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What is Social Emotional Learning?

What is Social Emotional Learning?

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Updated on Sep 3, 2013

Parents expect their children to learn reading, writing, and math at school. But after years of measuring success based on test scores, experts are concerned that students aren’t learning something just as important: the social skills they need to succeed in life.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, during the 2007-2008 school year, 46% of public schools had at least one serious disciplinary action, and 31% of schools dealt with fighting or physical attacks. In response, advocates for Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) hope to use social skill instruction to address behavior, discipline, safety, and academics to help kids become self-aware, manage their emotions, build social skills (empathy, perspective-taking, appreciating differences), form good relationships, and make positive decisions. In short, says Joan Duffell, executive director of the Committee for Children, “these are the skills that allow children to calm themselves when angry, make friends, resolve conflicts respectfully, and make ethical and safe choices.”

As the focus on SEL develops, here are the top five things that you should know.

SEL Is More Than Classroom Management.

Typical classroom management involves rules, consequences, and motivation or rewards. But SEL is more than a set of class rules, a plan to help kids “be nice,” or a school-wide pledge to be “kind and caring.” While those ideas are terrific, says Duffell, “they need to be backed up with time that is set aside in the classroom for evidence-based SEL instruction.” In a school with an SEL program, students are involved in creating the school environment, writing rules, and deciding on consequences. From day one the SEL program isn’t an afterthought, but an integral part of the school day. In kindergarten, kids learn about feelings and practice managing emotions through play. As they get older, students are analyzing literature and history using an SEL focus, case studies and role-plays. Overall, says Barbara Luther, associate director of professional development with the Character Education Partnership, a quality SEL program “merges the content areas of history, literature, and other classes with life skills such as inquiry, active learning, reflection, and awareness of self and others.”

SEL Programs Improve More Than Social Skills.

Social and emotional learning not only helps kids work together, it also improves achievement. A Collaboration for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) study of more than 700 programs found that if a school implements a quality SEL curriculum, they can expect better student behavior and an 11 point increase in test scores. The gains that schools see in achievement come from a variety of factors—students feel safer, SEL programs build work habits in addition to social skills, and kids and teachers build strong relationships. The relationship component is important, says Luther, building relationships with their students may help teachers be more effective.

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