SEL in the Classroom

A systemic approach integrates SEL across all key settings where students live and learn.

School classrooms sit at the center of the education ecosystem. Students spend the majority of their school day in classrooms, and these spaces are at the heart of the learning process.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is most effective at the classroom level when supported by evidence-based programs that ensure supportive learning environments and hiqh-quality, consistent opportunities for SEL. When SEL is integrated throughout all classrooms with a systemic, schoolwide approach, students can learn and practice SEL through explicit instruction, trusting relationships, and frequent opportunities to express their voice and perspectives.

This page illuminates the essential parts of an SEL-focused classroom supported by evidence-based SEL programs.

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The handing of ownership over to the students means that students can move from dependent learners to independent learners. They are advocating for their social and emotional as well as academic needs. This also means that they are increasing their student voice in the classroom.

What have we learned?

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Evidence-Based Programs

Evidence-based SEL programs are grounded in research and principles of child and adolescent development, and scientifically evaluated and shown to produce positive student outcomes. SEL goals are more likely to be achieved when evidence-based approaches are used to engage all students across PreK-12th grade classrooms.

Effective SEL approaches often incorporate four elements represented by the acronym SAFE:

  • SEQUENCED: Connected and coordinated activities to foster skills development
  • ACTIVE: Employing active forms of learning to help students strengthen new skills
  • FOCUSED: Dedicated time and attention to developing personal and social skills
  • EXPLICIT: Targeting specific social and emotional skills

Benefits of evidence-based programs

According to a meta-analysis of 213 rigorous studies of SEL in schools, students who received high-quality, evidence-based SEL programming demonstrated:

  • Better academic performance: achievement scores an average of 11 percentile points higher than students who did not receive systematic SEL instruction.
  • Improved attitudes and behaviors: greater motivation to learn, deeper commitment to school, increased time devoted to schoolwork, and better classroom behavior.
  • Fewer negative behaviors: decreased disruptive behaviors, aggression, delinquent acts, and disciplinary referrals.
  • Reduced emotional distress: fewer reports of student depression, anxiety, stress, and social withdrawal.

A follow-up meta-analysis examining longitudinal studies found that participation in an SEL program had a lasting impact on these outcomes up to 18 years later, regardless of students’ race, socioeconomic background, or school location.

SEL-Focused Classrooms

SEL-focused classrooms often include three components: a supportive classroom climate, integration of SEL into academic instruction, and explicit SEL instruction. An evidence-based program can support one or more of these areas.

  • A supportive classroom climate helps students to feel emotionally safe, part of a community of learners, motivated, and challenged. This type of environment creates a strong foundation for students to engage fully and take academic risks. This includes: community-building, belonging and emotional safety, and student-centered discipline.
  • Integration of SEL into academic instruction weaves academic learning with opportunities for students to practice and reflect on social and emotional competencies, such as perspective-taking and developing a growth mindset. For example, teachers might incorporate partner and group activities that promote relationships, communication skills, and effective teamwork.
  • Explicit SEL instruction provides consistent opportunities to cultivate, practice, and reflect on social and emotional competencies in ways that are developmentally appropriate and culturally responsive.

How is CASEL advancing this work?

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Program Review

To support school, district, and state teams in selecting and implementing SEL programs, we share criteria and best practices for selecting and implementing classroom-based and schoolwide SEL programs. We use this criteria to evaluate and identify well-designed, evidence-based SEL programs with potential for broad dissemination to schools and classrooms. The 2021 edition provides information on selecting and implementing SEL programs in a district and school, including 78 quality programs and updated rigorous standards for SEL program adoption.

Check out the Guide to SEL Programs to find the right program for your classroom or school.

Guidance on Supporting Classroom SEL

Our Guide to Schoolwide SEL helps schools coordinate and build upon SEL practices and programs to create an environment that infuses SEL into every part of students’ educational experience and promotes equitable outcomes for all students. Explore focus area 3 on promoting SEL for students to learn more about fostering supportive classrooms that engage in explicit SEL and integrate SEL throughout instruction.

Among its many resources is the SEL 3 Signature Practices Playbook, an essential resource for integrating SEL practices into any classroom, meeting, or youth-serving agency.

Research-Practice Partnerships: Equity in the Classroom

Building on decades of SEL research, our current work is focused on refining a specific form of SEL implementation focused on promoting school and civic engagement, Transformative SEL. We established collaborative research-practice efforts with partner organizations to identify and refine policies, processes, professional learning, and assessment that can best be implemented to achieve the goals of Transformative SEL. Specifically at the classroom level:

Fig. 1: Rising Up Together Infographic
  • Building Equitable Learning Environments (BELE) Framework was developed by a collective of diverse educators committed to tackling the inequities in our school system. It guides the redesign of public school systems, including teaching and learning, to center the experiences of young people with evidence-based practice and resources to support lasting change.
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