What SEL Is — and What It Is Not

Contributing Writer
What SEL is and is not, sarah potler lahayne, edweek market brief

If you were to ask any educator or caregiver if they support building skills in empathy, cooperation, problem-solving, active listening, goal setting, and responsible decision making, they all would agree.

And given the wave of data and headlines surrounding the mental health crisis our children are experiencing — which has been exacerbated by over two years of isolation and fear throughout the pandemic — building skills in emotional identification and expression, stress management, and creating opportunities for connection and play are more important than ever. Overall, support nationally for the skills we’ve come to label as social-emotional learning is strong and growing.

So why is there such confusion around what SEL is and is not?

Each industry is guilty of becoming jargony, and many of us who are immersed in a particular field of study (myself included) become so entrenched in the work that we often forget how to communicate what we do with those outside of it. I wrote a piece last fall sharing that despite founding a social-emotional wellness program 16 years ago, I dislike the term “social-emotional learning.” 

SEL is not about defining emotions as “good” or “bad,” or forcing children to adopt a particular set of values.

It’s a shame that we’re allowing a label to define a body of work so critical to building resilient, happy, successful humans who can thrive in whatever they pursue in life. The skills of resolving conflict, communicating effectively, and setting and achieving goals are those that are more relevant to career readiness than any algebra or literacy outcome. Timothy Dohrer, director of teacher leadership at Northwestern University, says, “If you asked 100 C.E.O.s what skills they want in a new hire, the top five skills are going to be about social-emotional learning — not algebra.”

Yet the jargon of “social-emotional learning” seems to be driving us apart more than uniting us at a time when our students and communities need social-emotional support the most.

The Fordham Institute published a study in August 2021 on parents’ perceptions of social-emotional learning and found that while parents on both sides of the political divide want their children to learn the skills that make up the field of “social- emotional learning,” such as goal-setting and appreciating diversity, the term itself is divisive.

Many social-emotional learning programs are completely separate from the political and cultural debates that have consumed school boards, parents, and activists. But a lack of clear definition, purpose, and measurement has fueled parental misunderstanding and pushback. 

What happens when we practice social-emotional learning?:

  1. We practice setting and achieving goals. We want children to grow more independent and be able to set their own goals throughout their lives, and it’s never too early to start learning that skill. We practice setting goals large and small, working through how we might achieve those goals, and focusing on how good it feels when we accomplish them.
  2. We get to know our classmates and ourselves. Real friendships are made at school, and being with their friends is one thing that children look forward to when coming to school each day. Through social-emotional learning curriculum, students have structured time to get to know each other, and start and build friendships that will last a lifetime.
  3. We get up and move. The most effective social-emotional learning curriculum is interactive, participatory, and rooted in movement. We will stand up, move around, and get the blood flowing. For elementary students, this may look like playing games focused on active listening and collaboration. For older students, this may look more like stress relief and calm-down strategies. Exercises are designed to take minimal time and will help all students stay focused throughout the day.

What SEL practice is NOT:

  1. We do not discuss societal issues that do not affect our daily lives. SEL curriculum promotes mental, social, and emotional development without introducing students to topics that may be inappropriate or that do not align to your family values. The best SEL curriculum is student-centered, interactive, and relies on the experiences, ideas, and input from students themselves.
  2. We do not learn static definitions of emotions. Even as adults, what “happiness” feels like to one person may be different than how it feels to another. To help students understand their emotions, we invite them to explore how those emotions feel to them. We do not teach them rigid, static definitions that they must copy.
  3. We do not define emotions as “good” or “bad.” We do not believe in forcing children to adopt a particular set of values, and so the best SEL curriculum does not prefer certain emotions over others. We want to help students be confident, capable learners, not teach them how they “should” or “should not” feel about certain things.

The data are clear. A meta-analysis that looked across 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students found that SEL interventions that address the five core competencies of self awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points, compared with students who did not participate in SEL programs.

In addition, students participating in SEL programs showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school. Its effects have been shown to be durable, cost-effective, and successful across cultural contexts. 

Education is more than building cognitive skills. Education is about building better humans who can go on to be the best versions of themselves — as citizens, as leaders, as family members and friends, as professionals, and as community members, building a more empathetic, connected, resilient world for our future. Whatever we choose to call it — the skills developed through social emotional wellness practice are the skills that serve as the foundation for learning, for leading, and for thriving.

Image source iStock/Getty.

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