Deep Dives

“SEL Skybridges”: Museums as Partners in Social and Emotional Learning

February 19, 2024
Jacqueline Langholtz
Museum Professional
©Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has long had a friend hiding in plain sight. I’ll give you a hint: Ferris Bueller visits one on his famous “Day Off,” resulting in this classic scene. You guessed it: museums! 

I’m a longtime museum professional. Struck by the synergy between best practices in museum education and key components of the CASEL Wheel, I now study SEL and museums. Namely, how SEL aligns with museums’ educational missions, what SEL looks like in the museum space, and what the future may look like for museums and schools working together in pursuit of shared SEL-related goals. 

Museums are members of the “Communities” ring on the CASEL Wheel, and it’s estimated that roughly 55 million American school children visit them each year. Most museums are guided by educational missions, but a visit to the museum is about so much more than fact-based knowledge acquisition. A museum visit is an experience. That experience often involves engaging in self-reflection, introspection, and building empathy for the feelings and perspectives of others. 

Museum visits, especially those made with family, friends, or as a school field trip, are also shared experiences. These moments provide special opportunities for exchanging personal stories or opinions, the chance to ask questions and arrive at new understanding together, and to grow one’s cultural awareness. Sounding familiar?

You’d have to work hard not to bump into elements of the five core competencies and their components on your standard museum visit. But intentionally integrating SEL—and calling it by that name—is a newer trend within museums, and one that is rapidly gaining traction. 

Museums and Aligned Learning Opportunities 

By offering K-12 student programs, classroom resources, and professional development for adults improving their SEL skills, museums are well-positioned to offer aligned learning opportunities in their role as community-based SEL partners. Here are four examples of museums integrating SEL, each in their own way:

  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently developed “Social and Emotional Learning Through Art,” a free downloadable workbook of 30 classroom-based lesson plans featuring works from the MET’s collection, designed to help educators of all grade levels and disciplines. 

As you can see, SEL can take many different forms in museums. Some museums are creating resources for teachers to use independently in the classroom, some are developing onsite programs and in-person institutes within their gallery spaces, and others are turning to distance learning to share their museum’s mission and collection with a wider audience.  Add to this short list more great work being done at children’s museums, historic sites, and science museums, as more museums show an increased interest in integrating SEL. 

SEL Skybridges and the Future of SEL-Based Partnerships 

With the adoption of SEL standards into more state and national curricula, more school-based educators emerging from teacher-training programs are primed to use and apply SEL strategies in their classrooms. Furthermore, with CASEL’s continued work to advance the field, the number of SEL partners across disciplines, including museums, is only growing. We can grow in this together.  

I’ve coined the phrase “SEL Skybridge” as a metaphor for how museums and other SEL partners may think about working together more regularly and more intentionally. It reminds us that there is an effort we’re both actively engaged in, with unique resources and expertise to share with one another, and an opportunity to do so rather easily. 

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a skybridge is a pedestrian walkway, usually enclosed, that connects two buildings or structures. It protects you from the elements and keeps you from having to go all the way down to the ground floor and exiting onto the street in order to enter the neighboring building. You’ll find skybridges in hospital complexes, college campuses, urban settings, and I hear there’s a 9.5-mile system of them in Minneapolis

So, how can museums and schools grow together via a mutually beneficial SEL Skybridge? In many ways! The best actions will look different for each unique partnership, but three basic suggestions for collaborative work include:

  1. Museum partners becoming more fluent in the language and practices of SEL, including state and national learning standards. 
  2. Museum partners identifying the ways in which their programs align with the CASEL Wheel’s five core competencies and their components, and school partners identifying how a museum visit supports their existing SEL goals. 
  3. Museum and school partners engaging in more joint staff learning to practice adult SEL skills together.

Even incremental steps could lead to positive outcomes for all involved, maximizing our collective impact. 

It’s clear that museums and schools—or, put differently, museum-based educators and school-based educators—have much to offer one another in our distinct roles as SEL practitioners and partners. I hope to see you on the SEL Skybridge, friend! 

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Jacqueline Langholtz is an independent consultant and museum professional with over twenty years of experience leading student and adult programs, staff development, and community engagement initiatives. She is currently completing an EdD at the University of Virginia. She can be reached at

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