The 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.
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):
Knowing one’s emotions
Recognizing emotions in others
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.
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.
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.
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
SEL 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
How to Apply SEL in Education and Schools: 5 Strategies
In 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’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.
2. Online certificate in social–emotional learning & behavioral wellness
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.
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.
3. Social and Emotional Learning: Essential Lessons for Student Success – Tom Conklin
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.
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.
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.
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!
The five social–emotional learning skills according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (What is, n.d.) are:
Why is SEL important in the classroom?
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.
How does social–emotional learning help teachers?
Social–emotional learning helps teachers manage their classrooms, teach vital real-world skills, and maintain their own wellness.
Bierman, K. L., & Motamedi, M. (2015). SEL programs for preschool children. In J. A. Durlak, C. E Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice (pp. 135–151). Guilford Press.
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.
Cook, C. R., Frye, M., Slemrod, T., Lyon, A. R., Renshaw, T. L., & Zhang, Y. (2015). An integrated approach to universal prevention: Independent and combined effects of PBIS and SEL on youths’ mental health. School Psychology Quarterly, 30(2), 166.
Cooper, C. M., Przeworski, A., Smith, A. C., Obeid, R., & Short, E. J. (2023). Perceptions of social–emotional learning among K-12 teachers in the USA during the COVID-19 pandemic. School Mental Health, 15(2), 484–497.
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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.
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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.
Penrose, A., Perry, C., & Ball, I. (2007). Emotional intelligence and teacher self efficacy: The contribution of teacher status and length of experience. Issues in Educational Research, 17(1), 107–126.
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What is the CASEL framework? (n.d.). CASEL. Retrieved August 24, 2023, from https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel/what-is-the-casel-framework/.
Yüksel, M. Y., Tekin, Ö. E., & Kaplaner, K. (2021). The research of the relationship between the problem-solving skills & metacognitive awareness of middle school students and the social emotional learning. Cukurova University Faculty of Education Journal, 50(1), 487–506.
Zhang, Y., Cook, C. R., & Smith, B. (2023). PurposeFull people SEL and character education program: A cluster randomized trial in schools implementing tier 1 PBIS with fidelity. School Mental Health, 1–18.
About the author
Tiffany Sauber Millacci, Ph.D., is an educator for both university students and elementary-aged students. She is a continuous learner who seeks facts through research and enjoys sharing her learning through her writing.