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.
Jennifer B. Rhodes, licensed psychologist and relationship expert
Pam McNall, CEO, Respectful Ways
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.
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Operating as Alaska’s largest school district, ASD serves more than 50,000 students each year. As a district partner of CASEL, the ASD has implemented a number of measures to ensure children receive not only the academic foundations needed to thrive, but also the social and emotional skills needed to cope in school and beyond. Rather than offering an SEL curriculum block, teachers and administrators work to ensure SEL concepts are incorporated into every part of a student’s day. The district also maintains specific resources and support services for parents looking to promote SEL at home, students looking to learn more and community members who want to promote SEL skills outside the classroom.
The Department of Social and Emotional Learning at AISD works to ensure all 86,000 students attending individual schools receive a holistic education comprised of intensive learning about how to understand and process emotions, develop skills of empathy, form and maintain positive relationships, use responsible decision-making skills and overcome challenging situations. While funding needs have increased (the program budget started with $690,000 and is now $2 million), the district sought local, federal and philanthropic funding to offset the higher costs.
Based in Boston, Massachusetts, CPS uses social and emotional learning concepts to help students learn how to better handle themselves, others, their work and their environments. In addition to teaching about the cognitive, emotional, mental and physical benefits of social-emotional awareness through the health education curriculum, the school also has responsive classroom morning meetings for students in elementary grades and a developmental designs advisory board for those in middle and high schools.
This Ohio-based school district implemented what’s known around the schools as Humanware, a program that combines SEL teaching with a commitment to ensuring all educational facilities are safe and secure. In addition to promoting initiatives to reduce bullying, build community partnerships and offer support for positive behavior, the district also implemented student support teams for peer mediation, a coordinated and age-appropriate SEL curriculum and a rapid-response program for early intervention.
In addition to having departments dedicated to behavioral intervention as well as prevention and intervention, FUSD provides social-emotional support via academic and mental health counselors, psychologists, social workers and social-emotional support specialists. Some of the services provided by these professionals include crisis intervention, community resource referrals, case management and individual or group counseling. The school also implemented restorative practices that work to find alternative, constructive disciplinary actions for students with behavioral problems that help teach them why their actions were poor and motivate them to do better.
With schools in 12 states plus Washington, D.C., Fusion Academy provides learning options in locations from Oregon to Florida and California to Connecticut. As a school that prides itself on putting relationships first, Fusion’s enactment of social-emotional learning stretches across every facet of the school and pushes teachers and administrators to measure what matters in terms of whole-child growth. In a study of students who had been at Fusion for three months, 87 percent said they felt emotionally supported at school, as compared to 21 percent who said the same before attending the school.
As a district member of CASEL, MNPL focuses on building the five core skills of social-emotional learning through classroom instruction and curriculum implementation, school-wide practices and policies, and family and community partnerships. The schools used a three-tier approach to accomplish these goals, including universal prevention, individualized interventions and intensive interventions. Restorative discipline also is practiced, as is culturally responsive teaching, the use of “I can” statements and training for parents who want to learn about social-emotional learning techniques.
For five years now, this Washington-based school district has focused on implementing a whole-child model that not only emphasizes academic ability and success, but also the development of self-determination, emotional resilience, quality relationships and self-confidence. The program now covers 44 schools at the elementary and secondary level, with many schools seeing decreased rates in disciplinary issues and an increased use of discipline alternatives. Some of these include parent-student conferences, apology letters, student presentations and peer mediation. Individuals wanting to learn more can view the Social Emotional Learning Action Plan.
Encompassing the cities of Reno and Sparks in Nevada, WCSD serves nearly 65,000 learners annually and works to ensure each has the social and emotional skills needed to live confident, balanced and empathetic lives. The district accomplishes this by taking a multitiered approach that addresses climate and culture, integration and infusion into existing curricula, and direct instruction. A set of learning standards based on CASEL’s five core tenets is employed, with specific indicators to ascertain when a child has achieved competency.
CASEL offers a range of lessons, activities and teaching practices for instilling the five tenets of social-emotional learning within a classroom.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 offers many helpful resources for educators and parents alike looking for concrete data and research on the effectiveness of social and emotional learning initiatives.
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.