What Is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and Why Does It Matter?

Carolina Jacobs

Nov 8, 2019
what is sel

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Social-emotional learning (SEL) theory borrows ideas from the foundation of emotional intelligence — and takes them one step further. As an emerging educational model, it approaches student development from all sides while factoring in the influence of external circumstances.

Many traditional models focus on one aspect of child development, such as verbal reasoning ability. SEL takes a holistic approach, considering factors like hunger and emotional distress on learning outcomes.

What is SEL, and how can educators implement it to improve academic outcomes?

What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

is the process where children acquire and apply the skills to manage their emotions and achieve positive goals. It has nothing to do with the subject matter. However, implementing an SEL curriculum can make learning math and language arts more manageable.

SEL involves developing emotional management and competence in communication. It entails skills like:

  • Self-awareness: What are your strengths and weaknesses? Why do you feel certain emotions? Develop a growth mindset and a well-grounded sense of confidence.
  • Self-management: Learn how to manage stress and anxiety effectively. How can you control your impulses? How can you motivate yourself?
  • Social awareness: Understand others’ perspectives and points of view. Why do they disagree with your ideas? Consider diverse backgrounds and upbringings.
  • Relationship skills: How can you communicate clearly with those around you? Learn how to listen, disagree constructively and seek mutual understanding.
  • Responsible decision-making: Consider your behavior and choices. How can you make responsible decisions based on ethics, safety and social norms?

Why Does SEL Matter?

According to numerous studies, students who participate in evidence-based SEL programs show an 11% point gain in academic achievement. This theory also leads to decreased dropout rates, fewer classroom behavioral issues, less drug use and much more. The benefits of SEL go beyond students. A review of six programs revealed that for every dollar invested in SEL, there is an $11 economic return.

Social-emotional learning theory can also help students outside of school. According to one study, 79% of employers claim SEL skills are the most critical qualities for job success.

SEL in the Classroom

Social-emotional learning in the classroom crosses all subject matter. It adds tools to your classroom management toolbox. Research indicates empathetic children with sound perspective-taking skills are less likely to act aggressively toward their peers. This dynamic reduces instances bullying in the classroom.

As an educator, you can use the following five steps to integrate SEL into your curriculum:


Create a nurturing environment where students feel safe. To do this, implement activities like feelings collages. Show pictures of people with different postures and facial expressions to the entire class. Have students identify the emotions of the person portrayed. Then, break them into groups and assign each an emotion. Have them create a collage illustrating appropriate ways to express that feeling.


Show students how SEL works across subject matters. If you teach science, for example, you could integrate SEL into a lesson about water pollution. How do students feel when they discover their favorite fishing hole littered? How can they harness the power of those emotions to solve the problem?


Communication is key to SEL. Model how to express feelings appropriately. If a student acts out in class, you can say, “I’m feeling frustrated right now. I’m going to pause and collect my thoughts, and then we can discuss how to proceed.”


You can teach children the RULER acronym — recognize, understand, label, express and regulate. Regulation is key. In the case of the science lesson example, ask children how they would feel if they cleaned up their fishing hole only to have someone pollute it again. Would it benefit them to throw a temper tantrum? Could they find another solution, such as reporting the littering to authorities?


To make SEL meaningful, students need to feel empowered to use it. Ask learners, “How are you feeling right now?” When a student expresses frustration or another negative emotion, ask, “What can you do to manage that emotion effectively?” If the child responds with a reasonable suggestion — for example, writing in a notebook — allow them to try it.

Students can’t learn when they’re distracted by overwhelming emotions. SEL can help them understand themselves and excel.

SEL Accelerates Academic Progress

SEL in the classroom allows learners to focus on academics and personal development simultaneously. As an educator, consider learning and applying SEL principles in the classroom to help your students boost their learning and brain power, manage their emotions, analyze situations, take action and take these skills into adulthood.

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