What is SEL?

Have you ever worked with a child who would just not stop talking?

Have you ever worked with a child who just could not seem to get along with her peers?

How about one who would get way too physical? One who seemed to argue with everything you said? Or one who loses control for no apparent reason?

Then you have witnessed first-hand the need for social-emotional learning.

Have you ever modeled how to have an academic conversation?

Have you shown students how to work in groups?

How about teaching a kid how to apologize? Coaching him through breathing or talking to calm down? Praised her for being nice or doing something positive for another person in the class?

Congratulations! You’ve already touched n concepts of social-emotional learning, without even planning.

The most common issue in classrooms today is a lack of planned, intentional teaching of social and emotional skills. As the name implies, social-emotional learning encompasses factors that affect how we relate to others (social) and how we relate to ourselves (emotional). It’s not hard to guess how these skills play into life in and out of school.

But many teachers and administrators take them for granted. Of course children should be able to talk to and relate to other children. Of course they should know how to appropriately interact with adults. Of course they can regulate themselves, enjoy recess, participate in class, etc., etc.

Unfortunately, this is simply not always the case. Just as children must be explicitly taught numbers and letters, to count and to read, so they need to be taught how to recognize and use these skills.

Sometimes they are taught at home, but we all know that increasing numbers of students are entering school lacking many prerequisite skills. Role models can be lacking, or present but not positive. Interaction and communication have changed drastically in recent years. Not to mention the increases we have seen in mental health and behavioral diagnoses.

So why SEL? Is this really going to help? In the short term, studies are showing that yes, it is. And the truth is that what we have been doing is not enough. This is evident from the increasing behavior being experienced in classroom settings, growing teacher and parent frustration, and dwindling student performance and engagement. Here are some facts for you. According to the CDC[i]:

  • 9.4% of children have a diagnosed attention disorder.
  • 7.4% of children have a diagnosed behavioral disorder.
  • 7.1% of children have a diagnosed anxiety disorder.
  • 3.2% of children are diagnosed with depression.

Some of these diagnoses overlap, of course, but that still leaves us with well over 10% of our student population diagnosed with a mental health issue. That’s 9-13 million children, and it doesn’t even take into account those who have not seen a doctor or been diagnosed.

According to Minahan and Rappaport, students with these challenges often perform poorly academically. Studies have shown that many of these students made no significant progress over the course of entire school years, regardless of what special education or general education setting they were in. Of students with emotional or behavioral disorders, 48% drop out during high school—that’s twice the rate of their normative peers. Beyond high school, only 30% of these students were employed. A shocking 58% had been arrested.[ii]

We need to do more—for these students, and for our own sake. Many of us are already implementing elements of SEL, so it comes relatively easy for us .If we take what we already know and go about it in an intentional and purposeful way, we may be able to make a difference.

The goal of this blog is not to give you a program. There are tons of programs out there that you can check out, if that’s what you want. The purpose of this is to provide you with insights, dip into ideas, and give you resources and tools to add to your toolbox. Not every teacher works the same way. Not every student (or even population of students) has the same needs. I’m here to help you find what works best for you, in your classroom, with your kids; you can develop your own program, hopefully, by the time we’re done. I look forward to building this foundation with you.

This link will take you to a classroom self-assessment form from CASEL, which is one of the wonderful SEL resources available free to everyone. This might help give you a better idea of where you are with SEL, so you can target your next steps.


[i] http://www.cdc.gov

[ii] Minahan, J., & Rappaport, N. (2018). The Behavior Code (p. 7). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

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