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What Is Social Emotional Learning?

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Students celebrating completion of an assignment on laptops. Yellow filter on top of image.

Want your students to feel more at ease in the classroom and nurture skills that will help them become successful learners and human beings? Social and emotional learning (SEL) can create positive classrooms and thriving students. Like building a home, social-emotional learning is education's foundation or base layer. The SEL model gives students, from kindergarten through higher education, the confidence, resilience, and skills needed to blossom in the classroom and life.

This article provides an overview of social-emotional learning and its benefits in education, how this practice is used in K-12 and higher education classrooms, and creative SEL activities to try with learners. Let's dive in!

What is social and emotional learning in education?

Organizations like The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a nonprofit championing SEL, do a fantastic job narrowing down SEL essentials. CASEL explains that this practice equips students with what they need to create healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve goals. Not only does it address forms of inequity, but it also empowers students to create a positive school climate and healthier and safer communities.

These goals all sound beneficial, but what are the advantages in real-world classroom scenarios? The Committee for Children suggests that social-emotional learning skills:

  • improve student academic performance 
  • lowers dropout rates
  • reduce negative social behaviors

One study suggests that students who engage in social-emotional learning programs see steady improvements in skills that contribute to positive outcomes up to 18 years later. So, how can teachers create a classroom promoting these skills? The basics of an SEL-focused classroom include three tenets:

  • a supportive classroom climate
  • blending SEL into academic instruction
  • direct social-emotional learning instruction

With this understanding, teachers can utilize the five SEL competencies needed to foster a positive student experience and environment.

What are the five social-emotional learning competencies?

Elementary children sitting in circle, practicing SEL skills.

Social and emotional learning is a powerful model with five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 


Self-awareness is when students understand how their emotions, thoughts, and values influence behavior across different situations. Some examples include:

  • identifying and connecting feelings, values, and thoughts
  • examining prejudices and biases
  • having a growth mindset

For example, developing this skill can help students see mistakes as a positive thing, not a failure. This perspective allows them to grow, change, and embrace challenges. 


Self-management skills include managing stress and behavior, setting objectives, and feeling motivated to accomplish personal and collective goals. For students, this may involve: 

  • identifying and using stress management strategies
  • exhibiting self-motivation and self-discipline
  • using planning and organizational skills

An example of this skill is when a student can recognize anxiety symptoms when taking a test and develop ways to overcome those feelings to shift to a positive outcome.

Social awareness

Social awareness skills involve understanding and empathizing with others, particularly with people from different backgrounds. Examples of this skill may include:

  • identifying social cues to discern how others feel
  • taking others' perspectives
  • demonstrating empathy and compassion

For instance, having students put themselves in the "shoes" of people on opposing sides of history can help strengthen social awareness skills and empathy. 

Relationship skills

Social and emotional learning relationship skills involve building healthy relationships and effectively navigating settings with diverse individuals and groups. This framework includes:

  • demonstrating cultural competency
  • communicating effectively
  • practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving

To reinforce this skill, teachers may have students work in teams to strengthen positive communication methods such as listening and conflict resolution.

Responsible decision-making

Responsible decision-making skills include making thoughtful choices about social interactions and personal behavior across different situations. What does this look like for students? It may involve:

  • learning how to make a sound judgment after analyzing information and facts
  • identifying solutions for personal problems
  • recognizing how critical thinking skills are valuable both in and outside of school

A student may apply this skill by listing positive solutions on a whiteboard to which they can keep returning when facing a challenge at school or home.

Social-emotional learning in K-12

Most school districts use evidence-based social and emotional learning curricula and programs to support strong outcomes. These methods take on many shapes and forms at different points in the K-12 journey. Some examples include age-appropriate interactive lessons, individual SEL assignments, or video projects combining movement, play, emotion, and expression. 

Lesson plans can also involve guided exercises, games, or curriculum within any subject. Some teaching methods to engage students in active SEL learning include cooperative, project-based, or experiential learning. However, no matter the approach, creating a supporting environment where students feel safe is essential.

SEL for elementary students may involve creating a cozy "peace corner" to practice emotional regulation skills. In this space, students are encouraged to use strategies like mindfulness exercises or choosing a word to identify the feelings they're experiencing. However, practicing this skill with middle or high school students may involve more complex emotions. Techniques like self-reflection, journaling, guided meditation, or group discussions are more effective when helping older students tackle real-world issues like anxiety and stress. 

SEL in higher education

College students working together on laptops in classroom.

