As parents, we want our children to succeed in every aspect of their lives. We enroll them in the best schools, provide them with various extracurricular activities, and constantly encourage and support them.

In the classroom, where we emphasize academic skills, it is easy to forget the importance of children’s emotional well-being.

A group of students participating in social emotional learning activities, with their parents acting as guides, while raising their hands in a classroom.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is not new, but it has gained increased attention in recent years. This article will help parents understand social-emotional learning and how it is used in schools.

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What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning can be defined as the process through which individuals learn to understand and manage their emotions, build healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions.

In the context of schools, it involves integrating social skills and emotional skills into academic learning, creating a holistic approach that benefits children in and out of the classroom.

Research shows SEL impacts academic success, social relationships, and overall well-being. By addressing children’s social and emotional needs, SEL sets them on a path to lifelong success and satisfaction.

Parents guiding a group of people in social emotional learning around a laptop.

History of SEL in Education

The concept of SEL dates back to the early 20th century, but it gained significant recognition in education in the 1990s.

Educators and researchers began to understand the importance of addressing students’ social and emotional needs alongside academic instruction. Over time, SEL has evolved, and its impact has expanded in schools, influencing teaching practices and curriculum development.

Here is a quick history:

  1. Early 20th Century Foundations: The roots of SEL can be traced to the early 20th century, particularly to the work of psychologists like John Dewey, who emphasized the importance of emotions in education. Dewey’s ideas about the role of education in fostering social and emotional development laid a foundation for later SEL concepts.
  2. The Rise of Emotional Intelligence: In the 1970s and 1980s, researchers focused more on the role of emotions in human development and interaction. Psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer founded the term ’emotional intelligence’ in the 1990s, and Daniel Goleman further popularized it in his 1995 book ‘Emotional Intelligence.’  This concept emphasized the importance of emotional awareness, regulation, and interpersonal skills, which are central to SEL.
  3. Development of SEL Frameworks: In response to a growing body of research suggesting the importance of emotional and social skills for success in life, states, schools, and districts began to incorporate these elements into their educational frameworks. In the 1990s, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was formed. CASEL played a crucial role in defining SEL and advocating for its integration into education. They developed a framework that identified five core competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.
  4. Policy and Education Systems: During the early 2000s, SEL gained traction worldwide in educational policy and systems. Many schools integrated SEL into their curricula to support academic success and improve student behavior. Research has shown that SEL programs can positively impact academic performance, reduce bullying, and improve mental health.
  5. 21st Century and Beyond: In the 21st century, the importance of SEL has been increasingly recognized in the context of a rapidly changing and interconnected world. The rise of technology, the increasing emphasis on collaboration and communication in the workforce, and the growing awareness of mental health issues have all underscored the need for effective SEL education.

Moving forward as a society, we continue to redefine what social-emotional learning looks like in schools. With the increasing focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, SEL programs are evolving to support students from all backgrounds in developing a strong sense of self, understanding others’ perspectives, and building positive relationships.

Three parents talking in front of a building

The Five Core Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Components

SEL consists of five core competencies that are essential for children’s development:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand one’s own emotions, including strengths and weaknesses
  • Self-management: The capability to regulate one’s emotions, control impulses, and set and achieve goals
  • Social awareness: The aptitude to empathize with and understand the perspectives of others, as well as navigate social situations
  • Relationship skills: The proficiency in establishing and maintaining healthy relationships, including communication, cooperation, and conflict resolution
  • Responsible decision-making: The skill to make thoughtful choices based on consideration of consequences, personal values, and social norms

How Social-Emotional Learning is Implemented in Schools

In schools, SEL implementation often involves a multi-faceted approach encompassing classroom instruction, school-wide practices, and policies. Teachers integrate SEL into everyday lessons, teaching skills such as empathetic listening during book discussions or collaboration during group projects in science.

In addition, some teachers dedicate time to delivering targeted Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) lessons to develop specific skills.

School-wide practices might include creating respectful learning environments and promoting positive interactions among students and staff.

Policies are implemented to ensure the school’s culture and climate are conducive to SEL.

Additionally, schools may adopt specific SEL programs or evidence-based curricula designed to promote the five core SEL competencies.

Depending on the school’s specific needs and resources, these programs can be standalone or integrated into the existing curriculum.

Here are a few ways that SEL might be implemented in the elementary classroom:

  1. Morning Meetings or Community Circle: Many teachers start the day with a morning meeting when students share personal stories, discuss emotions, or work on relationship-building activities. This is an effective way to begin the day positively and promote a sense of community in the classroom. Teachers may also end the day with a community circle with similar activities.
  2. Role-Playing: Role-playing scenarios are often used to practice social skills and empathy. This strategy allows students to navigate different situations, understand different perspectives, and learn appropriate responses.
  3. Group Projects and Collaborative Learning: Group projects provide a platform for students to practice communication, cooperation, and conflict resolution—core components of relationship skills.
  4. Classroom Jobs and Responsibilities: Assigning classroom jobs can foster a sense of responsibility and community among students. This practice can also help to develop leadership skills and promote self-management.
  5. Social-Emotional Learning Games: Games that encourage students to recognize and discuss emotions can be a fun way to promote self-awareness and social awareness.
  6. Setting Personal Goals: Encouraging students to set and track personal goals can promote self-management skills. This can be done academically or behaviorally, such as aiming for a certain grade or working on listening skills.
  7. Teaching Conflict Resolution: Teachers can directly teach students how to handle conflict, including recognizing feelings, communicating effectively, empathizing with others, and finding solutions.
  8. Creating Classroom Rules Together: Involving students in creating classroom rules can help them feel invested in the class and understand the consequences of their actions, an aspect of responsible decision-making.

