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What Everyone Needs to Know About Social-Emotional Learning

Understanding the facts, criticism, and trends of SEL.

Key points

  • The benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL) are well-researched.
  • SEL programs are found nationally as well as internationally.
  • Some SEL critics voice concerns about its value and place in schools.
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Source: iStock

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is an educational program where children learn and apply social, emotional, and related life skills that deepen self-awareness and appreciation of the world around them.

The roots of SEL can be traced back to Plato, who wrote in 327 B.C. in The Republic saying, "with a holistic curriculum and a sound system of education and upbringing, you produce citizens of good character."

For over 100 years, social-emotional learning has been involved in American education. Studies show students who participated in SEL programs were more self-aware, had improved academic performance, had lower levels of conduct problems, and had reduced emotional distress.

Beyond the school years, early exposure to SEL programs appeared to reduce violence, substance abuse, and incarceration for at-risk children. While social-emotional learning programs occur here in the United States, they are also implemented internationally as well, with many countries reporting a statistical increase in children's well-being.

Fundamental Goals of SEL

Psychologists and mental health specialists understand the crucial impact SEL offers infants, toddlers, school-aged children, and adolescents. Approximately 40% of children enter school with vulnerabilities in social-emotional functioning that are associated with early-onset mental health conditions. The CDC reports that 1 out of 5 children will be diagnosed with a mental health illness each year—and that an estimated $247 billion is spent annually on treatment and management of childhood mental disorders. SEL curriculums are meaningful opportunities to introduce children to feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and problem-solving that can reduce these staggering statistics. When children understand their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the trajectory of mental illness can be reduced.

SEL has also had an enormous impact during the years of the pandemic, helping children identify and name their emotions during uncertain times, self-regulate in the new and challenging situations, and manage how to deal with unexpected and life-threatening circumstances.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the aim of SEL envisions children to be self-aware, caring, responsible, engaged, and lifelong learners who work together to achieve their goals and create a more inclusive, just world. The specific goals of SEL are to promote positive learning environments that supportive five key skills:

  1. Self-Awareness: The ability to recognize emotions and thoughts, to accurately assess strengths and vulnerabilities, to sense gratitude and optimism, deepen mindfulness, and encourage well-being.
  2. Self-Management: The ability to regulate emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in various situations, including the ability to manage stress, control impulses, set and achieve goals, and learn how to ask for help when needed.
  3. Social Awareness: The ability to identify and respect the perspectives of those with different backgrounds, social, religious, or cultural norms, deepening empathy, compassion, and understanding of the world in local and global ways.
  4. Relationship Skills: The ability to establish positive relationships with different kinds of people, communicating clearly, listening actively, learning to collaborate and cooperate, resisting inappropriate peer pressure, negotiating conflict, and managing healthy attachments to others with greater confidence.
  5. Responsible Decision-Making: The capacity to make mindful choices based on realistic evaluations of consequences, making decisions that foster well-being, encourage safety, and respect and help create a sense of greater good in the world.

Criticism of SEL

While there are many studies and supporters of SEL, there are others who share criticism about it. Critics warn that SEL is not well-defined and has been overhyped and treated as a panacea for social and cultural problems.

SEL advocates have emphasized that all students can benefit from opportunities for social and emotional development, but opponents are concerned that some schools will treat SEL as a separate and unequal educational track.

And then there are many who feel that social-emotional learning, particularly Transformative SEL, interferes with a parents’ right to discuss issues with their own children, and that it's not the government’s role to set standardized norms about thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and beliefs.

Future Trends for SEL

We can all agree that the old-school 3R's—Reading, wRiting, and aRithmetic—are no longer enough to carry children into the world to be healthy and successful. In fact, trends show emotional intelligence has a moderate influence on academic success, and that 21st-century skill-sets will continue to include subjects like critical thinking, creative problem-solving, meta-cognition, digital and technological literacy, civic responsibility, global awareness, and social-emotional learning.

According to a 2021 survey from the Fordham Institute, more than 75% of parents in both major political parties support addressing the social and emotional needs of children. Even as some of the 2,000 parents in this survey had diverging views on how best to frame SEL, what to better call it, and how to implement it, all agreed that helping children evolve into the best they can be benefits us all.

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