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What Is Social and Emotional Learning?

Social and emotional learning is essential to every child’s education.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

A systemic, schoolwide approach to SEL intentionally cultivates a caring, participatory, and equitable learning environment and evidence-based practices that actively involve all students in their social, emotional, and academic growth. This approach requires a coordinated strategy across classrooms, schools, homes, and communities.

The goal is to prepare students for long-term success in life and to become responsible, caring citizens in our multicultural society.

What role do schools play in promoting SEL?

In partnership with families and communities, schools play a critical role in supporting young people’s social and emotional development. This goes beyond teaching a set of skills to embedding SEL into every aspect of daily school life (Meyers et al., 2018).

Implementing and sustaining systemic SEL is a long-term process driven by continuous improvement. CASEL identifies four Focus Areas for engaging in high-quality schoolwide SEL implementation:

  • Build foundational support and plan for SEL.
  • Strengthen adult SEL competencies and capacity: Cultivating supportive, caring adults who model and practice their own SEL.
  • Promote SEL for Students: Providing all students with frequent, well-designed, and consistent opportunities to engage in and practice developmentally-appropriate and culturally-relevant SEL
  • Practice continuous improvement: Using continuous improvement cycles to facilitate high-quality implementation every step of the way.
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What competencies does SEL develop?

CASEL identifies five core areas of SEL competencies (Weissberg et al., 2015):

  • Self-awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s own strengths and limitations and biases, and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism and growth mindset.
  • Self-management: Regulating one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward personal and academic goals.
  • Social awareness: Taking the perspective of and empathizing with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, understanding social and ethical norms for behavior, and recognizing family, school, and community resources and supports.
  • Relationship skills: Establishing and maintaining healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
  • Responsible decision-making: Making constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.
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Where does Schoolwide SEL take place?

Students develop these competencies in many ways as they move through their classrooms, schools, homes, and communities. When intentional strategies, practices, and policies foster consistent messages and opportunities for SEL across all of these contexts, they are more likely to internalize core competencies. Schoolwide SEL seeks to coordinate strategies across all of these settings:

Classroom: Nurturing, safe classrooms with caring teacher-student relationships are critical to SEL. These types of supportive classrooms depend on adults who themselves have strong SEL skills (Jones et al, 2013) and can effectively use evidence-based strategies for developing students’ social and emotional competencies in culturally responsive and developmentally appropriate ways. These strategies include explicit SEL instruction, embedding SEL into academics, and elevating student voice.

School: Students interact and learn not only in classrooms, but throughout school hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds, school buses, etc. A school’s policies, procedures, physical structures, collective values, norms, relationships, and overall climate shape how students engage in SEL. Additionally, research indicates that school leaders who model, support, and prioritize SEL may be the single most important factor for the successful implementation of SEL programs (Devaney et al., 2006).

Families: Students are better able to learn and apply SEL knowledge when it is practiced and reinforced both in the school and the home. When schools and families cultivate authentic partnerships, SEL programs are more effective (Albright & Weissberg, 2010; Patrikakou & Weissberg, 2007) and are linked to improved academic performance, increased student engagement, and reduced school dropout rates (Greenberg et al., 2003).

Communities: Community partners and organizations can work jointly with schools to align efforts, contribute to SEL, and strengthen the impact of SEL both in and out of school (CASEL, 2015; Durlak, 2010; Elias et al., 1997; Oberle et al., 2016). Similarly, schools can expand upon the efforts of community partners that focus on SEL by reinforcing effective strategies during the school day.

Why Schoolwide SEL?

A growing body of research indicates that schools that promote social and emotional learning are critical to students’ academic, social, personal, and professional success (Durlak et al., 2011). Additionally, a systemic, schoolwide approach to SEL:

  • Improves the school environment, which results in better social and academic outcomes for students. An evaluation of CASEL’s Collaborating District Initiative (CDI)—a multiyear, systemic SEL initiative in multiple school districts—showed a variety of positive outcomes both for the school as a whole (improved climate and increased attendance) and for students (academic performance, social and emotional competence, and fewer disciplinary referrals) (CASEL, 2017).
  • Helps schools coordinate diverse services and programs (Elias et al., 2015; Oberle et al., 2016). Schools typically tackle many in-school and out-of-school programs aimed at prevention (e.g., substance abuse prevention, bullying prevention) and promoting student achievement and well-being. When fragmented, this kind of programming demoralizes staff and impairs student learning (Elias et al., 2015). Systemic SEL provides a framework to coordinate existing programs into one initiative with a common infrastructure, vision, and language (Meyers et al., 2018).
  • Ensures students experience SEL in a consistent and coherent way. Students learn and apply social and emotional competencies more rapidly and effectively when the messages they receive across settings are aligned and mutually reinforcing. A systemic approach to SEL brings all of the developmental agents in a student’s life together to teach, learn from, and communicate with one another.
  • Promotes cultural responsiveness through authentic partnerships with families and community partners, who play key roles in supporting students’ academic, social, and emotional development (Chartock, 2010; Delgado-Gaitan & Trueba, 1991; Hollins, 1996).

Citations can be found in the School Guide Bibliography.

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