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Social and Emotional Learning is for Teachers, Too

Emerging Research Shows that Teachers (and Students) Would Benefit from a Focus on Teacher SEL Competencies

Teachers have stressful jobs. That’s no secret, especially to those in the profession. While stress is influenced by a variety of factors, research suggests that teacher stress is often caused by intense job demands, unsatisfactory relationships to school culture, and feelings of a lack of agency and autonomy in decision-making (Greenburg, et. al. 2016). Stress negatively affects teachers’ emotional and even physiological health (Jane Carla de Souza et al. 2012) and has implications beyond the individual: teacher stress can negatively impact student achievement, can be expensive to districts as a factor in attrition, and even contributes to educational inequity, because turnover rates run higher in lower income schools (Greenburg, et. al. 2016). Teachers deserve better: as invaluable assets that have powerful influence over our future, stress should not and cannot remain such a persistent presence in their lives.

A Solution In Social and Emotional Learning

Research with students may offer a pathway towards eliminating teacher stress. In a landscape with increasingly diverse student populations who present vastly different needs and challenges, research on how social and emotional learning (SEL) instruction impacts students is booming. Some research has even shown that implementing an SEL program for students positively impacts teachers, too, because the SEL instruction students receive makes classrooms easier to manage, and as a result, teachers are less stressed (Greenburg, et. al., 2016).

Researchers are also beginning to ask: what if we took the emphasis on SEL a step further? What would happen to teachers, students, and learning environments if teachers themselves received support in strengthening their own SEL competencies?

According to a comprehensive report on SEL supports for teachers by Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichel, it’s important to understand that the relationship between teacher and student is very dynamic, and they both influence each other in different ways. It’s also not a two-way street: other factors, which Schonert-Reichl calls the “learning context” — such as school climate, community, and parents — also influence and are influenced by students and teachers (Schonert-Reichl 2017). It’s an ecosystem, and each is dependent on the other.

Managing Stress and Emotions — For Teachers and Students

While the importance of SEL for teachers is still a growing area of study, the existing research aligns well with this understanding of a dynamic relationship. So far, researchers have observed a trend: when teachers foster warm, strong relationships with students, students are more willing to work with challenging academic content, and generally behave in positive ways (Eileen G. Merritt et al. 2012). When teachers struggle to manage stress and emotions, students’ academic performance and behavior are generally also weaker (Robert Marzano et. al. 2003). In other words, teachers with strong SEL competencies themselves foster classrooms with positive outcomes and positive behaviors.

Some of the research examining the implications of teacher SEL competencies focuses specifically on stress. Researchers argue that stress is contagious, and that this is evident in classrooms. In a study of Canadian fourth and seventh graders and their teachers, Dr. Schonert-Reichl and Eva Oberle measured students’ stress levels through salivary cortisol and compared those results to teachers’ self-reported levels of job burnout. They found that there was a significant correlation between teachers’ occupational stress and students’ physiological stress regulation (Oberle & Schonert-Reichl 2016).

What we don’t know from that study is which direction this stress was being passed on — were stressed out students making teachers more stressed? Or were stressed out teachers making students more stressed? Returning back to the nature of a dynamic classroom ecosystem, perhaps it’s worth asking if both groups would benefit from the other receiving strong SEL supports.

The SEL Competencies Important for Educators

A strong SEL program for students requires both a positive, safe environment and positive student-teacher relationships. Teachers need to know how to explicitly teach SEL competencies as well as foster a nurturing environment — and that second part requires them to have SEL competencies of their own. Researchers Jennings and Greenburg suggest that the most important SEL competencies for teachers to possess, that allow them to foster positive relationships with students, maintain a healthy learning environment, manage challenges, and enjoy their job, are the following (Jennings & Greenberg 2009):

  • Self-awareness
  • Social awareness
  • Cultural awareness
  • Prosocial values
  • Self-management

Identifying the need for these supports and finding ways to actually provide them are two different issues entirely. While more approaches are likely to arise as research expands, The Garrison Institutes’ CARE for Teachers Program has shown promising results. Dr. Schonert-Reichl also suggests that researchers take a closer look at the amount of training teachers are provided in SEL and human development during preservice education. In a large scan of over 3,916 requires courses in teacher preparation programs offered by 304 U.S. colleges of education, Dr. Schonert-Reichl and her colleagues found that there’s a need for increased attention to SEL, particularly pertaining to the five SEL competencies outlined by CASEL, and a gap in showing preservice teachers how to extend application of that information in the classroom (Schonert-Reichl et. al. 2017).

As researchers continue to better understand the implications of teacher SEL competencies for both teachers and students, educators can remain hopeful that solutions to persistent stress and SEL-related obstacles are on the horizon. All stakeholders can work to provide teachers with the SEL supports they need to empower their students — and continue to find joy in their profession.

For more on other emerging trends in SEL, see:


de Souza, J. C., de Sousa, I. C., Belísio, A. S., & Macêdo de Azevedo, C. V. (2012). Sleep habits, daytime sleepiness and sleep quality of high school teachers. Psychology & Neuroscience, 5(2), 257–263.

Greenberg, M. T., Brown J. L. & Abenavoli, R.M. (2016). Teacher stress and health effects of teachers, students, and schools. Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center: Pennsylvania State University.

Jennings, P. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The Prosocial Classroom: Teacher Social and Emotional Competence in Relation to Student and Classroom Outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 491–525.

Marzano, R.J., Marzano, J.S., & Pickering, D. J. (2003). Classroom Management that Works Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Merritt, E.G., Wanless, S.B., Rimm-Kauffman, S.E., Cameron, C., & Peugh, J. L. (2012). The Contribution of Teachers’ Emotional Support to Children’s Social Behaviors and Self-Regulatory Skills in First Grade, School Psychology Review 41(2), 141–59.

Oberle, E., & Schonert-Reichl, K.A. (2016). Stress Contagion in the Classroom? The Link between Clasroom Teachers’ Burnout and Morning Cortisol in Elementary School Students. Social Science and Medicine 159, 30–7, doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2016.04.031

Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2017). Social and emotional learning and teachers. Future of Children, 27(1), 137–156.

Schonert-Reichl, K.A., Kitil, J., & Hanson-Peterson, J. (2017). To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers: A National Scan of Teacher Preparation and Social and Emotional Learning. University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.



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