SEL: What it is and how it works.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is the term most widely-used by educators* to describe the processes through which children (and adults) acquire and effectively apply the character-building knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, to set and achieve positive goals, to feel and show empathy for others, to establish and maintain positive relationships, and to make responsible decisions. Students who participate in school cultures that embed SEL practices into all in-classroom and out of classroom activities tend to become remarkable young people who achieve more in schools and throughout their lives, often based more on their expanded emotional and social intelligence than academic knowing. Schools have many evidence-proven trainings and practices to choose from that, properly nested throughout the school culture, in many cases can elevate children and teens  from…

  • Reactive to responsive
  • Self-centered to self-aware of feelings, thoughts and behaviors
  • Acting out to managing their feelings and behavior
  • Depressed or anxious to happy and enthusiastic
  • Feuds and cliques to building positive relationships
  • Psychological “peer fear” to friendships and mutual support
  • Drifting or confusion to clear thinking and problem solving
  • Dumb stuff to making smart choices for their lives
  • Hostility (including bullying), avoidance or manipulation to relating to others with empathy, kindness and love
  • Disengaged from school to highly engaged
  • Poor communicators to remarkable communicators
  • Poor, low-functioning work habits to responsible, high-functioning work habits
  • Poor cooperation skills to easily working collaboratively and co-creatively with others
  • Susceptible to peer pressure to self-motivated.
  • Low self-esteem to confident and fulfilled.
  • Freaking out from stress to handling stress in positive ways
  • Negative to positive
  • Lost in themselves to strong in themselves
  • Poor character to admirable colleague and citizen character 

In sum, students attain high EQ (emotional and relationship smarts and skills and a healthy capacity to make the most of life ) – and often surprising increases in IQ along with it. Other noteworthy findings:

  • SEL is most effective in schools that have adopted policies in which the student skills training is preceded by teacher and staff training in the skills, and SEL practices are then nested throughout the school environment, including in all academic classes, other school activities, student community service and with parental buy-in and engagement. This allows students the opportunity to practice the skills throughout their days in and out of school.  
  • Students tend to thrive and teachers widely report they can happily be teachers rather than behavioral monitors as the students show up as engaged learners. 
  • Already high-performing students achieve even more and relate even better.
  • Other short and long-term negative markers of distress also reverse – and not just for the time kids are in school. Long trail studies predict decreases in crime and criminal justice costs across the populace along with lower social costs for welfare, remedial programs and government-aided mental and physical care.  
  • Collective strong SEL also has the potential to elevate society as a whole – in the form of better relationships all around, less conflict, and more productive and healthier individuals, workplaces, institutions, and communities. (In fact, many businesses are implementing adult SEL programs, with Harvard Business School a leader in promoting the cause.)
  • Also predicted are extensive potential benefits to the economy from a far greater-performing and creative workforce, entrepreneurship growth and lower medical costs for employers, with the possibility of lower taxes from savings on many other social costs and on criminal justice/policing. 

For parents – and for all of us – one of the most loving acts we can perform for our kids and all kids, and for society overall, is to implement Social and Emotional Learning in all schools.


(*Anyone who chooses to go deeper into the subject will find that there are several other terms afloat in the education community for Social and Emotional Learning. Two major ones are Character Development (which can include what are known as Grit practices), and Social, Academic and Emotional Development (SEAD), which is pretty much the same as SEL with an emphasis for public understanding that life skills belong in academic classes, as SEL advocates desire but the term does not make explicit,

(A theme that runs through the movement and is sometimes highlighted is “trauma” transformation – meaning that most poor behavior by children and disengagement from learning results from traumatic child development, which the practices of SEL notably, advocates argue, are successful in transforming.)   


Social and Emotional Learning Core “Competencies”

The Collaborative for Social Emotional Learning (, a major institution in the world of advancing children’s emotional intelligence and SEL, has identified five interrelated competencies that embrace the cognitive, emotional and behavioral aspects of a child’s development. These are the competencies that SEL seeks to advance.

Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize and identify one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurate self-perception in assessing one’s strengths and limitations, then learning to maintain or develop a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism about one’s ability to manage internal factors and to be effective in the world outside oneself.

Self-management: The actual ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals. It also includes developing organizing skills.

Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize where there are family, school, and community resources and supports. Respect for others is cultivated in the training, as is appreciation of diversity – that Sally is different from DeVon, and that’s a good thing.

Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating (good teamwork), resisting inappropriate social pressure (standing strong inside yourself), negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed. Lots of people argue that many adults need this training in healthy social engagement. SEL advocates argue the learning can carry into adulthood and make a meaningful difference.

Responsible decision making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on learning to consider ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the well-being of self and others, and to realistically evaluate the consequences of various actions. The teaching can include identifying and solving problems and analyzing situations from a reflective sensibility.