Social-emotional learning can seamlessly be woven into every subject and school day. It is an integral part of the classroom experience, enriching students’ lives in many ways.

A group of young people engaging in social emotional learning activities in front of a building.

Implementing SEL at Home: Strategies for Parents

Parents play a crucial role in nurturing their child’s social and emotional skills. Implementing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at home can significantly improve a child’s overall development and well-being. Here are some practical strategies for parents:

  1. Active Listening: Take the time to actively listen to your child. Show genuine interest in their thoughts and feelings and create a safe space for them to express themselves.
  2. Model Positive Behavior: Be a role model for your child by demonstrating positive behavior and emotional intelligence. Teach them how to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts, and empathize with others.
  3. Nurturing Self-esteem: Help build your child’s self-esteem by praising their efforts and highlighting their child strengths. Encourage them to set personal goals and celebrate their achievements.
  4. Respecting Differences: Teach your child to respect and appreciate differences in others. Promote inclusivity and diversity by exposing them to different cultures, beliefs, and perspectives.

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Why is There Controversy Around Social Emotional Learning?

While the benefits of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) are widely acknowledged, a certain level of controversy exists around its implementation.

The controversy surrounding SEL activities in education stems from various factors, including differing educational philosophies, concerns about implementation, and broader political and social debates.

Here are some key reasons for the controversy:

  1. Perceived Shift in Educational Focus: Some critics argue that SEL represents a shift away from traditional academic content and rigor. They worry that focusing on emotional and social skills might take time and resources away from core subjects like math, science, and literacy.
  2. Values and Beliefs: SEL often touches on areas related to personal values and social norms. Critics may be concerned that SEL programs could introduce values or beliefs that conflict with those taught at home or in certain communities. This can be particularly contentious in areas related to family structure, cultural norms, or religious beliefs.
  3. Parental Control and Involvement: Some parents and groups are concerned that SEL activities might encroach on their rights or roles as the primary educators of their children, particularly in areas related to personal development and morality.
  4. Data Privacy and Psychological Profiling: SEL programs often involve assessing students’ social and emotional competencies or collecting data about their attitudes and behaviors. This raises concerns about data privacy and the potential misuse of such information.
  5. Standardization and Effectiveness: Critics question whether SEL skills can be effectively taught and measured in a standardized way. There’s debate over the effectiveness of SEL programs and whether they genuinely lead to long-term benefits in students’ lives.
  6. Political and Ideological Debates: In some cases, SEL has become entangled in broader political and ideological debates, including discussions about the role of education in addressing social issues. 
  7. Implementation Challenges: Implementing SEL effectively requires trained staff, appropriate resources, and a supportive school environment. Critics argue that SEL initiatives may be poorly implemented without these, leading to ineffective or even counterproductive outcomes.
  8. Cultural and Contextual Relevance: Some argue that SEL frameworks, often developed in Western contexts, may not be universally applicable or sensitive to students’ diverse cultural and social backgrounds.

It’s important to note that despite these controversies, many educators and psychologists advocate for the importance of SEL in helping students develop crucial life skills.

They argue that effective SEL can improve school climates, reduce bullying, enhance academic performance, and prepare students for the challenges of adult life. The debate over SEL is an ongoing and evolving one, influenced by educational research, cultural shifts, and social dynamics.

Will SEL Go Away?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) won’t likely disappear from educational contexts. The intricacies of modern life and the increasing recognition of the role of emotional intelligence in personal and professional success underscore the importance of SEL.

Critics and skeptics notwithstanding, many educators and psychologists passionately advocate for the importance of SEL in assisting students to develop crucial life skills. The challenges posed by the global pandemic have further highlighted the need for SEL as students grapple with emotional stress and isolation.

Rather than disappearing, it is more likely that SEL will continue evolving and adapting to meet the changing needs of students and society.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is a critical aspect of a child’s development, contributing to their social and emotional well-being, academic success, and overall life satisfaction.

Parents can encourage their children to navigate their emotions, build positive relationships, and make responsible decisions by cultivating SEL skills at home and in collaboration with schools.

About the Author: Jessica shares her passion for teaching and education on What I Have Learned. Jessica has 16 years of elementary teaching experience and currently homeschools her two middle school boys. She enjoys scaffolding learning for students, focusing on helping our most challenging learners succeed in all academic areas.

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  6. The Impact of Socialization in the Digital Age (video): FaceTime vs. In-Person Interaction with Dr. Stephanie Fields
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