Social and emotional learning is not limited to K-12. It's taught at all levels, including higher education. Some colleges and universities integrate social-emotional learning directly into their curriculum, while others establish SEL-focused initiatives. Some higher education program examples include:

SEL-focused programs and courses

Some colleges offer classes or initiatives focusing specifically on social-emotional learning. For example, the University of Pennsylvania offers a course called "Positive Psychology: The Science of Well-Being." This class aims to help students develop practical strategies for enhancing their well-being and happiness. Similarly, UCLA has a holistic initiative called Resilience in Your Student Experience, which provides students with resources and tools to develop well-being and resilience.

Support services for students

Most campuses have student services to support students' mental health and well-being. This assistance includes health services, counseling, and wellness programs, providing students with resources to develop social and emotional skills.

Development of soft skills

Some college programs are also designed to develop the soft skills required for many jobs, such as teamwork, effective communication, and problem-solving. Strengthening these SEL skills helps prepare students for success throughout their college years and beyond.

Top benefits of social and emotional learning


Improved academic performance

Students developing social and emotional skills are better equipped to achieve academic goals and maintain motivation and engagement in their studies. For example, students participating in SEL programs saw an 11 percentile increase in overall grades and better attendance. Research also suggests students participating in SEL instruction have higher test scores and increased homework completion.

Stronger social skills

Boosting SEL skills helps students build empathy for others, develop cultural competence, and create strong interpersonal relationships. Research finds that SEL instruction and activities also support the positive social development of children from diverse backgrounds and geographies. There is also evidence that SEL promotes educational equity and classroom inclusivity. 

Better mental health

According to the Child Mind Institute, social and emotional learning can help students feel more confident and optimistic in the classroom and in life. Research suggests SEL skills help students cope with emotional stress, solve problems, and avoid destructive activities. Studies also find that social and emotional learning decreases aggression and bullying.

Enhance job readiness

Learning valuable behaviors beyond academic achievement helps students master the "soft skills" needed for many careers, such as teamwork, effective communication, understanding others, and problem-solving. Developing these skills in high school and college can enhance students' job readiness and career opportunities, creating a lasting positive impact.

5 interactive SEL activities to try with learners

Students drawing happy and sad faces.

Anton Chekov said, "Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice." Below are a few enriching and easy SEL activities to implement and practice. Teachers can modify them for any grade level. 

Project-based learning

Many school districts have embraced SEL project-based learning, where students take on real-world issues and create presentations, multimedia projects, or videos to offer solutions. For example, have students dive into a problem like cyberbullying and create videos or presentation slides providing effective resolutions to show the class. This activity develops teamwork, planning, problem-solving, and communication skills.

Learning extension: Hear from other educators about the power of multimedia as a pedagogy

Journal writing

Provide a SEL journal prompt each morning for students to respond to. Students still working on writing skills can draw their responses. For example, ask younger students to write about a time when they felt mad, sad, or nervous. Ask them to include details on what they did to feel less sad or scared. This exercise helps develop self-awareness skills. For older students, ask them to reflect on the emotions they experienced during a recent test or exam. How did those emotions affect the rest of that class, day, or week?

The 5-step morning check-in

Begin the day with a mindful morning check-in. This easy 5-step process has students:

  • taking five deep breaths 
  • listing four things they notice around them 
  • recalling three things they are grateful for 
  • expressing two positive self-talk statements
  • saying one thing they are looking forward to for the day

This activity develops self-awareness skills and may be the only time students have quiet time for reflection.

Reflective listening

To help students develop context around their emotions, try reflective listening. Pair up students in the morning and have them take turns expressing their feelings. Students should focus on their teammate's language and recall a time when they felt similar feelings. The activity helps students develop empathy and contextualize their emotions or struggles. 

The "anchor" exercise

Anchors hold a boat in place so it doesn't float away. The boat still moves around in the water with an anchor, but it's held with a softer force that grounds the boat, keeping it safe. With this in mind, the anchor exercise has students select the places, people, experiences, and things that feel steady or grounding to them. It can be anything from an image of their favorite pet to a specific smell they love. For younger students still working on writing skills, help them create the list on paper. Why is this effective? When students learn what feels soothing and comforting to their nervous systems during heightened stress, they can access these small practices in any situation.

By utilizing SEL activities like these, educators can nurture essential skills that benefit students in their academic journey and beyond. But remember, creating a supportive educational environment where students can thrive academically and emotionally is only half the battle. The other half? Having fun creating lifelong learners and successful human beings.

Victoria Sambursky.
Victoria Sambursky
Victoria began her career in secondary education, where she worked as a high school English teacher for several years. Eventually, she transitioned to the nonprofit world, working in adult education and later as a scholarship fund director. After the birth of her daughter, Victoria took her love of writing in a different direction and became a professional content writer. Her published works include feature articles, blogs, and interviews on many topics, including higher education and social-emotional learning. These days, you can find Victoria hiking around the Northeast and spending time with her dog, Shelby.