overall? There are ways to advocate for it within your school.

“I think the best way to advocate for it in a school is to show the research and the link to improved academics,” advises Dr. Mendel. “Unfortunately, sometimes social-emotional needs can come in second because schools focus on how kids are doing academically. I think showing how the two really go hand in hand and how SEL can be effective in helping schools in the business of teaching — that’s a good way to do that advocacy.”

The CASEL website provides a great deal of additional support on how to make the case for SEL.

This article was last reviewed or updated on December 19, 2023.