What Is Social–Emotional Learning? + Training Courses

Social and Emotional LearningThe days of just teaching kids their ABCs are long gone.

Modern educators are tasked with the seemingly impossible responsibility of ensuring that today’s youth are academically prepared for life outside the classroom and being self-aware, self-managing, socially aware, relationship-building, responsible decision-makers who positively contribute to society.

That is quite an ask!

Social–emotional learning (SEL) answers this call and delivers upon this tall order.

What exactly is this popular buzzword, and how can we accomplish the task of preparing our youth for society’s expectations? Further, how can you learn more about this critical topic and even earn a certificate or degree?

Read on for a little clarity on this fascinating educational approach.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.

What Is the Social–Emotional Learning Theory?

To understand social–emotional learning theory, let’s first discuss social and emotional learning. Social–emotional learning (SEL) is a method to improve students’ intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cognitive competence (Penrose et al., 2007).

This process improves individual students’ skills and makes for a community of successful learners willing and able to positively contribute to society. This theory truly allows individuals to thrive.

SEL theory is based on the theories of several researchers: Comer, Goleman, Bandura, Vygotsky, Shriver, and Weissberg.

James Comer’s research, which focused on student behavioral issues and the exclusion of the school procedures that exacerbated those problems, contributed to SEL theory (Bond, 2020).

Daniel Goleman popularized the term emotional intelligence (EI) and claimed that it could be even more powerful than IQ (Penrose et al., 2007). Goleman’s model of EI is especially conducive to SEL theory, specifically his assertion that EI embraces five specific elements (Fernández-Berrocal & Extremera, 2006, p. 9):

  1. Knowing one’s emotions
  2. Managing emotions
  3. Motivating oneself
  4. Recognizing emotions in others
  5. Handling relationships

Famous for his Bobo Doll experiment, Albert Bandura developed the social learning theory. This theory implies that as naturally social creatures, people do not learn in a vacuum (Deaton, 2015). People learn from others.

Lev Vygotsky’s investigations concerning social learning and cognition contribute greatly to SEL theory. His sociocultural theory states the importance of social learning and adult scaffolding to children’s learning (Chen & Adams, 2023). The premise of students being guided by the SEL facilitators aligns with the scaffolding theories of Vygotsky.

Tim Shriver and Roger Weissberg are regarded as being the first to implement SEL strategies and programming in K–12 classrooms (Cooper, 2023). These researchers developed and implemented an SEL curriculum to meet the needs of students in a Connecticut school district.

Ultimately, social–emotional learning theory is embedded within the research of several other notable researchers.

5 Goals of social and emotional learning

As we mentioned, there is a call to develop students’ self-awareness, self-management, decision-making, relationship building, and social awareness (What is, n.d.). These goals are critical for individuals to contribute positively to society, and social and emotional learning addresses this task.

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is being able to look deeply into the mirror (Binfet et al., 2023). It is the first step in managing one’s emotions. It is helpful to understand what various emotions feel like in the body and what antecedents elicit certain responses. SEL helps children get to know themselves in a fun way.

2. Self-management

In the EI ability model, managing the emotional experience is one of the four emotional abilities (Schneider et al., 2023).

Understanding emotions such as anger, sadness, and frustration is self-awareness; however, being able to manage the responses to those feelings is considered self-management.

Self-management is essential for self-regulation and maintaining relationships. SEL provides students with the skills to manage their emotions effectively and develop self-management.

3. Social awareness

Being aware of others is an essential aspect of successfully functioning in society. Social awareness is fostered in SEL (Cooper et al., 2023). Being able to take others’ perspectives, read social cues, follow social norms, develop empathy, and recognize strengths in others are all embedded within the SEL curriculum.

4. Decision-making

Decision-making is a significant component in reaching adulthood. It is also encompassed within traditional SEL objectives (Cooper et al., 2023).

Effective decision-making requires individuals to identify the decision that needs to be made, collect relevant information, identify other solutions, and weigh the consequences of the decision, all in a swift, ethical manner. Further, decision-making can be linked to emotional management, as emotions may sometimes influence decision-making (Schneider et al., 2023).

5. Relationship building

Building positive relationships within diverse groups is paramount in nearly every culture. SEL delivers this message (Cooper et al., 2023) and helps students accomplish this feat by teaching students how to communicate effectively, positively resolve conflicts, collaborate in teams, express thoughts and feelings appropriately, resist stereotypes and peer pressure, and advocate for others.

Skills for building and maintaining relationships are immersed in the SEL lessons.

