A Framework for SEL Integration: It’s Time to Teach Differently

By Dr. Tara Laughlin, Director of Readiness Curriculum at PAIRIN

The world is changing, and so too are the skills necessary to thrive in school, work, and life. Now more than ever, one’s success is linked not just to foundational academic knowledge, such as math and reading, but to competencies such as collaboration, decision making, and social awareness, often referred to as ‘social-emotional’ skills.  These essential skills will not suddenly materialize; they need to be nurtured and developed just like anything else students are expected to learn.  However, high-stakes accountability systems have increased pressure on educators, ensuring that most are faced with a daunting challenge they are not fully prepared to address: How can I purposefully ensure my students gain essential social-emotional skills while also learning the required content?

Let’s begin by acknowledging the genuine efforts educators around the country are already making to address this skills gap. I spent 10 years in the classroom, teaching at both the elementary and the secondary levels, working with hundreds of students in addition to hearing countless stories from my colleagues.  Teachers are already working hard to address students’ ever-present social-emotional issues: intervening among students, attempting to mediate a conflict; pulling students into the hallway for a one-on-one chat; helping organize a binder; reassuring a student that a ‘B’ does not equate with complete failure. In each of these scenarios, educators are addressing their students’ skill gaps in the most effective ways possible given the time, resources, and supports they have.

This sounds exhausting, right?  It is. This is a large part of what inspired me, when getting my doctorate, to research how individual educators (as well as teams, schools, and entire districts) can more purposefully and systematically integrate social-emotional skills into the classroom, saving them the exhaustion and stress of constantly putting out individual student fires.

Over the course of 18 months of study, working with a team of teachers and hundreds of students, I developed an instructional design framework to address this dilemma (Laughlin, 2014).  Using this framework, educators can design units of instruction in which social and emotional skills are strategically integrated into the content they are required to teach, and it’s applicable in any content area, in any grade level, with any desired set of skills. The integration framework leverages five specific practices already widely used by educators and validated by pre-existing research, shown in the figure below (Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010; Fisher & Frey, 2008; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).  

Built on a foundation of the five pedagogical practices described above, the framework itself can be simplified down into a six-step process for educators to follow, shown below:

Notice the three separate columns in the figure above.  On the left side, in dark blue, is content; on the right is skills; and down the middle, in yellow, is integration.  These columns are important because they indicate which steps of the process are conducted separately for content and skills and at what points the content and skills are woven together.  

Here’s how it works:

Implementing this skills integration framework requires a shift in conceptualizing how instructional time is utilized. An initial consideration of this integration framework, and integrating SEL skills in general, may be overwhelming, in that it seems educators are being asked to teach more than they are currently teaching.  While this is true in some regards, I’d argue that the real power of integrating SEL skills is that it helps educators to teach differently than they are currently teaching.  While the initial instruction of a skill (for instance, teaching a problem solving process, or how to collaborate effectively, or how to think critically about a topic) will require a time investment up front, the return on this investment is significant.  In the final steps of the framework, students can continue applying that problem solving process across all content taught all year, streamlining their efforts, making them more adept and efficient while working with the content.  That initial lesson on collaboration will lead to more meaningful, effective group work and less discipline issues.  That lesson on critical thinking will help students to engage with the content more deeply, resulting in less re-teaching of the content.

Ultimately, all students need access to a guaranteed, viable curriculum, one which incorporates essential social-emotional skills, to help them cross more successfully into a world of significantly different expectations.  Using this integration framework, educators are able to do just this, while remaining true to the content they have been tasked with teaching.  Social-emotional skills enable a different kind of learning to take place, and for students, this difference will make all the difference.  

(For more information on the integration framework, including data on its effectiveness, be on the lookout next week for Part 2 of this blog, which will provide a vignette of the framework in action.  For any additional questions or comments, email taralaughlin84@gmail.com).


Darling-Hammond, L., & Adamson, F. (2010). Beyond basic skills: The role of performance assessment in achieving 21st century standards of learning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Better learning through structured teaching: A framework for the gradual release of responsibility. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Laughlin, T. (2014). Twenty-first century pedagogy: Integrating 21st century skills Into literacy content in a sixth grade English classroom (Doctoral dissertation).

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Disclaimer: The Assessment Work Group is committed to enabling a rich dialogue on key issues in the field and seeking out diverse perspectives. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Assessment Work Group, CASEL or any of the organizations involved with the work group.

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