Children’s Mental Health
Social-Emotional Learning: Overview, Benefits, and Impact
THC Editorial Team October 19, 2022
- What is Social-Emotional Learning?
- The Five Principles of Social-Emotional Learning
- Background/History of Social-Emotional Learning
- Potential Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning
- Effectiveness of Social-Emotional Learning According to Scientific Research
- Impact of Social-Emotional Learning in Education
- Criticisms or Dissenting Views of Social-Emotional Learning
- Further Challenges to Implementing Social-Emotional Learning in Schools
- Potential Solutions to Improving Implementation of SEL Programs in Schools
- Summary and Outlook
What is Social-Emotional Learning?
According to Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a non-profit organization that strives to champion and develop evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education from preschool through high school, social-emotional learning or 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.”1 SEL is often referred to as those skills and attitudes that cannot be measured by tests, including critical thinking, conflict resolution, and teamwork.2
This student-centered approach, which has recently increased in popularity, has been referred to by other names, such as “… character education, personality, 21st-century skills, soft skills, and noncognitive skills, just to name a few.”3
Social-emotional learning is generally not treated as an individual and separate subject like math, history, or literature. Educators, instead, focus on implementing it into the curriculum where they can, such as journaling in English class, roleplaying in history class, or self-managing group roles in math or science class.4
The Five Principles of Social-Emotional Learning
Five key principles or tenets of social-emotional learning include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness.1
- Self-awareness refers to recognizing one’s emotions, thoughts, and values and how they impact behavior.
- Self-management is one’s ability to manage thoughts, emotions, and actions effectively.
- Responsible decision-making includes making clear, thoughtful (caring), and reasonable personal choices and acting accordingly.
- Relationship skills refer to building and maintaining healthy and mutually supportive relationships.
- Social awareness refers to the ability to relate to and empathize with someone from a different background.
Background/History of Social-Emotional Learning
The core concept of social-emotional learning goes back to the days of Plato in ancient Greece. Plato describes a holistic type of curriculum in his famous work The Republic, which involves “a balance of training in physical education, the arts, math, science, character, and moral judgment.”5
The modern movement to implement the ideas of social-emotional learning began in the 1960s with James Comer, an academic from Yale University.5 His program, the Comer School Development Program, brought together teachers, parents, principals, and mental health workers to collaborate on improving academic outcomes of two low-performing elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut’s lower socioeconomic-status areas.
However, the term social-emotional learning only became part of this education movement in the 1990s. In 1995, Daniel Goleman published a book about emotional intelligence, which gave social-emotional learning more influence on the public.5 Now, it is CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, that is working on new research to establish social-emotional learning as an indispensable component of education.
Today, thousands of schools have implemented SEL in their curricula, and every US state has formalized emotional development standard requirements for preschool children.6
Potential Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning
There are numerous potential benefits of social-emotional learning for young people and adults.
Among the benefits of SEL are:6
- Social and emotional skill improvement
- More positive attitudes towards self and others
- Improved academic performance
- Increased positive attitude toward self-efficacy, confidence, persistence, empathy, connection, and academic commitment
- Improved social actions and relationships
- Decreased risk-taking behavior
- Reduced behavior difficulties
- Reduced emotional distress
Learning social-emotional skills has been linked to positive future outcomes for children in school and adults as they transition into different stages of life. The National Council of State Legislatures (NCSL) shares findings from several reports demonstrating the positive relation between social-emotional learning and improved academic achievement, positive outcomes after graduation, a better economy, and advanced educational equity.2
In 2016, the AEI/Brookings Working Group on Poverty and Opportunity described how major education reforms to the K-12 system have neglected “the socio-emotional factors that are crucial to learning” and can help people move into adult life successfully after leaving school.4
SEL has the potential to improve educational equity and lead to the development of strong “personal, community, and societal well-being.”7 If people feel they can speak openly about their experiences as a member of a certain cultural background, a school or other group can foster positive change and conversation.
