December 2017
Volume XIV Issue XII


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Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning

Bruce Oliver

Bruce Oliver, the author of Just for the ASKing!, lives in Burke, Virginia. He uses the knowledge, skills, and experience he acquired as a teacher, professional developer, mentor, and middle school principal as he works with school districts across the nation. He has written more than 150 issues of Just for the ASKing!  He is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.


It would be safe to say that the primary focus of teachers in planning carefully-designed lessons and units is addressing the knowledge and skills found in the standards of learning. As they prepare they review the learning goals, check the pre-assessment data, and select instructional materials. They are then ready to lead a complete academic experience for their students… but maybe not.

A further examination of the lesson plans might reveal a missing element. What would make the lessons more all encompassing would be to plan with the whole child in mind. More specifically, teachers should take into account the social and emotional needs of their students and integrate actions that would make learning more complete for everyone. Stated another way, they need to also consider the concept of social-emotional learning (SEL).
I was familiar with the concept in general but, I decided to investigate it in more depth. My first step was to jot down questions that would provide me with a more in-depth knowledge of SEL:

What exactly is social-emotional learning (SEL)?
What are the origins of the SEL movement?
What does the research on SEL reveal?
Why is SEL relevant, especially in today’s classroom?
What impact does SEL have on academic achievement?
What student behaviors does SEL address?
What is the future of SEL?

Read on to see what I learned.

According to, social-emotional learning includes social skills 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 relationships, and make positive decisions. Joan Duffell, executive director of the Committee for Children, summarizes the definition this way: “These are the skills that allow children to calm themselves when angry, make friends, resolve conflicts respectfully, and make ethical and safe choices.”

In an article titled “What is Social Emotional Learning?” Samantha Cleaver reminds us that SEL is more than just classroom management and the development of social skills. In a school in which SEL is purposefully included from day one, it becomes an integral part of the day’s lesson; it is not just an afterthought. The basic principles of SEL are merged into the content areas so that they become continually reinforced. When topics such as relationships and emotional processes are incorporated into lessons, it can affect how students learn. As a result, there may be a reduction in misbehavior giving teachers more opportunity to address teaching and learning.

SEL is not new. In fact, it can find its origin in ancient Greece. In The Republic, Plato “proposes a holistic curriculum that requires a balance of training in physical education, the arts, math, science, character, and moral judgment. By maintaining a sound system of education and upbringing, you produce citizens of good character.” In the United States, academicians in the 1960’s began investigating how the psychosocial development of children impacted academic achievement. Yale University became the hub for SEL research in the 1980’s when serious research began on SEL.

The focus soon moved to the development of a framework to incorporate social and emotional learning in schools. Emotional competence, as it was called, included a complete understanding of feelings and how to manage them along with delayed gratification, controlling one’s impulses, and reducing stress. In 1994, CASEL (Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning) was formed which led to conferences, further research, the promotion of healthy choices, and stronger connections within the school community. In 1995, Daniel Goleman published Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ which shed additional light and advanced conversations within the education community. In more recent years, the work of CASEL has expanded and its influence has grown to the extent that the group has promoted grants to give schools opportunities to increase the inclusion of SEL in schools.

The fundamental beliefs supporting SEL have received increased attention in recent years. In her Edutopia research review in 2012, Vanessa Vega wrote about five SEL competencies that proponents had identified as being important in student success: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Vega found that when teacher planning included the above ingredients, student academic performance improved. In addition to enhanced learning, researchers also identified additional benefits that could be realized from SEL inclusion in lessons including the following results:

  • Reduced aggression and personal distress among students
  • Improved student behavior and better attitudes toward self and others
  • Reduced time spent by the teacher on classroom management issues
  • Strengthened teacher-student and student-student relationships
  • Increased student persistence in the face of challenges

Researchers have agreed that SEL skills can be taught to students, but in order for SEL inclusion to derive the optimum benefits, schools need support through policies at the local and/or state level. SEL implementation will also be more effective when families and communities are involved in the process. Although teacher training in SEL can lead to greater success, there is no reason that individual teachers cannot include the basic ideas around SEL in their day-to-day lessons and unit plans.

A CASEL study of more than 700 programs found “that if a school implemented a quality SEL curriculum, they can expect better student behavior and an 11 point increase in scores.” A general review of research in 2017 concluded that SEL programs not only increase academic success and better behavior, they also resulted in a reduction of substance abuse. Further, the incorporation of SEL concepts for young children (including pre-school students) led to a reduction of emotional distress, greater ability to pay attention and follow directions, improved persistence in tackling challenging tasks, and greater enjoyment of school. In a nutshell, the integration of “social emotional competency development” along with other learning goals will allow students to focus on thinking and doing along with feeling and relating.

