Social-emotional learning, or SEL, is an education practice that aims to teach both social and emotional skills within the school setting. It equips children with lifelong skills, helping them to develop compassion, thoughtfulness and healthy attitudes, as well as to engage in supportive relationships, both inside and outside of the classroom. SEL also teaches students to become more aware of their own emotions and how to regulate those emotions.

Conceptually, SEL has been around for a very long time. In 1968, Dr. James Comer and his colleagues at Yale University’s Child Study Center created a program called the Comer School Development Program, which focused on increasing academic performance and decreasing behavioral issues at two poor, low-achieving elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut. Dr. Comer created a team of parents, educators and a mental health professional charged with recommending changes to aspects of the schools’ academic and social programs that seemed to be fueling students’ problems. By the early 1980s, academic performance at the two schools exceeded the national average while behavior problems and absenteeism both declined.

New Haven became a hotbed of SEL research, and many researchers who would become important figures in the movement worked to publish papers and try various SEL programs there. In 1994, an organization known as the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was established and held its first conference of researchers, child advocates, educators and others in the field with the goal of advocating for children’s social and emotional needs in school. The term “social and emotional learning” was born. To this day, CASEL’s mission remains essentially the same – “to help make evidence-based social and emotional learning an integral part of education from preschool through high school.”

CASEL has developed an SEL framework known as the CASEL wheel. At its center are five core social and emotional competencies. The wheel visually depicts these competencies being important in all of the settings where children live and grow – the classroom, at school, within the family and with caregivers, and in the community as a whole.

The five, core social and emotional competencies of the CASEL wheel are:

1. Self-awareness helps a child better understand his emotions, thoughts and values and how they might be influencing his behavior. Self-awareness includes recognizing strengths and limitations, demonstrating honesty and integrity, and developing confidence and optimism, among other things.

2. Social awareness can lead to understanding the perspectives of others and to empathize with them, including those from different racial and socioeconomic groups, as well as those of different genders and physical or mental abilities.

3. Relationship skills are taught so children can learn to initiate and maintain healthy and supportive relationships with a range of people. Having good relationship skills includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, negotiating conflict, navigating social demands in a healthy manner, and being able to not only give support to others, but also to be able to request and receive support for one’s self.

4. Self-management practices can help kids manage their thoughts, emotions and behaviors in a variety of settings and situations. Self-management includes the ability to manage stress, delay gratification to achieve a goal and exhibit self-motivation.

5. Responsible decision-making skills increase a child’s ability to make good choices about personal behavior and social interactions in a variety of situations. A responsible decision-maker knows how to take ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, natural consequences, and the health and well-being of one’s self and others into account when making decisions.

SEL Outside of the Classroom

A child’s SEL competency has a significant impact on his or her success later in life. A recent study found that kindergarten teachers’ ratings of their students’ social and emotional skills was predictive of adolescent and adult outcomes 13 to 19 years later. Those students with more developed SEL skills were associated with an increased likelihood of graduating from college and holding a full-time job by age 25, as well as a decreased likelihood of being arrested. This doesn’t mean that without these skills, a child won’t graduate college or will end up being arrested, rather developing children’s SEL skills increases their chances of success throughout their lives.

SEL in School

School districts are recognizing the value of incorporating SEL into the curriculum, as it leads to better classroom behavior, better attitudes towards school and improved academic performance. This is important, especially now when campus staff are reporting increased behavior issues due to many factors such as disruptions to in-person learning, an inability to attend preschool where children learn how to relate socially to peers and follow classroom rules, and increased stress and anxiety from the wide-ranging impacts of living through a pandemic.

SEL concepts can be taught directly or incorporated within other subjects; however, most good SEL programs aim to do both. The SEL lesson becomes a recurring theme throughout the day to help students absorb the lesson. Teachers can also work with students to set goals in certain competencies and help them chart their progress, giving them a sense of accomplishment and pride. As parents, we can educate ourselves as to how our child’s school and teacher are addressing SEL concepts. We can also be aware of the core social and emotional competencies and can help our children to become stronger in those areas at home, setting them up for greater success and well-being in life

Alison Bogle is a writer living in Austin with her husband and three children. A former fourth-grade teacher, she now enjoys writing about children and education. You can also catch her talking about articles from Austin Family magazine each Thursday morning on FOX 7 Austin.

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