Why Is SEL Important for Mental Health? 17 Benefits

How to apply SELSEL has effectively predicted positive school adjustment in the school setting, promoted learning engagement, minimized discipline problems, increased high school graduation rates, and promoted future employment and adult health (Bierman & Motamedi, 2015).

A significant component of SEL is helping children understand their emotions (Gimbert et al., 2023). Further, not only is it vital that youngsters can identify various emotions, but they must also be able to manage the emotions they experience.

Developing an identity is compulsory for maturing adults, and SEL satisfies this requirement (Cooper et al., 2023; Gimbert et al., 2023). In assisting students in developing their identity, SEL helps to foster self-confidence; self-compassion; identification of strengths and needs; and recognition of needs, values, and judgments.

Effective communication requires not only main language competencies but attentive and appreciative listening and clear self-expression (Laburova, 2020). Likewise, communication is covered by many SEL programs, as it is essential for building and maintaining personal and professional relationships.

Empathy is a part of being emotionally intelligent and a critical feature of SEL (Damayanti et al., 2023). Helping students to understand the perspectives of others and exude kindness, in turn, reduces bullying.

Problem-solving is another skill that reduces bullying (Yüksel et al., 2021). Problem-solving skills are essential for growing students, and these must be taught explicitly. Students should be given the tools to make swift, ethical decisions while considering alternative solutions.

In the classroom, SEL has been shown to positively impact students’ attitudes, behaviors, and academic performance (Cooper et al., 2023; Durlak et al., 2011). Further, it decreases externalizing behaviors, such as being off-task or aggressive, and substance abuse (Cooper et al., 2023). SEL enhances the learning environment and makes it a safe place for learning.

Not only is SEL critical for students’ mental health, but it is also imperative for teachers’ mental health. SEL increases teacher-reported efficacy for behavior management and decreases reports of teacher burnout (Cooper et al., 2023; Domitrovich et al., 2016). Ultimately, SEL creates a calmer classroom environment, which makes educating students much easier.

3 emotional intelligence exercises

Download 3 Free Emotional Intelligence Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients understand and use emotions advantageously.

5 Examples of Social–Emotional Learning Programs

There are countless SEL programs out there, and the choice may be difficult. Here are just a few research-based examples to get you started.

1. Character First Education

Character First

Character First Education provides SEL programs for K–12 classrooms. I have used the elementary curriculum in my self-contained classroom, and my students enjoyed the animal themes.

I appreciated the concepts such as compassion, honesty, gratefulness, responsibility, respect, forgiveness, self-control, and initiative. This company also offers intermediate and high school curricula.

To learn more and peruse their free materials, visit Character First Education.

2. Girls on the Run

Girls on the Run

Although not a school-day program, this positive youth development after-school program packs quite a punch.

Intended for girls in third through eighth grade, this research-based, 10-week curriculum is designed to instill inner strength and help young girls value what makes them different.

This program is much more than a running club; however, the culminating activity includes a celebratory 5K race. Check Girls on the Run for local opportunities.

3. Playworks


Also encouraging physical activity, Playworks provides interested schools with a Playworks coach for on-site teaching, in addition to consultations, staff training, and online learning.

In large or small groups, students take part in icebreakers, readiness games, tag games, cooperative games, playground games, sports, health and fitness, and energizers to promote social, emotional, and physical development.

Find out more about this exciting program on the Playworks website.

4. Leader in Me

Leader in Me

If you’re searching for a whole-school K–12 improvement model, Leader in Me may be for your organization.

Using The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey, Leader in Me introduces 38 key concepts over the course of a year in 10-to-30-minute lessons.

The curriculum includes detailed lesson plans, including a specific guide for the first eight days of school to cultivate a strong classroom culture.

I also have personal experience using this program, and you can learn more on the Leader in Me website.

5. Tools of the Mind

Tools of the Mind

In need of a pre-kindergarten program for SEL? Tools of the Mind is a pre-K and kindergarten curriculum heavily influenced by Vygotskian theory and neuroscience.

Teachers have flexibility in choosing when to complete the activities over the school year. The games and activities are delivered in student pairs, small group learning centers, and large groups throughout the school day.

To discover more, check out Tools of the Mind.

For a complete list and more in-depth descriptions, the Wallace Foundation offers a free downloadable consumer guide explaining the background of SEL, strategies to implement the programs, and how to choose the best program for your school’s needs.

Find this guide on the Wallace Foundation website.

How to Apply SEL in Education and Schools: 5 Strategies

SEL and Mental HealthIn introducing a SEL curriculum, it is not only necessary that students buy in to the message and lessons; administrators must ensure that all educators teaching the lessons buy in to the curriculum and teach with fidelity.

Training should be provided for all staff members, not just the teachers, as critical staff members such as custodians, instructional aides, and cafeteria workers also encounter students and have teaching opportunities.

