Why is Social-Emotional Learning Important? Tips on Implementing SEL Principles at Home, in School and in the Community

Meet the Experts

Jennifer B. Rhodes Licensed Psychologist and Relationship Expert Read bio
Pam McNall CEO, Respectful Ways Read bio

Written by…

Katy McWhirter Read bio

Reviewed By: Dr. Maurice J. Elias,
Director, Rutgers University Social-Emotional
and Character Development Lab

Social-emotional learning (SEL), for the uninitiated, is a behavioral framework that encompasses several skills affecting academic and life success. The model has proven effective in K-12 classrooms over the last two decades, with benefits including better academic performance, fewer disciplinary incidents and greater awareness and understanding for students about how to handle their emotions. A 2015 study in the Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis determined that for every $1 spent on an SEL program, an $11 benefit emerges — an encouraging selling point for schools looking to improve their curricula but struggling to make the case for more spending. The following guide explains social-emotional learning, outlines its benefits and highlights how other schools have implemented the framework. It also includes two interviews from SEL experts.

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

“Social-emotional learning is a broad term referring to how students regulate their emotions, communicate with others, use compassion and empathy to understand the needs of other people, build relationships and make good decisions,” says licensed psychologist Jennifer B. Rhodes. Although concepts informing social-emotional learning have been written about since the days of Plato, the phrase first came into usage in the early 1990s when the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was founded to bring together educators, psychologists, child well-being advocates and researchers to expand the term and create school and community curricula. It was also during this pivotal time that Daniel Goleman’s pioneering work, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” was released and widened the awareness among researchers, scientists, parents and teachers.

CASEL continues to be a leader in the field of social-emotional learning. It has identified five competencies that comprise the concept:

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

The reason for emphasizing these core tenets, explains Pam McNall, a social-emotional learning curriculum developer, is to develop patterns in children’s brain functions that instill empathy and healthy emotions. “Our brain development depends on neurons and synapses being engaged and building memories,” says McNall.

While social-emotional learning is important in all contexts, the lessons learned are incredibly valuable in the 21st century.

Does research support the effectiveness of the emphasis on these five tenets? In short, the answer is a resounding yes. A study by CASEL published in the peer-reviewed journal, Child Development, analyzed 213 schools with social-emotional learning programs in kindergarten through high school and found that participants in at least two years of systematic SEL made substantial behavioral improvements. A separate 2015 study by the American Journal of Public Health determined that implementing social-emotional learning curricula at the kindergarten level was connected to favorable outcomes in young adulthood, including lessened criminal activity, educational achievement, employability and good mental health.

According to Rhodes, it’s important that SEL methods be applied early. “Social-emotional learning starts in early childhood (birth to age 3), when young children learn how to regulate their emotions from the interactions of their parents,” she notes. “Students with emotionally attentive and perceptive parents learn how to regulate their emotions more effectively.”

Conversely, students with parents who are less emotionally stable may battle with these concepts as they grow older. “Some students struggle with self-regulation due to a parent’s depression or other flavor of emotional unavailability,” she says. “They may also find it difficult if [the child] has a neurological condition (such as ADHD, learning disabilities or executive dysfunction) that makes learning these skills more difficult.”

As elementary schools move away from incorporating curricula that help children learn these skills, Rhodes says, failure often follows. “Children are now graduating and going to college completely unprepared for regulating their emotions and instead expecting other people to do it for them,” she says. “With a heavy focus on math, sciences and technology, students are not getting regular feedback about social skills and how to take different perspectives, manage disappointment, be happy for others or otherwise learn how to use good social skills to build healthy relationships.”

The Impacts of SEL

Social-emotional learning affects the lives of students, teachers, parents and the larger community in meaningful ways that improve relationships and societies as a whole. SEL doesn’t happen overnight, but schools and parents that stick with the principles have identified numerous positive outcomes that arise over time.

  • Academic improvement

    A 2011 analysis of 213 studies that surveyed more than 270,000 learners found that, on average, students who took part in SEL-informed curricula saw an 11 percent jump in academic achievement when compared to learners who didn’t participate.

