Social-Emotional Learning in the Classroom

Written by Sasha Blakeley

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a pedagogical theory that has been getting increasing attention in recent years. It was developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as a way to improve the experiences of students and teachers in the classroom and beyond. In essence, SEL is a way of thinking about teaching and learning that honors and uplifts students' emotional experiences and social connections. Teachers who subscribe to the SEL paradigm aim to teach students not just an academic curriculum but also a social one that allows them to understand their own emotions better and treat others with compassion and respect. It can be easy for students and teachers to ignore emotional needs in favor of academic success; however, research shows this kind of prioritization does more harm than good.

When SEL is effectively integrated into a classroom, it can improve connections between students and help teachers better understand their students' experiences. There are a lot of different ways to add SEL to an existing curriculum, and new research is being done on this teaching strategy all of the time. One of the main advantages of SEL is that it does not require extra time or money to implement, making it a great choice for busy teachers who may not have a big budget at their disposal. In theory, a strong SEL curriculum can reduce instances of bullying and behavioral issues, allowing students to become more well-rounded students and people over time. It can also improve the classroom environment, fostering respect and understanding among students and teachers that can lead to long-term growth.

SEL Core Competencies

Social-emotional learning is based on five core competencies. Any given lesson that incorporates SEL principles will ideally target at least one of these competencies, making student learning goals easier to define. Each of the five core competencies is based on a primary area of social or emotional development influential for a student's success in the classroom and other areas of life. The core competencies and their connections to social-emotional learning are as follows:

Core Competency Relevant Skills Classroom Applications
Self-Awareness * Understanding one's own identity
* Processing one's own emotions
* Deconstructing harmful biases
Strong self-awareness skills help students understand their own place in the classroom. Self-awareness can help students understand their feelings and why they feel this way, potentially leading to less reactive behavior.
Self-Management * Managing emotions in real-time
* Identifying and mitigating stress
* Self-motivating to complete tasks
Learning to manage emotions and experiences can be challenging for some students, and those taught these skills may have an easier time dealing with stressful situations. They may also be able to motivate themselves to get assignments done without much external pressure.
Responsible Decision-Making * Evaluating the consequences of one's actions
* Taking justified risks
* Developing critical thinking skills
One way for students to develop socially in the classroom is to allow them to understand that their actions have consequences. When they can think critically about themselves and their options, they may find it easier to deal with challenging situations.
Relationship Skills * Improving conflict resolution skills
* Developing communication skills
* Being prepared to help others and to ask for help
A big part of SEL is focused on helping students resolve their conflicts. Good communication skills are beneficial inside and outside of the classroom.
Social Awareness * Understanding others' perspectives
* Expressing gratitude
* Being compassionate toward others
A classroom is a fundamentally social space. When students can connect with each other socially, they are better equipped to form a community.

Each of the five core competencies can be understood in various ways; this is just a small set of examples. Teachers can elaborate on all of these areas when working on establishing their classroom environment.

How to Create a Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum

Every social-emotional learning curriculum looks different in practice. Part of what makes SEL so accessible as a pedagogical theory is that it can be adapted to many different classroom environments. There is also no minimum threshold of curriculum change that teachers must reach before SEL can become a part of the classroom; the theory is flexible and can be added to and adjusted at any time. What is effective for teachers working at the K-12 level is to examine the current classroom setup to see what would work best. It is also crucial to consider the age of the students and the subjects being taught; SEL will look different for elementary-aged students than it will for teenagers. Teachers who do decide that SEL is right for them and their students should be prepared to be adaptable in their approach, as it is likely that some SEL strategies work better for a given class than others. It may take students some time to adjust to new classroom expectations, which is okay. Everyone should try to work together and be patient as they learn.

SEL Curriculum: Getting Started

When developing and implementing an SEL curriculum, there are four main criteria to keep in mind: SEL education should be SAFE, or Sequenced, Active, Focused, and Explicit.

These are the primary elements of any SEL teaching, and they can effectively guide teachers who want to ensure that their curriculum changes are aligned with SEL goals.

