Every educator wants to ensure the best outcomes for their students while doing their part to build a positive, fulfilling learning community. To achieve this, countless elements must work in harmony, and there’s no one-size-fits-all recipe for success. However, there’s one factor that is profoundly influential at every level — the teaching and nurturing of social-emotional skills.
Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a powerful framework for ensuring that these skills are developed properly among both students and adults. If you’re new to SEL, we recommend exploring this article for more information on its meaning and importance for everyone involved.
SEL has been carefully researched and designed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to be applied through evidence-based practices for the best results possible. At the very core of these practices are the five SEL core competencies. They’re the best place to start when it comes to understanding how exactly SEL works.
Want to learn how to improve student behavior? Our guide to PBIS implementation offers a closer look at best practices for crafting successful initiatives, and it even includes an implementation checklist.
SEL core competencies overview
Before diving into each competency in detail, it’s important to have a broader understanding of what they are and the role that they play in the larger structure of SEL.
The SEL core competencies are the five key types of social-emotional skills that SEL is designed to teach and nurture. Each competency represents various abilities and habits that — when taught explicitly and practiced consistently — lead to more healthy identities, more positive interactions and relationships with others, better problem-solving and conflict resolution, and more. CASEL names them as:
- Responsible decision-making
- Relationship skills
- Social awareness
Not all SEL implementations will focus on all skills equally or teach them in the same way. Depending on the goals and needs of the individual, the school, the district, or the community, some competencies may be prioritized over others. How the skills are taught can also vary, since SEL instruction should always be developmentally appropriate (fine-tuned according to age) and culturally responsive (adapted to individual cultural identities and experiences).
The four key settings of SEL
SEL accounts not only for the social-emotional skills themselves, but the settings in which they should be taught, applied, and reinforced. CASEL calls these key settings, and each one has its own unique significance:
- Classrooms: The success of SEL depends significantly on classroom-based approaches. At this level, the core competencies are often taught to students through explicit instruction, cooperative and project-based learning, and integration into academic instruction.
- Schools: The impact of a high-quality schoolwide SEL implementation can be enormously positive. For this to go well, it requires ongoing planning, implementation, evaluation, and continuous improvement, with all members of the learning community fully engaged.
- Families and caregivers: From helping to ensure equitable and culturally-sensitive implementation to gaining insight into student needs and more, the role of families in SEL is a crucial one. Authentic partnerships and two-way communication are must-haves.
- Communities: Of course, the significance of SEL extends beyond educational networks. Practices, language, and overall strategies should be consistent and interconnected between school and non-school contexts through community partnerships.
Since education is just one component of every community, and each person has a part to play in collective success and fulfillment, SEL shouldn’t just be thought of as a set of educational strategies. It should be thought of as a large-scale framework with widespread, long-term benefits.
Let’s run through some detailed explanations of each competency and practical examples of how they can be taught.
The five SEL core competencies
What it means: The ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts.
Why it’s important: When a person develops a strong sense of self-awareness — and the skills involved in maintaining it — they’re better equipped to develop insight into various aspects of themselves. Self-awareness is a foundational aspect of being able to understand both how we see ourselves and how we engage with others, and it connects directly to every other competency.
How it can be taught: One common activity for self-awareness is reflective writing. Classroom teachers can give prompts that allow students to reflect on their experience of their own emotions in past situations or hypothetical scenarios, or why they feel particular emotions toward others, themselves, or specific topics. This is an excellent way to help students develop a stronger emotional vocabulary and exercise the skills needed to gain better insight into themselves.
What it means: The ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations.
Why it’s important: When a person develops strong self-management abilities, they’re better equipped to apply their sense of self-awareness to their feelings and actions in a positive and productive way. The better a person’s self-management is, the more likely they are to effectively pursue and attain healthy relationships, and ultimately, a fulfilling life.
How it can be taught: A practical way to strengthen self-management skills is to teach grounding techniques. These are simple yet effective methods that help a person manage stress by directing their attention to their own senses and the present moment. Classroom teachers can guide students through grounding actions such as naming objects they can see in the room, breathing in a deep and focused way, or describing the way their bodies are feeling.
What it means: The ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.
Why it’s important: Responsible decision-making allows people to make constructive choices, maintain a sense of accountability within themselves, and understand how to follow ethical, safe, and legal behavior. This competency can strengthen the other four by allowing individuals to make better, more deliberate decisions in improving all of their social-emotional skills.
How it can be taught: Common ways to teach responsible decision-making include assigning roles and responsibilities to students for tasks around the classroom, like watering plants, or organizing the classroom library. Group-oriented activities offer many possibilities as well — examples include a “class council” that meets to find ways for improving how things are done in class or group discussions about hypothetical scenarios that involve important decisions.
What it means: The ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.
Why it’s important: Social awareness allows people to treat others with kindness and respect, address social challenges, and more. This is one of the most important core competencies when it comes to improving equity and creating more empathetic, inclusive communities. It’s essential for expanding our sense of insight beyond ourselves and becoming better citizens.
How it can be taught: Educators can help students develop social awareness by organizing and facilitating community involvement projects like food drives or fundraising and cleanup initiatives. These projects can also be paired with classroom-level instruction that gives students context about why their actions matter. This is a particularly appropriate core competency for implementing SEL strategies at all levels, from the classroom to the district and beyond.
What it means: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups.
Why it’s important: Relationship skills allow people to communicate clearly, resist inappropriate social pressure, seek and offer help when needed, and negotiate conflict. They’re also crucial to achieving better student outcomes through strong bonds between teachers and learners, as well as better working conditions through positive relationships among educators.
How it can be taught: Group-oriented exercises are especially useful for teaching relationship skills, as communication and collaboration are essential to strengthening this core competency. Examples include group puzzle-solving or problem-solving activities that are focused on cooperation or icebreaker activities that allow students to get to know one another. You can even facilitate group story-writing activities that encourage students to both engage in collaborative relationships and examine relationships between characters.
As always, it’s wise to make sure that any methods you employ for developing SEL core competencies are developmentally appropriate and as inclusive as possible. To explore more examples of strategies in practice, take a look at this resource created by CASEL.
Teach, assess, repeat
While the possible instructional and administrative strategies for teaching SEL core competencies can vary significantly from one case to another, all strategies depend on one thing in order to be successful — assessment.
SEL involves various forms of assessment throughout the process of implementation. These include baseline assessments (which establish the social-emotional needs of students at the early stages of implementation to indicate which competencies should be prioritized) as well as formative and summative assessments (which help educators measure SEL competency, monitor progress, and make improvements to initiatives).
Assessment is also important for ensuring that SEL is equitable. Addressing disparities and biases that negatively impact the quality of social-emotional support for marginalized students is fundamental to SEL as a framework, and should always be a core component of any initiative. Closely related to this is the importance of a strength-based approach. Instead of following a deficit model, SEL competency assessment should be focused on assessing social-emotional strengths. Otherwise, assessment can contribute to inequity and stigmatization.
Better practices, better communities
SEL is both data-driven and human-driven. The five core competencies are designed to encapsulate key aspects of our nature that empower us to thrive both individually and collectively. They are also designed to provide a structured rubric that makes it possible to accomplish transformative social-emotional goals through clear actions and measurable strategies. When we foster more empathetic mindsets that view students as nuanced human beings, while combining that empathy with evidence-based practices and high-fidelity data, entire communities can benefit in countless ways.