  • Greater results for students with early-identified problems

    The same CASEL study found that for students who had already been identified as having problems, the use of SEL principles for early interventions led to a reduction of conduct problems, better attitudes toward themselves and others, fewer outbreaks due to emotional distress and overall enhanced academic performance.

  • Better social interactions

    As evidenced by the reports of teachers, fellow students, friends, families and community members, SEL curricula help encourage positive behavior across the lifespan. For students to have good role models when considering how they should behave, it is important that teachers and parents display empathy, conscientiousness, thoughtfulness and kindness.

  • Improved classroom behavior

    The same study mentioned above also found that students who took part in SEL curricula exhibited improved behavior in the classroom, a greater ability to properly manage stress and depression and healthier opinions of themselves and others.

  • Ability to care for themselves

    A 2015 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that students who learned pro-social skills at an early age were far less likely to ever live in public housing, use public assistance, interact with the police while still minors or find themselves in detention facilities.

  • Less aggressive and/or disruptive behavior

    An article by Options for Youth notes that students taking part in SEL programs have long-term improvement in areas of aggression and disruption. A study found that students who engaged in SEL at either the elementary or secondary level still saw a 10 percent reduction in behavioral, psychological and substance abuse problems by the age of 25.

How to Implement SEL in Your Classroom

Implementing social-emotional learning techniques into a classroom may at first seem overwhelming to teachers, who are already used to not having enough time in the day to get through material. Though it may take a few extra minutes throughout the class in the beginning, the benefits of instilling these behaviors in students early on more than
makes up for the hard work at the beginning. Ideas for implementing these concepts into your classroom
include:

  • Innovative intervention programs:

    “These have been used in middle school; infants are brought into the classroom with an explanation of child development and social feedback, to work on middle schoolers’ empathy skills,” says Rhodes. “These programs have had big successes in getting teens to move past their self-entitled behaviors to begin to think about their whole community.” CASEL provides listings of evidence-based programs on its website.

  • Positive encouragement:

    “On the smaller, everyday scale, classrooms can institute good social-emotional skills by creating positive ‘rules’ and validating pro-social behavior,” Rhodes notes. “An example would be saying, ‘Johnny, I love how you supported Mary in finding the answer to that problem,’ to encourage teamwork and cooperation.”

  • Focus on process:

    Rhodes says that by encouraging problem solving, innovation and critical thinking rather than just the search for the right answer, teachers help students understand that process is just as important as — if not more than — the outcome. It’s a message that isn’t emphasized enough in today’s classrooms, where there often can be too much focus on standardized test scores.

  • Student check-ins at the start of class:

    Even if it’s just an individual warm welcome to each child, making that eye contact and face-to-face connection and calling students by name helps them realize they are known and seen by those around them. This awareness creates a culture of kindness and support while also reminding students that people are watching and they can’t get away with poor behavior.

  • Materials that encourage SEL:

    No matter the grade level, reading materials exist that instill social-emotional learning and can be read aloud to (or by) the students. We Are Teachers provides a great list of 50 books that teach social and emotional skills.

  • Emphasis on working together:

    It may seem straightforward enough to break students into groups and tell them to work together, but far too often, learners haven’t figured out how to do this successfully. The job of the teacher in this instance is to help each student find his or her role and ensure the student knows how to fulfill the duties of that role. The blog Math=Love provides helpful printouts of the various group project roles to help students learn what they bring to the team.

  • Buy-in from school:

    It’s one thing to teach your homeroom or content-area students about the tenets of social-emotional learning, but this work is far more effective when the entire school is on the same page. After testing the waters of social-emotional learning on a small scale, speak to the administrators of the school about broadening the scope. Options may include setting up an SEL task force, holding an SEL workshop for parents or developing an expanded curriculum for more classrooms. At Edutopia.org, you can find many guidelines for all aspects of SEL implementation, including about buy-in.