School leaders should designate a specific time, preferably daily, for SEL. This should be a shared time among all classrooms, and it should be protected from interruptions. For example, students should not be pulled for special education services at this time because all students will benefit from SEL instruction, and the benefits radiate into all other areas of learning.

SEL should be applied throughout all areas of the school building, and this learning should be embedded within all school activities. The expectations discussed in SEL should expand outside the classroom and be present in other areas of the school, including the cafeteria, bathrooms, auditorium, and even places where students may be spectators after school hours. Take advantage of those “teachable moments” and emphasize the teachings of SEL.

To aid in integrating the approaches of SEL, you may enlist the framework of an approach called the Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS). PBIS is an evidence-based prevention approach (Cook et al., 2015). PBIS and SEL present complementary efforts to promote social and emotional competencies and enhance any SEL program selected (Zhang et al., 2023).

With approximately 6% of the population experiencing a traumatic event in their life (Schnurr, 2023), school officials may want to consider a trauma-informed approach to meet students’ needs.

Trauma-informed practices provide an appropriate and supportive method of teaching. One example is the Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools model (Dorado et al., 2016).

How social-emotional learning benefits everyone - Caige Jambor

We suggest viewing this informative TED talk by Caige Jambor to learn more about trauma. This video will emphasize the importance of pausing to consider what people are really going through.

Training in SEL: 4 Certifications and Master’s Degrees

As you have probably come to understand, SEL has a monumental impact on the lives of students. If you want to elicit positive effects for your students in a big way, you may learn more about this cutting-edge approach. Let’s dive into some of your options for furthering your education.

1. Master’s in social–emotional learning

National University

National University’s master’s degree in social–emotional learning may be an excellent option for those looking to advance their career.

Seekers have the option to take the four-week classes in person or online. Students can take advantage of their monthly start dates and will partake in an action research project.

Find more information on the National University’s website.

2. Online certificate in social–emotional learning & behavioral wellness

Drexel University

Drexel University offers an online graduate certificate in social and emotional learning and behavioral wellness.

Created for educators and administrators, this certificate prepares recipients to assist students with nonacademic barriers to learning. The program comprises four three-credit courses and 15 hours of field placement per term.

For more information, visit Drexel University.

3. SEL certificate

If you’re searching for a certificate delivered online with opportunities for live chat discussions, look into Rutgers’s two certificate programs.

The general track program is intended for learners who have limited knowledge of social–emotional learning and character development. In contrast, the accelerated track program was created for educators and school personnel who have been teaching the curriculum for over five years.

To learn more, peruse the Rutgers website.

4. SEL in 60 Minutes


While this 60-minute course will not lead to a degree or certificate, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) offers a free course.

This short training will help you understand how to develop the critical skills that are essential for a fulfilling and healthy life.

Access this online course on the CASEL website.

4 Fascinating Books on the Topic

Now that we’ve gotten your attention and captured your interest, here are a few books to help further guide your journey into social and emotional learning.

1. Social–Emotional Learning and the Brain: Strategies to Help Your Students Thrive – Marilee Sprenger

Social-Emotional Learning and the Brain

Intended for educators of all ages, this book applies brain-based learning to social–emotional learning.

This guide aims to create a supportive classroom, specifically addressing the needs of students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences and thus improving the outcome for all students.

Find the book on Amazon.

2. Manage My Emotions: What I Wish I’d Learned in School About Anger, Fear and Love – Kenneth Martz

Manage my emotions

With a focus on finding emotional balance, this series contains six helpful texts assisting individuals of all ages and backgrounds.

Not only does each book in this series explain the science behind emotions, but countless invaluable strategies are also shared in handling and even flourishing with big emotions.

Books in this series comprise:

  • Manage My Emotions: What I Wished I’d Learned in School About Anger, Fear and Love
  • Manage My Emotions for Teens
  • Manage My Emotions for Kids
  • Manage My Emotions: Meditations, Visualizations, and Affirmations
  • Manage My Addiction

Manage My Emotions Journal was also created by Kenneth Martz and should supplement any of the books in the remarkable series.

Find the series on Amazon.

3. Social and Emotional Learning: Essential Lessons for Student Success – Tom Conklin

Social and Emotional Learning

Geared for students in fifth grade or above, this resource serves as a guide for teachers in procuring engaging lessons, strategies, and tips to help students manage social situations and build self-awareness skills.

Research-based lessons tackle the following topics: self-esteem, emotions, cognition, peer relationships, bullies, and stress.

Assisting students in navigating middle school, the author hopes to allow students to place their focus on academics.

Find the book on Amazon.