  • Sequenced: SEL education should be systematic and deliberately aligned with the five core competencies.
  • Active: Students should be engaged in their own learning rather than passive recipients of the information.
  • Focused: The curriculum should be deliberately centered around improving students' social and emotional development.
  • Explicit: Any instruction given should target a specific, well-defined skill.

Educators who think SEL sounds right for their classroom should consider their curriculum holistically. What changes could be made to the classroom environment to make emotional self-regulation easier for students to learn? Are there any currently unused opportunities for students to develop and maintain strong social connections with each other? After conducting an overview of the curriculum and classroom setup, teachers can take a more granular view of individual subjects and lessons. Maybe there are opportunities to incorporate texts about emotions and social connections into literacy lessons. Maybe students can complete a math puzzle collaboratively to teach them more about cooperation and inclusion.

Some teachers might also want to take SEL to the school level rather than focusing exclusively on the classroom. One great way to create a more SEL-friendly elementary school environment is to create a buddy system between two classes, often one older and one younger, to allow older students to become mentors. Younger students benefit from this system by having someone to look up to who may be able to provide insight into social interaction and emotional development. Changing school policy to prioritize respect and good communication among students and even among staff is another good way to get started with an SEL curriculum. It is important to remember that none of these changes will happen overnight, either in the classroom or in the whole school. It is okay to embrace the learning process and take the time to get things right.

Socio-Emotional Learning Activities for Elementary School

There are many ways for teachers to get creative with socio-emotional learning activities for younger students. Elementary school students have a lot to learn about themselves and how to interact with others. A simple activity teachers can incorporate into virtually any classroom is a brief check-in each day or week. In a check-in, everyone briefly describes how they are doing. Some teachers like to have students give one positive and one negative thing about their lives during a check-in. Those things can be major or minor; the point is to get students to understand themselves and their emotions while also empathizing with the emotional experiences of their classmates.

It can take a long time to go through a check-in with a whole class, so it may be good to have students split into smaller groups for this activity before coming back together. Check-ins are a great way to teach self-awareness and social awareness skills.

Responsible decision-making and self-management are two important skills for young learners. Some students may struggle to predict consequences, and many will struggle to motivate themselves to complete work. Fortunately, at the elementary school level, it is relatively easy to allow students to learn these skills without taking risks that could be dangerous or leave lasting damage.

One way to teach these skills is to give students options for how they would like to complete assignments. When completing a history project, for instance, students could have the opportunity to write a report, create a diorama, or give a presentation. Some options could be more challenging than others, allowing students to evaluate their own strengths and weaknesses and take a risk on how they would like to complete the assignment. If they overreach or struggle to complete the assignment in time, they can learn from their mistakes for the next attempt.

Social Emotional Learning Curriculum in High School

Implementing an SEL curriculum in high school can be somewhat more challenging than teaching younger students about social and emotional development, but it is still a helpful teaching strategy to consider. Teenagers are going through a major change in their lives, part of which is how they understand themselves and those around them. Finding ways for these students to manage and understand their emotions sufficiently can be extremely helpful.

Many high school students may be experiencing heightened stress levels as they balance school, extracurricular activities, the looming pressure of college, and more. Incorporating stress management techniques like mindfulness meditation into the classroom can give students a moment to relax while also teaching them how they can bring those practices into their personal lives.

A great way to improve students' learning while also helping them connect with and empathize with their classmates is to have students become teachers. No matter what subject is being taught, teachers can assign individuals or small groups their own areas of study. Students must do their own research to learn about their assigned topic. Then, they have to present their learning to fellow students, either on a one-on-one basis or as a larger class presentation.

Having students act as teachers and learners can help them become more independent in their learning. When they teach each other, they can connect socially and practice understanding each other's perspectives. Teaching requires good communication and an awareness of the needs of one's audience, both of which tie in well with SEL programs.