Expert Q&A

Jennifer B. Rhodes, licensed psychologist and relationship expert

Pam McNall, CEO, Respectful Ways

Q: How can social-emotional learning be used to reduce bullying?

Rhodes: Social-emotional learning helps kids learn why others bully and begin developing the grit necessary to learn not to take such behavior personally and develop positive coping skills (ignoring, knowing when to tell a grown up and when to escalate a report to other adults). Too many kids haven’t learned the self-regulation skills necessary to cope with this kind of stress, which would lead to depression and, possibly, suicidal thoughts. The bully stands to learn that real leadership may come from another source. Depending on the reason for bullying (and how antisocial the bully really is), such focus on social-emotional skills throughout a child’s development may be able to thwart a bully from escalating his or her behavior over time.

McNall: You’ve got to get in their heads, and the way to do that is through the heart. Think about it. You’re trying to teach compassion, and for them to cognitively recognize empathy, you’ve got to build up that right side of the brain where empathy and compassion live. You do that through creative play and storytelling. To teach compassion, your storytelling needs to hit home, hit them in the heart with relatable pains and hurts and “I get it” moments. The proverb to walk in someone else’s shoes wields power.

Our Think Before You Send: Cyberbullying Is Cruel module uses the true-life story of David Molak. After students visualize losing a personal dear friend from suicide due to bullying, we have them research their own state’s bullying laws and then teach them formal letter-writing skills to write their state senators and representatives about how to improve state law. And, yes, even the bullies in a school get to look up the legal punishment and then ask state reps to increase said punishment.

Q: Why don’t more schools implement social-emotional learning programs?

Rhodes: Our schools are overrun with standards-based testing. Good teachers already know that social-emotional development is the key to a child’s success. However, if a teacher’s job is connected to students’ test scores, there is very little time to do this type of teaching. We are, unfortunately, creating a less creative generation of students who may have more trouble with social-emotional skills. I think the consequence of this is seen in higher levels of anxiety, depression and the increased request for students to take gap years between high school and college.

McNall: Fear, time, stress and money. Fear that if administrators admit to a problem, they’re setting themselves up for criticism or, worse, a lawsuit. Time, because by prioritizing standardized testing back in 2001, we tilted the delicate balance of teaching both EQ and IQ, which I address in this blog about the pink elephant in the classroom. Stress — spend a day at your local school and you’ll see just how difficult it is to get anything done. And money — a stressed-out school is more likely to spend the rest of its budget at the end of the year on stockpiling office supplies than finding a quality SEL curriculum and training educators. It takes time, effort and money to teach SEL, and I fear the stress of today’s modern school day is at fault. It certainly isn’t the hardworking educators and administrators. They are heroes for working so hard to help kids. It’s the red tape of the education industry.

Q: What are the drawbacks (if any) of social-emotional learning?

Rhodes: Doing it right requires a teacher and other adults who also have good social-emotional skills. It is not a didactic lesson plan but rather taught in those moments of connection. Real relationships with students teach more about social-emotional skills than a lesson plan does. Our teachers need more relational support for their own social-emotional well-being to do this justice. I think all schools struggle to figure out how to balance all the demands in a curriculum and still find time to teach these skills.

McNall: What a question! I’ve never been asked this. Perhaps a cruel child could use some of the shared stories and experiences the classroom indulged in against another child. I would hope the lesson learned would overtake the temptation to be cruel, but that’s why we have Respectful Signage as the wingman in every classroom, hallway and common area. It’s not just for educators to use as a classroom management tool; students can point out signs and remind other students, “Hey! Be kind,” or, “Hey! Be the change!”

Q: Is there any existing research on this topic? Does data bear out its effectiveness?

Rhodes: The research from the field of infant mental health over decades has demonstrated the importance of relationships for the development of good emotion-regulation skills, which are foundational skills needed for overall good emotional and social development. In a groundbreaking, randomized control study that investigated how to fix the orphanage system in Romania, researchers found out that children’s cognitive, social and emotional health could be completely restored if the child was adopted prior to age 2 into a foster family that had good social-emotional and relationship skills training. High-quality foster care vis-à-vis relationship skills actually changes children’s brains.

