What is social and emotional learning (SEL)?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Systemic SEL is promoted across multiple contexts every day. SEL is more than just a program or lesson. It is about how teaching and learning happens, as well as what you teach and where you learn.

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What skills do socially and emotionally competent children and youth have?

CASEL’s widely used framework identifies five core competencies that when prioritized across settings – districts, schools, classrooms, families, and the wider community – can educate hearts, inspire minds, and help students navigate the world more effectively. Socially and emotionally competent children and youth are skilled in five core areas:

  • They are self-aware. They are able to recognize their emotions, describe their interests and values, and accurately assess their strengths. They have a well-grounded sense of self-confidence and hope for the future.
  • They are able to regulate their emotions. They are able to manage stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles. They can set and monitor progress toward the achievement of personal and academic goals and express their emotions appropriately in a wide range of situations.
  • They are socially aware. They are able to take the perspective of and empathize with others and recognize and appreciate individual and group similarities and differences. They are able to seek out and appropriately use family, school, and community resources.
  • They have good relationship skills. They can establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation. They resist inappropriate social pressure; constructively prevent, manage, and resolve interpersonal conflict; and seek and provide help when needed.
  • They demonstrate responsible decision-making at school, at home, and in the community. In making decisions, they consider ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and the likely consequences of various courses of action. They apply these decision-making skills in academic and social situations and are motivated to contribute to the well-being of their schools and communities.

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Why is SEL essential to the school and life success of all children and youth?

Our emotions and relationships affect how and what we learn and how we use what we learn in work, family, and community contexts. On the one hand, emotions can enable us to generate an active interest in learning and sustain our engagement in it. On the other hand, unmanaged stress and poor regulation of impulses interfere with attention and memory and contribute to behaviors disruptive to learning.

Moreover, learning is an intrinsically social and interactive process. It takes place in collaboration with one’s teachers, in the company of one’s peers, and with the support of one’s family. Relationships are the engine of learning.

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What empirical evidence supports the effectiveness of SEL programming?

Several hundred studies using experimental designs with control groups have documented the positive effects of SEL programming on children of diverse backgrounds from preschool through high school in urban, suburban, and rural settings.

The research clearly demonstrates that SEL programming significantly improves children’s academic performance on standardized tests. Moreover, compared to control groups, children who have participated in SEL programs have significantly better school attendance records, less disruptive classroom behavior, like school more, and perform better in school. The research also indicates that children who have participated in SEL programs are less likely than children in control groups to be suspended or otherwise disciplined.

Learn more about the impact of SEL.

Learn more about the growing body of research on SEL.


What instructional methods are commonly used in SEL?

The educational goals of SEL are more likely to be achieved when evidence-based approaches are used to reach students in all settings where they spend their time. For example,

  • Young children can to be taught through modeling and coaching to recognize how they feel or how someone else might be feeling.
  • Through class meetings students can practice group decision-making and setting classroom rules.
  • Students can learn cooperation and teamwork through participation in team sports and games.

Learn more about evidence-based programs.
See examples of SEL in action.

What can principals do to promote SEL?

A key to promoting effective schoolwide SEL is ensuring that all staff members have initial and ongoing professional development and support for implementing programming. In addition, principals can promote SEL by:

  • Indicating to school personnel and families that they are committed to schoolwide SEL as a priority; and
  • Developing and articulating a shared vision of their students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

Learn more about SEL implementation in schools here.

Learn more about evidence-based programs in use by districts, schools, and teachers.

What can teachers do to promote SEL?

In addition to providing instruction in social and emotional skills, teachers’ involvement in promoting SEL goes beyond the classroom and includes:

  • Participating on a school team or committee that selects SEL programs and oversees the implementation and evaluation of SEL activities; and
  • Communicating regularly with students’ families about SEL classroom activities to encourage reinforcement of SEL lessons at home.

Learn more about SEL implementation in a school here.

Learn more about evidence-based programs in use by districts, schools, and teachers.

What can parents to do to promote their child’s SEL?

Parents can promote their child’s SEL by learning more about their school’s SEL initiative and modeling behaviors and adopting practices that reinforce their child’s SEL skills at home. Examples include:

  • Participating in family informational meetings at their school to learn more about its SEL initiative; and
  • Emphasizing their child’s strengths before discussing deficits and needed improvements.

Learn more about resources for parents.

What can student support services professionals do to promote SEL?

Student support services (SSS) professionals can be valuable members of an SEL steering committee due to their knowledge of human behavior, program planning and evaluation, community resources, classroom management strategies, and students’ personal challenges to learning. Their perspective on student needs and the resources being used to address those needs is essential to an adequate SEL needs and resources assessment. Since their work is not confined to the classroom, they also bring an important perspective to identifying schoolwide SEL programming needs.

In small-group work SSS professionals can reinforce classroom instruction in SEL skills with students who need more practice. When conferring with parents on approaches to addressing learning challenges their child is experiencing, SSS professionals can use SEL language introduced in the classroom. When consulting with teachers on classroom management issues, they can assess problems and suggest solutions with reference to SEL skills and the characteristics of a safe and supportive learning environment. When developing and assessing student progress on IEP goals, they can relate these goals to specific SEL standards. SSS staff are also typically the link between schools and the community-based services that students may access. As such, they can extend the SEL framework to these relationships as well.

Finally, coordinating classroom-based SEL instruction with services provided by student support staff can be especially effective in promoting the school success of children who have social, emotional, and mental health problems that interfere with learning.


What are the components of evidence-based schoolwide SEL programming?

Effective SEL programming provides students with opportunities to contribute to their communities, families with opportunities to enhance their children’s social and emotional development, school personnel with ongoing professional development opportunities, and community groups with opportunities such as after-school and before-school programs in partnership with schools (CASEL. 2013. CASEL Guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs – Preschool and elementary edition. Chicago, IL: Weissberg, R.P., Goren, P., Domitrovich, C., Dusenbury, L. P.). Key components of effective SEL implementation in schools include:

  • Instruction in and opportunities to practice and apply an integrated set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills.
  • Learning environments characterized by trust and respectful relationships.
  • Coordinated implementation that reinforces classroom, schoolwide, out-of-school, and at-home learning activities.
  • Systematic and sequential programming from preschool through high school.
  • Developmentally and culturally appropriate behavioral supports.
  • Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of implementation for continuous improvement.

Learn more about evidence-based programs in use by districts, schools, and teachers.

Why is it important to use an evaluated, evidence-based SEL curriculum?

Many available SEL programs have core elements based on an underlying theory of how desired student changes are achieved. Schools interested in implementing an SEL program are urged to start by familiarizing themselves with evidence-based programs featured in our program guides. This will give them a better understanding of how these programs work and enable them to adapt such a program to meet the needs of their students and get buy-in from their teachers without compromising the integrity of its core elements.

Learn more about selecting an evidence-based program here.

How can my district or school financially sustain our SEL work?

Through our work with partner districts, CASEL has supported school systems committed to implementing districtwide social and emotional learning (SEL). From 2012 through 2015, four of those districts — Austin, Chicago, Washoe County, Nev., and Wheaton-Warrenville, Ill. — partnered with us to investigate and develop strategies for financially sustaining districtwide SEL initiatives over multiple years.

Click here to learn more about the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned, including online budgeting tools, templates, case studies, and related resources.

Click here for support and guidance with districtwide SEL implementation.