A September 2017 headline in Education Week read: “Scientists to Schools: Social, Emotional Development Crucial for Learning.” The article summarized a year of work by 28 scientists in which they determined that SEL and academic learning should be “intertwined.” Their conclusion can best be summed up this way: “Students who have a sense of belonging and purpose, who can work well with classmates and peers to solve problems, who can set goals, and who can persevere through challenges – in addition to being literate, numerate, and versed in scientific concepts and ideas – are more likely to maximize their opportunities and reach their full potential.” In their analysis the scientists grouped the skills that students needed to be successful in school into three categories:

  • Cognitive skills which included such functions as attention control and flexibility, having a solid working memory, and a solid sense of self as it relates to personal learning
  • Emotional competencies that help students to deal with frustration, recognize and control emotions and understand the emotions of others
  • Social and interpersonal skills includes the ability to read social cues, resole personal conflicts, work well in a team, and showing compassion and empathy for other individuals.

In addition to helping students realize greater success in an educational setting, SEL can also be beneficial in students’ lives after they finish their formal schooling. Studies have found that students who have experienced SEL may have more positive mental health, higher rates of high school graduation, productive employment, reduced risky behavior and increased civic engagement. Because they have participated in social-emotional learning settings, students have had the opportunity to develop skills necessary to meet the emerging realities of work with adaptability and resilience. In an October 2017 posting, iNACOL (International Association for K-12 Online Learning) forecast that SEL could have long-range impacts on students when they enter the world of work. In an article titled, “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness From the Inside Out,” they predict that “developing core social-emotional skills will be essential for helping people navigate uncertainty and rapid change. “ The article continues, “We will need to develop our uniquely human skills to distinguish ourselves from and work effectively alongside smart machines partners, navigate changing employment structures, and reskills and upskill frequently.”

Hunter Gehlbach at the University of California in Santa Barbara published an article in October 2017 in Education Week in which he addressed the importance of not overwhelming teachers with “another new idea.” The article, titled “With Social-Emotional Learning, Keep It Simple,” focused on three core competencies of the social-emotional learning movement that can be presented to teachers that would be achievable but modest interventions that could lead to greater students’ success without being too taxing for teachers. Gehlback recommends three actions that can improve learning while taking into account students’ personal well-being. His three competencies are as follows:

  • Social Connectedness – Actively building relationships with students and helping them improve their connections with their fellow students
  • Motivation – Provide simple motivational strategies such as showing students the value of the work they are doing, giving them options to achieve content goals, or improving their personal feelings of competence to boost their achievement
  • Self-regulation – Helping students to select goals, choose effective study strategies, and focus their attention on the achievement of those goals.

Gehlback provides three questions a teacher can ask if students are struggling:

  • How healthy are this student’s relationships?
  • What goals is the student pursuing?
  • What are the student’s self-regulatory strengths and weaknesses?

Heather Clayton, my Just ASK colleague and author of Making the Standards Come Alive is a firm believer in the power of social-emotional learning. As the principal of an elementary school, she is helping her teachers merge SEL with the required teaching standards to produce exciting and engaging lessons. Their school has adopted the Formative Five that are empathy, persistence, optimism, resilience, and flexibility as part of their overall curriculum. Heather and her teachers are examples of schools across the country that are making SEL a vital part of the development of the whole child.



Resources and References


Bierman, Karen, Mark Greenberg, and Rachel Abenavoli. “Promoting social and emotional learning in preschool: Programs and practices that work,” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, May,2017.

Blad, Evie. “Scientists to Schools: Social, Emotional Development Crucial for Learning,” Education Week, September 13, 2017.

Cleaver, Samantha. “What is Social Emotional Learning?” September 3, 2013.

Gehlbach, Hunter. “With Social-Emotional Learning, Keep It Simple,” Education Week, October 24, 2017. teachers-can-find-the-time-for.html.

Prince, Katherine. “The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” Knowledge Works, June 12, 2017.

_____________ . “Why the Increased Focus on Social-Emotional Learning,” iNACOL, October 17, 2017.

“Social and Emotional Learning: A Short History,” Edutopia, October 6, 2012.

Vega, Vanessa. “Social and Emotional Learning Research Review,” Edutopia, November 7, 2012.




Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Making the Case for Social-Emotional Learning.” Just for the ASKing! December 2017. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2017. All rights reserved. Available at