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The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

Many educators and pedagogical theorists are just coming to terms with the importance of social-emotional learning. The theory is intended to benefit not just students but also teachers and the community at large. The idea is that by fostering social and emotional growth in children and teenagers, everyone can benefit from a more compassionate and cooperative society. The benefits of SEL depend on the practice becoming more widespread so that more young people can fully understand their emotions and experiences. More traditional pedagogical models have focused on how schools can impart academic knowledge to their students, but SEL asks what other tangible life skills students can develop in the classroom. SEL is still a relatively new strategy in teaching, so more research on its efficacy and impact will likely become available in the coming years.

How SEL Teaching Benefits Students

SEL teaching can take many forms, all of which can have widespread benefits for students. Several studies have been done on SEL, though research is ongoing and will likely become more detailed and reliable as more teachers implement SEL strategies.

Academic Benefits: Some studies, including one by CASEL, have shown that students who learn social and emotional skills fare better academically than their peers.

Better Conflict Resolution: A 2013 study found that classrooms that incorporated SEL principles were less likely to have problems with bullying among students. This research suggests that students who better understand their own and others' emotions may be better able to resolve their conflicts equitably and may be less likely to antagonize each other. Additionally, drug use and emotional challenges were also reduced among students in SEL-focused classrooms. It is important to note that this research did control for other factors like socioeconomic background or the location of a given school.

Increased Social Competence: SEL has not been around long enough to perform long-term analyses of students' lives from early childhood to adulthood; however, studies have also found that students who were more socially competent in kindergarten had better outcomes across the board in early adulthood. If SEL can increase social competence for all students, it is possible that such results could be replicated on a wider scale. When students understand themselves, their needs, and the experiences of their classmates, the school can become a more positive experience.

How SEL Teaching Benefits Teachers

A lot of the research on SEL focuses on how it benefits students, but teachers can also benefit from SEL. When students can regulate and understand their emotions and needs better, they may be less likely to engage in disruptive behaviors. Socially competent students can cooperate with each other and with teachers. They can better manage their classrooms, give meaningful feedback on what is and what is not working, and provide valuable insight into how the classroom environment feels to them. All this information is great for teachers because it means less guesswork about how well classroom policies work. It means fewer behavioral disruptions and a more positive classroom environment in general.

The great thing about social-emotional learning is that it can be a two-way learning journey. Some teachers might find that by centering practices that improve students' self-understanding and social competence, their own social and emotional development improves. Everyone has room to improve their self-development and self-understanding and working in an environment where that kind of learning is a priority can help bring skills like emotional regulation and social interaction to the forefront of one's attention. Teachers can experience long-term benefits in their personal and professional lives, including gaining a better understanding of how to communicate effectively with others and recognize when someone is struggling emotionally.

How SEL Benefits Communities

SEL is designed to be beneficial not only in the classroom but also in communities. It is actually structured on a four-tier level: the classroom, the school, the family, and the community. Early research suggests that parents tend to be very much in support of SEL curricula when they see how this kind of learning can benefit their children. In theory, students who learn good social and emotional skills at school can bring that learning home, improving interpersonal relationships and helping children and teens communicate effectively with their parents and siblings. Thinking even more broadly, SEL can benefit a whole community when young people in a given area are taught to be empathetic and compassionate with others. Students can bring their skills to friends from other schools. Teenagers can bring their social-emotional learning to their part-time jobs. Students who work as tutors can help reinforce SEL concepts for younger children. Some SEL practices actually deliberately connect students to their broader communities through outreach programs, which can also help spread SEL principles beyond the classroom, ultimately benefiting everyone.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is social emotional learning and why is it important?

    Social-emotional learning is a pedagogical theory that puts a lot of emphasis on students' ability to understand their own emotions. It aims to help students relate socially to each other, ultimately creating a more cooperative classroom environment.

  • How do you create a social emotional learning curriculum?

    An SEL curriculum can be integrated gradually into any teaching curriculum. It starts by recognizing opportunities to start teaching students better social skills and leaving space in the classroom for students to examine their own emotions.

  • What are examples of SEL in the classroom?

    SEL might mean creating projects that allow students to collaborate or teach each other various subjects. It might also mean teaching students how to identify and communicate their own emotional needs.

  • What are the 5 core skills of social emotional learning?

    The five core competencies of social-emotional learning are self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. All of these skills can help students better understand themselves and their peers.