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Why is social-emotional learning (SEL) important?

Classcraft TeamSeptember 26, 2022

Why is social-emotional learning (SEL) important?

School is often thought of as being mostly — if not totally — focused on academic learning. However, as many educators know, it’s about so much more than that. School is an environment where students develop mentally, socially, and emotionally. In fact, learning to form healthy social bonds and navigate emotions is as crucial to the school experience as academic content. This kind of learning even has a direct impact on academic outcomes. Let’s dive into the SEL framework and find out why it’s such a powerful tool for helping both students and educators succeed.

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.

The basics of SEL

SEL stands for social-emotional learning, sometimes called social and emotional learning. It’s a framework for helping learners and educators develop essential skills that allow them to achieve personal and collective success and fulfillment, both in school and throughout life. CASEL, the organization which created SEL and helps educators implement it, defines it this way:

“SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Under the SEL framework, these social-emotional skills are expressed as five distinct but related core competencies, all of which are connected to various aspects of learning and development. The competencies are taught and nurtured within specific key settings where students learn and grow, from the classroom to the entire community. Not all SEL initiatives are the same, but there are elements that are considered essential to its success, such as explicit instruction of the core competencies, evidence-based practices, integration into academics, and others.

SEL is built on a long history of extensive research. This history stretches as far back as 1968, when Dr. James Comer and his colleagues at Yale University’s Child Study Center first began to develop strategies for addressing behavior challenges and improving academic performance through social-emotional practices. A focus on reputable research continues to define SEL today, and a substantial body of evidence supports its effectiveness in improving academic outcomes, student well-being, equity, and more.

SEL core competencies and key settings

When it comes to the inner workings of SEL, the five core competencies are where everything begins. CASEL lists them as:

  • Self-awareness: The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts.
  • Self-management: The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations.
  • Responsible decision-making: The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.
  • Relationship skills: The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. 
  • Social awareness: The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.

SEL focuses on teaching and applying the core competencies within the settings of the classroom, the school, among families and caregivers, and throughout communities. Check out our article An educator’s guide to SEL core competencies to explore these aspects of SEL in more detail.

Why does SEL matter?

SEL has had an enormous impact on education practices throughout the country. The key to its influence lies in one simple but powerful idea — learning social and emotional skills should be considered inseparable from learning academic skills, especially for young students. Since they’re moving through profoundly formative periods of their mental, emotional, and social development, it’s impossible to truly help young students succeed without devoting explicit resources and practices to guiding and nurturing this development on a comprehensive level.  

Educators have found that SEL is highly important and beneficial in the following areas:

Giving students and adults essential skills for navigating school and life

The CASEL core competencies — and the various strategies for teaching them — have been carefully designed to give students the skills they need for success both within and beyond school. From resolving conflict to communicating one’s feelings and even making difficult decisions, social-emotional skills allow for healthier patterns to form throughout a student’s life. 

Meanwhile, the impact of adult SEL shouldn’t be underestimated. It can help educators become better at what they do, build better working relationships, and manage the social and emotional challenges that are bound to arise within their work. As with students, these skills benefit adults in their lives outside education as well.

Improving academic and behavioral outcomes

The process of academic learning itself is deeply social and emotional in nature. A student’s perception of their own abilities can impact how well they retain information, and the way they interact with peers and educators has profound effects on both academic performance and behavior.

If, for example, a student is better able to communicate and understand their anxieties about a subject they find particularly challenging, the relieving effect this can have on their overall stress levels can in turn lead to more productive remedial strategies while avoiding feelings of shame that are detrimental to learning. 

The same applies to behavior — the better a student’s SEL skills are, the better equipped they are to productively understand and navigate their own behavior and the behavior of others. This is highly effective at preventing harmful behavioral patterns and incidents before they happen.

Fostering equity and positive relationships

SEL may seem to be focused on guiding and supporting the development of individuals, but it’s far from being an individual-focused framework. Instead, its structure has been explicitly designed to address how individual social-emotional patterns scale into relationships and communities.

With an SEL implementation that is applied systemically and consistently from the classroom level all the way to the community level, it has the capacity to forge stronger relationships among students, educators, family members, and everyone else involved. 

A major component of this relationship-strengthening process is applying explicit strategies to identify and address issues that affect equity, such as biases based on racial and socioeconomic background. At its very core, SEL is structured to help create more just, safe, and inclusive environments for everyone.

Making life easier for teachers and administrators

Whether you’re helping a single student succeed or an entire district, being an educator can be a heavy experience. Student behavior, academic performance, and culture are all challenging ships to steer, and it can be especially overwhelming when time, resources, and support are difficult to come by. SEL is a fantastic toolset for making these pressures and responsibilities easier to handle.

When students and educators both have stronger social-emotional skills, behavior and culture improve significantly. This makes it easier for teachers to manage classrooms, and for administrators to facilitate large-scale positive outcomes. Not only are the tools for navigating inevitable challenges as sharp as ever, but the strategies for minimizing and even preventing them are also more empathetic, clear, and effective. 

Helping every student thrive

SEL is part of an overall philosophy that focuses on teaching the “whole child”, or in other words, the child as a human being rather than simply a student. When SEL is well-implemented, that same sense of empathy and human wholeness also extends to educators, family members, and people in the wider community. These ideas challenge the assumptions that teaching and learning are purely academic experiences that happen in a bubble. In reality, teaching and learning are multidimensional processes that both affect and are affected by the social and emotional fabric that surrounds them. 

By offering us an evidence-based framework for nurturing essential social-emotional skills, SEL serves as a practical toolset that has proven indispensable in education. It should be integrated not only with academic instruction but also PBIS, which can ultimately make for more effective and empathetic behavior support. When frameworks like these are united and applied through a system that motivates learners and recognizes the importance of meaningful relationships, truly great things are possible in any learning environment.

Better middle school PBIS begins with better implementations

Download your free PBIS implementation guide to access best practices and an implementation checklist to build a better program in your middle school.

Download the guide now

Social Emotional Learning

Better middle school PBIS begins with better implementations

Download your free PBIS implementation guide to access best practices and an implementation checklist to build a better program in your middle school.

Download the guide now