McNall: We in the SEL industry scream from the hills about proof of effectiveness. Because of the red tape to get programming into schools, data is our Norma Rae. We in the industry often think in terms of “our children are our future,” and so we address corporations and their need for disciplined, competent workers. One of our most powerful and popular blogs quotes eight different sites substantiating SEL effectiveness.

Q: How can parents best support children whose schools implement these ideas?

Rhodes: The best way is to implement these skills in your own family environment. It means prioritizing the health of your relationships in your home over having your child finish homework to simply get an A. When kids learn how to regulate their emotions and stress by watching their parents, they learn invaluable lessons. They also learn via watching their parents have healthy relationships with each other and other adults.

McNall: Parents are busy and just as stressed as the educators and kids. They need help to support their children’s social and emotional learning. SEL programs need to assist parents with effective tools and incentives to make the connection happen! A child cannot learn proper behavior in a vacuum at school, only to go home and forget all of what’s been learned or, worse yet, witness less-than-helpful behavior. We are a communal society. We love community. Parents need a place like a monitored discussion forum via the school’s website so they can ask questions and add ideas.

Q: Where can students and parents find more information about the effects of social-emotional learning? Do you have some favorite websites on this topic?

Rhodes: Some of my favorite resources include:

McNall: We often quote ,CASEL, the largest think tank in the EQ industry. I’ve worked with SEL4MA in Massachusetts and SEL4CA in California — an alliance of amazing networks whose mission is to advocate at the legislative level to make social and emotional learning a priority. The day that alliance becomes 50 states strong is the day our society will be a kinder, better, more productive place.

Q: Where can educators who want to introduce these ideas into their classrooms find resources?

Rhodes: Every school usually has access to a school psychologist. Teachers are encouraged to reach out to these professionals for help in their individual schools. Other helpful resources include:

McNall: Teachers Pay Teachers is a great resource for educators to pick and choose digital posters, signs and curricula. And, shameless plug here, Respectful Ways offers digital curricula, posters, signage and Let’s Chat conversation cards all based on social-emotional learning. If a school has a specific behavioral issue, we can build curriculum to its exact needs. It’s the magic of a web-based SEL product!

SEL Programs in Action

Though social-emotional learning programs have gradually taken root in K-12 schools over the last two decades, their placement in colleges and universities, along with workplaces, is still curiously absent. With so much research in elementary and secondary school settings demonstrating the benefits of helping students learn how to cope with their emotions and engage in healthy relationships, why haven’t other academic and professional settings gotten the message?

This question becomes all the more poignant when considering the growing mental health needs of higher education students. Because 75 percent of all mental health issues present themselves before the age of 25, ensuring students continue to receive social-emotional learning support throughout college is critical. According to studies by the American College Health Association, approximately 80 percent of college students reported feeling overwhelmed by all their responsibilities, while 45 percent stated they either currently or in the past had felt things were hopeless. While increased academic responsibilities and pressures contribute to these feelings, college students are not immune to issues stemming from a lack of self-confidence, an inability to self-manage, poor decision-making, lack of social awareness and underdeveloped relationship skills.

While very few colleges currently have any type of formalized plan for social-emotional learning, research does show that students who received this type of training at the elementary and secondary school levels experience ongoing benefits in both college and the workplace. In an article in The Atlantic called “When Social and Emotional Learning is Key to College Success,” the author shares the story of Perspectives Charter School, an educational facility in Chicago’s South Side that emphasizes SEL. A mandated class known as A Disciplined Life requires all students to learn 26 core principles known to help them live better, happier, more successful lives. Some of these principles include compassion, empathy, kindness, generosity and peaceful conflict resolution.