4. All Learning Is Social and Emotional: Helping Students Develop Essential Skills for the Classroom and Beyond – Nancy Frey, Douglas Fisher, and Dominique Smith

All Learning is Social and Emotional

If you’re looking for ideas for younger learners, you may want to pick up this book. As an educator, you may feel bombarded with yet another subject to teach.

The authors provide a five-part model that encourages integration into everyday instruction, does not take additional teaching time, and encourages students to thrive.

Students are taught essential skills to be successful in the classroom and beyond.

Find the book on Amazon.

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

Our 16 Activities to Stimulate Emotional Development in Children provides ideas and methods to help foster SEL skills in children. This article contains the nine best activities for toddlers and children and the seven best games for fostering SEL. Your students will have a blast with these activities while honing these critical skills.

Likewise, refer to our Social Skills Training for Kids: Top Resources for Teachers if you would like to focus specifically on social skills.

If you yearn to learn more about social intelligence and understanding people, you will be interested in our article Cultivating Social Intelligence: 3 Ways to Understand Others. In this piece, the reader learns how social intelligence differs from emotional intelligence and how it can be measured and improved.

Considering emotional intelligence, you may want to peruse Assessing Emotional Intelligence: 19 Valuable Scales and PDFs to find an assessment that determines your or your student’s emotional intelligence level. Following a quick check of emotional intelligence, you could refer to our article, How to Improve Emotional Intelligence Through Training to create a plan to improve emotional skills.

Assist your students in identifying their personal character strengths using this Exploring Character Strengths worksheet. Using this worksheet, you can reflect on personal traits, which fall into categories linked to greater virtues, such as wisdom, humanity, courage, justice, temperance, and transcendence.

Our Responsible Decision-Making worksheet was developed to help children reflect on the social implications of their decisions and how they should show respect to themselves and others.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

A Take-Home Message

There’s no question about the importance of SEL in today’s world. It is a crucial aspect of positive education and necessary for schools to provide quality instruction.

There are only questions on which curriculum to choose and how to implement the program. There is an abundance of SEL courses of study; however, each one is unique. As an educator, you will require a deep understanding of your school’s demographic and needs to determine which program is best suited for your students.

If you too are passionate about the SEL approach and want to become an expert, we hope you will consider some of the degrees and certificates mentioned.

Do you have a favorite SEL program, book, or resource to share? We’d love to hear about it in the comments!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

The five social–emotional learning skills according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (What is, n.d.) are:

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

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is critical in the classroom because it helps students develop the necessary skills to become prosperous adults who can navigate society.

Social–emotional learning helps teachers manage their classrooms, teach vital real-world skills, and maintain their own wellness.

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  • Binfet, J. T., Green, F. L., Roche, S., & Scott, C. (2023). When teachers have autonomy to create SEL initiatives: Conceptualizations and iterations. International Journal of Emotional Education, 15(2), 1–8.
  • Bond, J. B. (2020). Social-emotional learning in a time of chaos. International Dialogues on Education Journal, 7(1/2).
  • Chen, J. J., & Adams, C. B. (2023). Drawing from and expanding their toolboxes: Preschool teachers’ traditional strategies, unconventional opportunities, and novel challenges in scaffolding young children’s social and emotional learning during remote instruction amidst COVID-19. Early Childhood Education Journal, 51(5), 925–937.
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  • Cooper, G. (2023). Supporting gifted students’ social and emotional learning by improving parental self-efficacy [Doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University].
  • Damayanti, S., Asbari, M., Setiawan, D., & Saputra, M. S. (2023). Emotional intelligence: Mengapa EI Lebih Penting daripada IQ? Literaksi: Jurnal Manajemen Pendidikan, 1(2), 279–285.
  • Deaton, S. (2015). Social learning theory in the age of social media: Implications for educational practitioners. Journal of Educational Technology, 12(1), 1–6.
  • Domitrovich, C. E., Bradshaw, C. P., Berg, J. K., Pas, E. T., Becker, K. D., Musci, R., Embry, D. D., & Ialongo, N. (2016). How do school-based prevention programs impact teachers? Findings from a randomized trial of an integrated classroom management and social–emotional program. Prevention Science, 17(3), 325–337.
  • Dorado, J. S., Martinez, M., McArthur, L. E., & Leibovitz, T. (2016). Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS): A whole-school, multi-level, prevention and intervention program for creating trauma-informed, safe and supportive schools. School Mental Health, 8, 163–176.
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  • Laburova, O. (2020). Teaching communication at lessons of English through building SEL (social and emotional learning) skills. Професіоналізм педагога: Mеоретичні й методичні аспекти, 12, 273–283.
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