Effectiveness of Social-Emotional Learning According to Scientific Research
As outlined by scientific research, SEL has proven an effective framework to encourage positive outcomes for students. According to several meta-analyses, implementing social-emotional learning practices in schools improves social skills, attitudes, behaviors, academic performance, and more.8
In 2011, based on a meta-analysis of 213 SEL programs in schools, researchers concluded that compared to control programs, SEL programs led to “significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement.”9
A study by Espelage et al. in 2013 evaluated the efficacy and impact of the Second Step: Student Success Through Prevention (SS-SSTP) Middle School Program, which used a curriculum focused on SEL skills. This study found that this type of learning intervention helped reduce physical aggression compared to students in other schools.10
A further study of the SS-SSTP Middle School Program, published by Espelage et al. in 2015, revealed the positive effect of SEL on reducing bully perpetration for students with disabilities.11
Lastly, research conducted by John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and affiliate professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, explored how empathy can change learning outcomes for students in meaningful ways.12 He found a strong relationship between student performance and SEL programs emphasizing empathetic training and self-management.
Impact of Social-Emotional Learning in Education
The methodology of SEL can have a wide-ranging impact on the classroom for kids of all ages. These skills can help students begin to understand and work with their emotions, as well as comprehend the emotions of others. Teaching empathy in schools can foster better relationships with their peers, which can reduce bullying and school violence.11
The “soft skills” that social-emotional skills are sometimes referred to can have long-term implications for students’ academics because they are critical to development as a child. Without a clear connection to one’s emotions, empathy, and self-management, young students are not as easily able to adapt in school and out of school.13
A study by Columbia University found that for every dollar invested into SEL programs, schools could see an eleven-dollar return on that investment.13 The implication is that students, teachers, and their schools benefit from developing a curriculum that supports teaching social-emotional learning. Principals feel that SEL can “improve student behavior, learning, and development” but do not seem to connect SEL instruction with academic performance.13
Criticisms or Dissenting Views of Social-Emotional Learning
Social-emotional learning is not a concept that everyone accepts as a necessary part of education. Some believe schools should focus on teaching the core subjects such as math and science and “leave mental health and parenting to parents.”14
During SEL lessons, students may be asked to have conversations about gender, race, and sexuality, which some parents may oppose. One of the main reasons behind the criticism of SEL is that some consider it a way for schools to espouse different values and include sometimes divisive topics, such as critical race theory, in their curricula.14
The president of CASEL, Karen Niemi, worries that “we could risk prioritizing what’s good for kids because of a misunderstanding or, potentially, social-emotional learning being used for any political agenda.”14
In 2020, Idaho state lawmakers pushed back against a plan by Idaho state education leaders to introduce a program for SEL.15 Some criticisms of SEL were put forth, such as the view that it is the parents’ job to teach children how to develop self-control and relationship skills.
Further Challenges to Implementing Social-Emotional Learning in Schools
SEL programs struggle to flourish in some schools, particularly, in lower-income contexts, due to the following:16
- Program implementation challenges
- Low localized buy-in
- Lack of resources
- Low overall integration into academic programs
- Low sustainability and adoptability over time by key constituents
Potential Solutions to Improving Implementation of SEL Programs in Schools
Some simple and potentially effective solutions to overcoming challenges in implementing social and emotional learning include focusing on low-cost and easy-to-administer SEL practices, or “kernels,” as Dr. Stephanie Jones and colleagues suggest.16 These kernels are developed through research on existing, effective SEL practices and related insights and are distilled into simple exercises that are relatively easy to recall, teach, and implement.
Some examples of SEL kernels that can be used throughout the day in classroom education include:16
- turtle technique: a technique used for calming down based on mindful and somatic principles, where children focus on a turtle metaphor
- non-verbal transition cues: using non-speaking signals to shift to another activity or task
- peer-to-peer written praise: children praise each other through written validation in notes, boards, or other behaviors
- belly breathing: a calming diaphragmic breathwork and mindfulness technique
Summary and Outlook
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, children and teachers have experienced extreme disruptions to academics, with reports linking academic difficulties to negative social and emotional consequences.17
Some educators like to link SEL to what they call “good teaching,” in which teachers focus on engaging meaningfully with their students.18 One teacher, Lauren Kazee, shares her belief that initiatives like No Child Left Behind pushed educators to focus more on book learning and test-taking instead of building relationships and learning the students’ individual interests.18
There is strong evidence that teachers and parents desire more social-emotional skill development and a focus on “developing good character, integrity, and finding happiness” for students.17 Despite the support for SEL by many in the U.S., few schoolwide programs are implementing it at the primary and secondary education levels.17