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A Beginner’s Guide to SEL core competencies

Amanda ClarkDecember 9, 2021

Teacher with students in classroom

When you think of social-emotional learning (SEL), what comes to mind? For most educators, SEL is a program that teaches students how to behave and succeed in school. The truth is, the core competencies of SEL can also be taught in homes, communities and organizations. 

Since educators play an integral role in students’ success, knowing what these core competencies are and how they can be applied is important for teachers and administrators.

Read on to discover the importance of social-emotional learning and its core competencies. You’ll also find out how these skills can help your pupils succeed in  both school and life. 

Table of Contents

1. What is SEL?

To put it simply: Social-emotional learning is a series of strategies to help students navigate their relationships and emotions. Many schools have recently implemented SEL into their curriculum to improve academic performances and behavior in the classroom. 

But SEL can also help people of all ages and walks of life. In fact, there is even a specific day (March 11) that encourages SEL skills in schools, communities, and organizations.

This makes sense since SEL focuses on:

  • Identifying emotions 
  • Expressing yourself appropriately through words/actions
  • Developing empathy for others
  • Resolving conflicts without violence or aggression
  • Understanding consequences for your actions
  • Controlling impulses effectively
  • Making good decisions based on reasoning from past experiences, rather than acting impulsively from present feelings

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has also updated the SEL definition to address various forms of inequity. It empowers individuals of all ages/backgrounds to create thriving schools and safe, healthy communities.

2. What are SEL’s core competencies?

Here’s how CASEL defines them: 

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

These core competencies, aka “the CASEL 5,” are a set of standards that have been used by many school districts, states, and countries to establish what students should know to be successful in school. It outlines goals of establishing lifelong skills, including, but not limited to, good citizenship, emotional stability, and inclusion. 

Let’s take a closer look at each competency. 

3. Social awareness and SEL 

This core competency focuses on the ability to understand and manage emotions.

A few examples of social awareness are:

  • Understanding that people experience emotions differently, depending on their culture. It’s important to recognize how societal norms may affect responses to seemingly benign interactions with people from other ethnicities and/or cultural backgrounds. 
  • Becoming aware of how other people are feeling in order to show them compassion. This means being able to identify body language, facial expressions, voice tone, and social cues.
  • Engaging effectively with emotionally different people during conflict situations (such as problem solving between siblings). It may also include responding appropriately when dealing with an upset colleague or handling sensitive situations, such as addressing racial differences in the classroom. 

4. Self awareness and SEL 

Self-awareness is an SEL core competence that focuses on knowing oneself to make well-thought-out decisions. 

For example, someone who is not  self-aware might make rash decisions without understanding the outcomes of their choices. 

Berkely’s Greater Good in Education explains that self-awareness skills include:

  • Identifying and using stress management strategies
  • Setting personal and collective goals
  • Demonstrating perseverance and resilience 
  • Effectively growing and using planning and organizational skills
  • Being brave to try new things
  • Practicing self-regulation
  • Offering self-compassion
  • Creating healthy boundaries
  • Maintaining attention
  • Accepting and using constructive feedback

5. Relationship skills and SEL 

SEL relationship skills include listening, communicating, and leadership. It’s a way of providing feedback to ensure that the work environment is productive and conducive to success.

Since communication is a relationship skill, this SEL competency is important for managers, students, and coworkers to communicate effectively and efficiently.

Examples of SEL relationship skills:

  • Being honest with others
  • Listening to others
  • Using the proper language with others, even during disagreements (“I’m sorry this happened” or “This must be hard for you”)   
  • Showing respect and kindness to others even when you’re angry or frustrated

6. Decision-making and SEL 

Responsible decision-making is the ability to make choices that have a positive effect in all aspects of your life. It’s based on social morals, ethics, and safety. 

Responsible decision-making is identifying and assessing risks. It also involves understanding the consequences of a situation that may arise from a decision or action plan. 

7. Self-management and SEL 

Self-management is the act of caring for yourself and your community. 

This core competency includes a range of skills you’d need to  take care of yourself in any given situation that might affect your physical or emotional health.

For example, if you feel nervous about meeting new people, you could dig into your self-management toolbox and use “breathing activities” to release tension and feelings of discomfort. 

Or, if you’re feeling low because someone said something hurtful to you, social and emotional skills can help you process your interactions — like talking through feelings with  others — in productive ways. 

8. Promoting SEL core competencies 

Where are SEL skills promoted? Everywhere! An integral part of SEL is to work with other educators, the community, and parents to promote SEL skills.

Knowledge is key, so here are a few examples of how SEL core competencies are promoted at home, school, and even work.

At home: 

  • Participating in a conversation with family members during dinner time 
  • Communicating with children by making eye contact and listening to them fully before responding 
  • Asking open-ended questions about their feelings — “How did you feel when . . ?” “What happened when . . ?” “What made you happy when ?” 
  • Staying calm and collected during conflicts
  • Supporting and talking through difficult decisions

In school: 

  • Teaching students about self-awareness through meditation and peer feedback
  • Teaching students about social awareness through public speaking
  • Teaching students about interpersonal skills through class activities that require cooperation and understanding others’ perspectives 
  • Creating classroom activities and discussions concerning social-emotional experiences
  • Encouraging interactions among different types of learners to promote interpersonal understanding and awareness of group dynamics 
  • Creating an anti-bullying initiative committee or starting a mentoring program for new immigrant children who just arrived on campus 
  • Using gamified online classroom management systems like Classcraft to motivate students and promote collaboration and leadership

At work: 

  • Recognizing a balance between individual achievement and collaboration between coworkers 
  • Creating committees of people with different abilities who foster partnerships, broaden awareness of each other’s contributions and support others on issues related to disability, race, gender identity, or sexual orientation 
  • Participate in guided discussions on how to utilize these competencies with coworkers or team members 
  • Encouraging group lunches and enjoying relaxed discussions with colleagues
  • Asking probing questions and being prepared for thoughtful responses, and exchanging views nonjudgmentally 
  • Taking part in honest conversations about what works best for the individual worker and/or team
  • Allowing everyone enough time off, so they don’t burn themselves out
  • Providing training opportunities where employees can explore their strengths and limitations  
  • Reflecting and evaluating whether the things you do each day align with your company’s values. If some don’t, suggest the best options for an action plan. 

9. Why should teachers get involved? 

There are many benefits to teaching and promoting SEL core competencies. Not only does it make schools safer, but teachers who practice SEL also see a marked decrease in discipline problems.

SEL has also been shown to improve academic performance, increase attendance and empathy.

And, according to the Handbook of School-Family Partnerships, SEL extends to the home and can improve and maintain positive relationships.  


As we said earlier, the CASEL 5 covers all the skills one needs to succeed in life: 

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

But SEL can go far beyond the classroom and have a positive effect on homes, communities, and organizations. 

By learning more about SEL’s core competencies, educators can have a positive impact on both student and faculty behavior. 

Photo Credit: Google Education

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