A Beginner’s Guide to SEL
Social and Emotional Learning, also known as ‘SEL,’ has come a long way since I first taught the subject matter in 2001. At the time, I was a Humanities teacher at The Girls’ Middle School, a school known for its progressive approach. I co-taught Social and Emotional Learning for five years, during which time almost no one I met outside my school environment knew what SEL was or had even heard of it.
Today, SEL is rapidly becoming one of the hottest buzz words in the educational arena. At back to school events, teachers are increasingly including SEL in their presentations. There are SEL research articles being published in academic journals. There are entire schools being founded on the main principles of SEL, such as Nueva School here in the San Francisco Bay Area.
And yet, my research tells me that very few parents understand SEL. Even less know why it is important to incorporate into schools. Teachers demonstrate more awareness of SEL, but many are not able to fully express what exactly it includes, or the research benefits backing it up. To this day, it is a term that does not yet exist on Wikipedia, other than as a single paragraph at the bottom of the search term ‘social and emotional development.’ I have collected here the best explanations, examples, and statistics that I have found to explain the basics of SEL.
What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?
CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, is a group that works to “drive research, guide practice, and inform policy.” CASEL is largely considered the expert when it comes to defining SEL. CASEL states that SEL is the teaching of five core competencies: self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (What is SEL, 2019).
Another way to think of SEL is that it is the teaching and learning involved in developing emotional intelligence. SEL is most effective when taught in partnership between teachers, schools and the rest of a student’s family and community. This is indicated by the outer rings of the CASEL competencies wheel, but is often overlooked. The MUSE Framework for Social and Emotional Learning places emphasis on the ‘modeled behaviors’ that play a large role in developing students’ social emotional skills.
The CASEL Competencies Wheel
Basic skills include understanding emotions, values, wants and needs, growth mindset, and mindfulness.
It is essential not only to understand emotions, but also to learn to manage them. Skills in this category include impulse control, stress management, mindfulness, focus, resilience, confidence, optimism, and self compassion. Using their newfound self knowledge, and with optimism and a growth mindset, students learn to regularly set positive personal goals. These include academic, social, emotional, and behavioral goals.
The skill set for social awareness is a critical one for creating prosocial behavior. Social awareness skills include empathy, cultural competence, support systems, safety, actions and consequences, and social contribution.
The relationship skillset starts out with the basics, such as fairness, respect, establishing and maintaining friendships, and handling peer pressure. It then moves to cooperation, communication, and conflict resolution, skills that are regarded as critical even in adult settings.
Responsible Decision Making
This last skillset is straightforward, though that doesn’t make it necessarily easier to teach! Responsible decision making includes making constructive choices based on ethics, safety, and social norms.
Many educators subscribe to the CASEL model of SEL. However, some find it limiting. Other components of SEL not listed above may include: sense of belonging, ethical development, and mindfulness.
Many teachers understand what SEL is, but not why they should make time for it in their already packed days. There are two main reasons to incorporate SEL into any environment. One reason is simply the better mental and emotional health of the child, which may be reason enough. The second is an ever increasing volume of research that proves that incorporating SEL skills into the classroom dramatically improves academic performance and decreases behavioral issues, including classroom behavior, drug use, teenage pregnancy, mental health problems and criminal behavior. A recent study showed that for every $1 invested in SEL, the economic return was $11!
Maximizing the Effect: Classroom, School, Home, and Community
SEL curriculum has the greatest impact if it is a pervasive part of a child’s life: in the classroom, schoolwide, at home, and even out in their community. When integrated into the fabric of a child’s life, SEL is a much needed part of the equation for dealing with larger mental health issues. Schools can help by educating families, and even creating community wide events. Open communication around a child’s SEL skills between school and home create consistency for children; even more so if parents are given relevant resources to use in their homes.
Once I started writing I couldn’t stop, so I have created an SEL publication on Medium called EmotionalMUSE. I welcome all thoughtful stories related to the field of Social and Emotional Learning in Education!