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Your ultimate guide to social emotional learning

Amanda ClarkNovember 12, 2021

Teacher with students

Table of contents


If you’re an educator, you’re probably familiar with social-emotional learning, or SEL. This methodology, which was first created in the 1960s, is based on compassion, mental health, empathy and conflict resolution. It’s considered a game-changer for both students and teachers alike.  

You might be wondering how SEL works and how teachers can educate parents about it. Or you may have questions about how SEL can help your students deal with COVID-19. 

Keep reading because we’ve got the answers you’re looking for! 

1. What is SEL?

SEL, which was first created in the 1960s, has been used by the Collaborative of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), since 1994. CASEL defines SEL as the process of acquiring healthy identities, emotions, empathy and personal and collective goals. Simply put, SEL is a methodology designed to teach students how to resolve conflicts with others in healthy ways. 

2. What are the fundamentals of social emotional learning?

Here’s how SEL can help your students: 

  • Social emotional learning involves working with parents, teachers and school administrators to reach goals or solve problems  in ways that are meaningful to students. 
  • SEL encourages social change by stimulating empathy, compassion, intent, imagination and creativity.
  • Social emotional learning teaches students how to make friends, get along with others, resolve conflicts, stay focused on tasks, manage emotions and react to stressful events.
  • SEL prepares students for a constantly changing world by helping them manage emotions.
  • Social emotional learning promotes safety, self-efficacy, hope and social skills.
  • SEL encourages respect for everyone’s values and backgrounds. 
  • Social emotional learning helps students develop an understanding of how their emotions affect their behavior.

3. What are the 5 competencies of SEL?

CASEL breaks SEL down into five specific competencies:

  1. Self-management – to recognize how you feel and understand its impact on your behavior.
  2. Social awareness – to understand different perspectives and apply empathy. 
  3. Relationship skills – to show understanding for people with different opinions or needs.
  4. Self-awareness – to talk positively about yourself when you make mistakes or do well.
  5. Responsible decision-making – to think about the consequences (good or bad) of our decisions before making them.

4. What does research show about social emotional learning?

Although SEL research continues to evolve, studies have shown numerous benefits of applying SEL in schools.

  • A recent article by sage journals studied the long term effects of SEL on special education and grade retention. “There is robust evidence demonstrating that children who participate in SEL programs exhibit fewer disruptive behavior problems and better behavioral regulation post-intervention than children in a comparison or control group.”
  • More striking, results from a meta-analysis examining 213 studies and involving more than 270,000 students found that SEL programs have been shown to improve children’s behavior, their ability to manage stress and depression and their attitudes towards themselves.
  • According to a study by National University, SEL programs have had a huge impact on student success. In fact, students in the study who participated in SEL courses saw an 11 percentile improvement in their overall grades and improved attendance. 
  • Additionally, SEL programs have been shown to improve students’ coping strategies and problem-solving, especially with peers.

There’s more. Research also shows that students in SEL programs share more, are more empathetic to others, have better attitudes towards school and feel less stress. 

Despite these positive results, not all educational systems have embraced SEL strategies. This can be attributed to a lack of training, awareness and financial responsibility.

However, as research continues to show benefits of SEL, more schools, including high schools, may join in.

5. Signs that a student may need more support with social emotional learning skills

While all students could benefit from social emotional learning, there are some who need a little more attention. 

Here are some signs to watch for:  

  1. Hitting, kicking, or biting other students persistently
  2. Difficulty following directions
  3. Persistent defiance
  4. Not meeting developmental milestones
  5. Trouble with self-regulation
  6. Emotionally fragile and oversensitive 7. Struggling socially
  7. Trouble coping with challenging people or events

6. How can teachers educate parents about SEL?

  • Be optimistic about how parents can support learning at home. 
  • Recognize that parents might not be aware of what constitutes a positive interaction between parent and child. 
  • Help them map out these interactions through concrete examples, especially when dealing with complex topics like conflict resolution or handling frustration. 
  • Provide parents with explicit recommendations for how to make conversations more routine and regular, following the framework of “safety-rapport-sharing.” 
  • Ask them what type of feedback would be helpful for them and help design a system they can use to provide feedback if necessary. 
  • Prepare discussion starters before meetings and before diving into the complexities of SEL. 

7. How does SEL promote inclusion and diversity?

Teaching empathy and values through social emotional learning can help decrease prejudice and discrimination.

With so much division in the world, we need educators to show students that people from other backgrounds have different perspectives. This could be done through reading multicultural books, inviting diverse speakers into classrooms, or taking trips to places that celebrate diversity.

SEL studies have found that children involved in social-emotional learning showed empathy and changes in attitude toward other demographic groups. 

By meeting goals of greater inclusion, team collaboration becomes easier because more diverse perspectives are represented.

Mindfulness is vital in all aspects of life, and it could make a big difference when teaching students about social emotional learning. 

Teachers should also work with administrators, faculty, counselors, parents, and other professionals to create inclusive communities that actively raise awareness about racial profiling and discrimination in school systems. 

Teachers can make social emotional learning a part of the curriculum and teach children and their parents to be mindful about how we treat others differently. 

8. How can teachers work on SEL skills at school?

As a teacher, you are your student’s SEL role model. So here are a few ways you can work on your own social emotional learning skills:

  1. Limit negative talk.  
  2. Teach empathy.  
  3. Maintain an open mind.  
  4. Practice “emotional self-regulation” by taking care of yourself first before teaching anything to your students. 
  5. If your stress level is high, take a break, meditate, or go for a walk during lunch or a planning period.
  6. Practice patience and compassion. (The golden rule comes into play with your students).
  7. Value your student’s opinion, even if it’s about music, sports teams, or their favorite ice cream flavor😊.

9. Where can you find SEL training?

10. How can SEL make it easier for your students to deal with COVID-19?

As we continue to live with COVID-19,, social-emotional learning is even more important. Students in your classroom are being exposed to people with different backgrounds and beliefs and they need the tools to deal with this.

  • Social-emotional learning improves and supports students’ empathizing and coping strategies by teaching fundamental communication skills.
  • Social-emotional learning reduces behavioral problems, improves academic performance, boosts self-confidence, and decreases aggression — all helpful for emotionally fragile students and teachers living through a pandemic.
  • Studies show that social-emotional learning is effective at improving learning. So, implementing social-emotional skills will improve the classroom climate throughout COVID-19.

Note: Social-emotional learning can be light-hearted, too. One way to improve your classroom climate during the pandemic is to release your inner child. Doing this might make kids more receptive to change. Allowing students to see that adults also have their challenges and difficulties creates a safe space for students to be authentic. 


Teachers are continuing to learn and expand on the many benefits of social-emotional learning. Practicing SEL skills has a positive effect on schools, individuals and communities. Whether you use SEL skills in your classroom, at home, or online with a game like Classcraft, you’ll be helping your students prepare for a successful future. 

What do you think? Do you practice any of these strategies regularly? Let us know how they work for you in the comments below.

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Social Emotional Learning