Key takeaways

  • Holistic Development: Academic achievement is just one facet of success. SEL emphasizes cultivating emotional intelligence, social skills, and resilience, nurturing well-rounded individuals to navigate life's challenges.
  • Integrated Approach: SEL permeates various aspects of the educational experience, from classroom practices to school-wide initiatives. Schools can create a supportive environment conducive to students' social and emotional growth by integrating these skills into curriculum, discipline approaches, and community engagement.
  • Long-Term Benefits: The benefits of SEL extend beyond the classroom, impacting students' academic performance, social relationships, and emotional well-being. By investing in SEL, schools lay the foundation for students' future success, equipping them with essential life skills for personal and professional fulfillment.

In modern education, academic achievement is not the only predictor of success. Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has emerged as a crucial component in fostering holistic development among students. But what exactly is SEL?

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) refers to how individuals acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. In essence, it equips students with the tools they need to navigate the complexities of the social and emotional realms of life and it has been taking place far longer than the buzzword might imply.

"Social emotional learning is a classification word for individual skills growth in areas needed for successful day-to-day and life functioning."

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What Does SEL Look Like in Schools?

In schools, SEL is integrated into various aspects of the educational experience. It goes beyond traditional academic instruction to encompass the cultivation of emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, and interpersonal skills. SEL manifests in classroom activities, school-wide initiatives, and supportive environments that promote positive social interactions and emotional well-being. Some key strategies include:

Curriculum Integration

Many schools incorporate SEL into their curriculum through dedicated lessons and activities designed to develop students' social and emotional skills. These lessons may be standalone units or seamlessly woven into subjects like language arts, social studies, or health education. Students learn to recognize emotions, empathize with others, and make responsible decisions through literature discussions, role-playing exercises, and reflective journaling.

Classroom Practices 

Teachers play a crucial role in fostering SEL skills through instructional practices and classroom management strategies. They create a supportive and inclusive environment where students feel safe to express themselves, take risks, and collaborate with their peers. Classroom rituals such as morning meetings, check-ins, or gratitude exercises provide opportunities for students to connect and build positive relationships.

Positive Discipline Approaches

Instead of relying solely on punitive measures, many schools adopt positive discipline approaches that prioritize understanding and addressing the underlying causes of behavior. Restorative justice practices, for example, encourage students to take responsibility for their actions, repair harm, and restore relationships within the school community.

School-wide Initiatives

SEL extends beyond individual classrooms to encompass school-wide initiatives that promote a culture of empathy, respect, and inclusion. Schools may implement programs like peer mentoring, student leadership councils, or community service projects to foster social connections and civic engagement among students. Additionally, SEL principles are often reflected in school policies and practices related to bullying prevention, conflict resolution, and character education.

Professional Development

Oftentimes educators receive training and support to effectively integrate SEL into their teaching practice. Professional development opportunities may include workshops, seminars, or peer coaching sessions focused on topics such as trauma-informed instruction, culturally responsive teaching, or mindfulness practices. By equipping educators with the knowledge and skills to address their students' social and emotional needs, schools can create a more nurturing and supportive learning environment.

Family and Community Engagement

Schools should recognize the importance of involving families and the broader community in supporting students' social and emotional development. Parent workshops, family engagement events, and community partnerships provide opportunities for collaboration and shared responsibility in nurturing students' well-being. By fostering strong connections between home, school, and community, schools can create a more comprehensive support system for students' social and emotional growth.

How to Assess Social Emotional Skills?

Assessing social emotional skills involves a multifaceted approach that can should include a  screening (questionnaire or surveys), curriculum, observations and targeted interventions. Screening questions shouldn’t be invasive or personal but geared toward students self-reflection. 

Screening: Schools may utilize surveys, screeners, or behavioral observations to identify students who may benefit from additional support in developing social emotional skills. An accurate screening should include a student self-reflection survey and a teacher observation assessment. Only relying on one form of evaluation (just student or teacher) may provide inaccurate data.

Curriculum: SEL curriculum often includes structured lessons and activities designed to promote skills such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These lessons are typically geared toward Tier 1 students or the general population of students within the class.

Interventions: Targeted interventions can be provided for students in need of additional support. These lessons or plans are designed for Tier 2 and 3 students and are more specific for their needed skill growth. Interventions can include counseling, small group work, or individual lessons.

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Benefits of Social Emotional Learning

The benefits of SEL extend far beyond the classroom. Research has shown that students participating in social and emotional life skills programs demonstrate improved academic performance, enhanced social relationships, reduced behavioral problems, and increased emotional well-being. Moreover, SEL equips students with essential life skills integral to success in personal and professional environments.

“Generally, SEL skills have been associated with positive mental health, helping to buffer against mental health risks like externalizing behaviors such as substance use,” said Brittney Williams, assistant director of research-practice partnerships at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. 

SEL Strategies for Students

Implementing SEL strategies in the classroom can help foster a supportive and inclusive learning environment. Some key strategies include:

Emotion Recognition

Encourage students to identify and label their emotions, fostering self-awareness and emotional intelligence.

Mindfulness Practices

Integrate mindfulness activities such as deep breathing exercises or guided meditation to promote self-regulation and stress management.

Conflict Resolution

Teach students effective communication and problem-solving skills to navigate conflicts and build positive relationships.

Empathy Building

Engage students in activities that promote perspective-taking and empathy, fostering a sense of compassion and understanding for others.

Goal Setting

Encourage students to set and work towards achievable goals, fostering a sense of agency and motivation.


In today's fast-paced and interconnected world, the importance of social emotional learning cannot be overstated. While academic excellence remains a fundamental aspect of student development, educators and policymakers increasingly recognize that success in life requires more than just good grades. These skills serve as a guiding light, illuminating the path toward holistic growth and equipping students with the essential life skills needed to navigate the multifaceted challenges of the modern world.

Gone are the days when education solely focused on imparting knowledge and academic prowess. Today, SEL stands at the forefront, emphasizing the cultivation of emotional intelligence, empathy, and responsible decision-making. These skills are invaluable in educational settings and essential for personal relationships, professional endeavors, and overall well-being.

When integrating SEL into educational practices, schools create an environment where students can thrive academically, socially, and emotionally. Through SEL, students learn to navigate their emotions, understand the perspectives of others, and develop healthy relationship skills. In a rapidly changing society where uncertainty and adversity are inevitable, social emotional learning skills equip students with the tools to bounce back from setbacks, overcome obstacles, and pursue their goals with determination.

Author: Whitney Ballantine

Posted: 29 Mar 2024

Estimated time to read: 8 mins

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