Explicit SEL Instruction

Explicit SEL instruction refers to consistent opportunities for students to cultivate, practice, and reflect on social and emotional competencies in ways that are developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive. These opportunities provide dedicated time to focus on social and emotional competencies.

If you have already begun providing explicit SEL instruction, use the rubric or the questions below to identify areas for continuous improvement: 

Do all students have dedicated time during the school day to learn about, reflect on, and discuss SEL competencies through developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive instruction?

Is SEL instruction provided by teachers?

Does SEL instruction have a sequence with connected and coordinated activities; use active forms of learning; focus on developing social and emotional skills; and explicitly target specific SEL goals?

Is SEL instruction connected to other opportunities for practicing and reflecting on SEL competencies throughout the day?

Within evidence-based programs, explicit SEL instruction often occurs through free-standing lessons that provide step-by-step instructions to teach students social and emotional competencies on age-appropriate topics. Topics may include labeling feelings, coping with stress, setting and achieving goals, developing empathy, communicating effectively, resolving conflict, being assertive, and making responsible decisions.

The most effective lessons provide explicit instruction as well as opportunities for practicing skills beyond the lesson and throughout the day, or through connections during academic lessons. Parents and community members might also be invited to help or participate in lessons and activities (Dusenbery et al, 2015).

Effective SEL instruction has four elements represented by the acronym SAFE:

  • Sequenced—connected and coordinated activities to foster skills development;
  • Active—active forms of learning to help students master new skills;
  • Focused—containing activities that clearly emphasize developing personal and social skills;
  • Explicit—targeting specific social and emotional skills(Durlak et al., 2010, 2011)

Here are some examples of explicit SEL lessons:

  • Preschool students might receive a lesson on how to calm down and solve interpersonal conflicts using a few simple steps, such as stop and take a breath, say how you feel and why, let the other person say how they feel and why, and decide together what you can do.
  • An elementary class might have a lesson on how to label feelings using words like “pleasant,” “happy,” “irritated,” or “angry.”
  • A middle or high school lesson may include discussion of mixed emotions and explore the fact that different people can experience different feelings in a similar situation.

You can explore evidence-based SEL programs using CASEL’s Program Guide. Schools may use evidence-based programs to provide explicit SEL instruction through classroom activities that develop specific skills (Durlak et al., 2011), routines and structures such as morning check-ins or conflict resolution/peace corners (Dusenbery et al, 2015), or teaching practices such as authentic feedback on SEL competencies (Dusenbery et al, 2015).

Because it’s difficult to scaffold a developmentally appropriate sequence of explicit SEL lessons and measure the long-term impact, CASEL strongly recommends that schools adopt an evidence-based program as part of schoolwide SEL implementation. For more information, see Adopt an Evidence Based Program.

When explicit SEL instruction is offered through non-evidence-based lessons or activities developed by schools, teachers, or community partners, the scope and sequence should contain all of the SAFE elements mentioned above. When possible, also align these lessons or activities to broader standards, such as state’s SEL standards. If your school chooses this method, it’s important to build in robust continuous improvement cycles to understand whether these lessons are effective.

Structuring Explicit SEL Instruction

Here are some considerations for structuring explicit SEL instruction:

Give Teachers the Responsibility to Teach SEL: It is important that teachers, rather than counselors or support staff, take the lead on delivering explicit SEL instruction. This approach allows teachers to form strong relationships with their students and integrate SEL concepts throughout all instruction so students can practice and apply SEL in multiple contexts. By taking ownership of teaching SEL, teachers also enhance their own social and emotional learning. Counselors and other support staff are great sources of knowledge on SEL and may support teachers by co-facilitating, coaching, or leading professional learning on SEL instruction.

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Teacher self-assessment: SEL in the Classroom

This tool helps teachers reflect on the ways they promote SEL through explicit instruction, integration into academic instruction, and through a supportive classroom climate.


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SEL Reflection Prompts

Teachers can reinforce concepts from SEL lessons by incorporating reflection questions like these into student assignments and discussion.


Dedicate Time for SEL Instruction in the Master Schedule: Explicit SEL instruction may occur during a dedicated class period, such as advisory, or as part of regularly set-aside time during another class, such as the first 30 minutes of Monday homeroom. Schools have found many ways to schedule SEL instruction, such as:

  • All teachers teach SEL lessons on the same day at the same time.
  • All teachers deliver SEL lessons on the same day(s) of the week, with each teacher staggering their lessons throughout the day. This structure is especially helpful for scheduling peer, coach, or or administrator visits, as the visitor can observe and support the implementation of several lessons in a single day.

Consider how classrooms will move through SEL lessons: If all teachers move through lessons at the same pace, they can co-plan areas for integration and support one another. This approach also makes it easier for administrators or an SEL coach to provide support. Similarly, in some schools teachers and out-of-school-time staff coordinate lessons and activities so that afterschool experiences reinforce school day learning and vice versa.

When making decisions about how to find time and structure explicit SEL opportunities, solicit input from teachers and out-of-school-time staff to ensure that the final decision will be helpful and well-received by your professional staff. Take a vote at a staff meeting, send out a survey, or use a discussion protocol to make a decision.

Note: A school’s efforts at SEL are more likely to succeed if you consistently make space to discuss SEL implementation. Grade-level team meetings are an excellent time to support reflection, inquiry, and collaboration among teachers.

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Using Grade-Level Team Meetings to Support the Implementation of Explicit SEL Instruction

This tool provides guidance for using grade-level team meetings to collaborate and reflect on strategies for explicit SEL instruction.

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