Social and Emotional Learning

Unless students are given strategies to regulate their emotions and direct their energies toward learning, it is unlikely that added instructional hours or days will eventuate in corresponding amounts of academic learning (Elias, 2001, p. 131).

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a term that was coined in the mid-1990s to describe mental health promotion efforts emerging most notably, in school settings. The word “learning” is purposeful and infers that social and emotional skills can be learned. In other words, human development does not completely rest on innate programming to successfully navigate life’s challenges. Humans acquire meaningful information through the environment, typically through their relationships with others. We practice the skills we observe or are directly taught, and these skills are refined over time. The primary areas that are key to social and emotional development are: being aware of yourself and others, managing your own behavior, having meaningful and positive relationships, and being able to engage in responsible decision-making. Can you see how these qualities are essential for children (and adults) to have for a lifetime?

In schools, teachers, administrators, support staff, school boards, and state and federal policy makers serve as lead instructors to ensure students grow academically. Research over the past decade, in particular, has conclusively shown that there is an interrelationship amongst social, emotional, and academic development and success. If kids are struggling emotionally, they’re likely to struggle academically, and so on. Greenberg and colleagues noted in 2003: There is a national consensus on the need for 21st century schools to offer more than than academic instruction if one is to foster success in school and life for all children. Many schools are prioritizing SEL programming to increase the likelihood that the whole person will grow and have better potential for lifelong success. 

SEL can take a variety of forms—it can be informal: discussions throughout the school day as problem situations arise or, formal: specifically selected programs that target social and emotional issues (e.g., stress and anger management, feelings identification, coping skills) and are implemented over the course of several weeks  (Strong Kids is such a program). You may hear your child talking about how he or she learned to identify feelings in themselves or others, how to use specific strategies to solve problems, consider other’s perspectives, manage stress and anger, and set goals.

You can be involved in the SEL movement. Consider the following:

  • Ask about the SEL programming available in your school district. What is being implemented and what are the plans for the future? How can you get involved?
  • Support your child at home with SEL concepts. Assist your child in identifying their own feelings and those of others, actively solve problems, encourage and support relationships with peers, help him/her to make informed decisions and take responsibility for behavior.
  • If your child is participating in an SEL program, ask to have information on the lessons being taught so you can discuss these concepts at home. Kids learn better when they have more opportunities to practice the information.
  • Learn more about SEL and initiatives.  For more information visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
  • Advocate with school district administrators to adopt policies and programming that supports social and emotional learning and instruction.

Over the past 10 years I’ve been amazed at how many schools are adopting SEL. However, we still have a long way to go to make SEL instruction as automatically available as academics. I urge you to get involved!

Elias, M. (2001). Strategies to infuse social and emotional learning into academics. In J. E. Zins. R. P. Weissberg, M. C. Wang, & H. J. Walberg (Eds.) Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? New York: Teachers College Press.

Greenberg, M. T., Weissberg, R. P., O’Brien, M. T., Zins, J. E., Fredericks, L., Resnik, H., & Elias, M. J. (2003). Enhancing school-based prevention and youth development through coordinated social, emotional, and academic learning. American Psychologist, 58, 466-474.

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