A former Perspectives student and current senior at Trinity College, Ronald Brown spoke specifically about how the SEL education he received in high school prepared him for the rigors of college. “Perspectives prepared me,” he told The Atlantic. “Be open-minded, try new things, challenge each other and yourself intellectually, time management, all that came easy.”

The principles of social-emotional learning also extend seamlessly to the workplace, helping employers and employees alike manage relationships and avoid pointless conflict. “Corporations now have an expectation that their future workforce be able to communicate effectively, control frustrations and get along with other people,” notes McNall. “It’s part of life, and in this day and age, social skills and emotional intelligence take training.” She goes on to address some of the issues that have the potential to crop up when SEL training isn’t present. “The imbalance of too much screen time can make it difficult for some people to efficiently and comfortably connect with others,” she says. “Soft skills, verbal skills, decision-making skills — these attributes are what companies are looking for in the 21st century.”

Within professional contexts, SEL tenets are often referred to as “soft skills” or even “21st century skills,” meaning they can’t simply be learned by studying a professional subject such as business, mathematics or finance. A report commissioned by the World Economic Forum and The Boston Consulting Group found that jobs requiring social skills and emotional literacy have been on the uptick since 1980, with even careers in financial management requiring some level of empathy and self-awareness. Within the previously mentioned report, scientists found the key for increasing SEL competencies among professionals in the workplace who are unfamiliar with the concepts is to emphasize educational technology.

Because so many professions and careers prioritize continuing education and ongoing learning, the use of educational technology to instill the skills and tenets of SEL has real potential across many industries and sectors — even when a company can’t afford to hire a professional trainer for the whole staff.

2018 Spotlight: Schools Promoting Social-Emotional Learning

Looking to see social-emotional learning programs in action? The following list of schools highlights some of the ways teachers, parents, administrators and community members are working to graduate well-rounded learners.

Additional SEL Resources

  • Examples of Social and Emotional Learning in High School Language Arts Instruction

    CASEL offers a range of lessons, activities and teaching practices for instilling the five tenets of social-emotional learning within a classroom.

  • Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports

    Through funding provided by the U.S. Department of Education, PBIS works with schools and school districts to help them create structures for awarding and emphasizing positive behaviors.

  • The Power of Believing That You Can Improve

    This TEDTalk by Carol Dweck is an excellent resource for students, parents and teachers alike. Dweck discusses the differences between growth and fixed mindsets and the importance of helping students believe they can change, grow and improve.

  • Wings for Kids

    Developed specifically to help at-risk youth embrace the core philosophies of SEL, Wings for Kids provides teacher training, after-school program curricula, professional development workshops and individualized SEL initiatives.

  • MindUp Learning Program

    This program, comprised of 15 lessons for children in grades K-8, helps students develop the social and emotional skills necessary to address bullying, build self-confidence and self-awareness and learn how to be balanced and emotionally stable members of society.

  • Second Step

    This national nonprofit provides teachers with ideas for easily and quickly implementing elements of SEL into their daily classroom plans. Ideas are split into early learning, elementary and middle school levels, with additional toolkits for principals.

  • The Power of Positive Regard

    In this Educational Leadership article, author Jeffrey Benson looks at the powerful effect recognition and positive affirmation from adults can have on the lives of children.

  • Whole Child Initiative

    Created by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Whole Child works to shift the focus away from simply viewing a child’s success in terms of academic achievement and instead championing their development as well-rounded humans.

  • National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development

    Operating as part of The Aspen Institute, NCSEAD brings leaders together to create a vision of what success means in today’s schools and take steps to help students reach their potential.

  • Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab

    Housed at Rutgers University, this innovative research lab looks into the effectiveness of the SEL method and offers teachers and other educational leaders the opportunity to complete several certifications.

  • The Wallace Foundation

    The Wallace Foundation offers many helpful resources for educators and parents alike looking for concrete data and research on the effectiveness of social and emotional learning initiatives.

  • Wise Skills

    Designed specifically with teachers in mind, Wise Skills is an SEL program that help teachers with character education and SEL. Topics include positive role models, encouragement of service activities and building good character.