Social-Emotional Learning: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination…and It Begins with Us - Action for Healthy Kids
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Social-Emotional Learning: It’s a Journey, Not a Destination…and It Begins with Us

 by Ashley Green,
Senior Program Manager, Social-Emotional Health  

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is quite the buzzword. Over the past several years, there has been a lot of attention and focus paid to SEL—and rightfully so! But simply doing a handful of activities each year or hanging posters about it isn’t going accomplish the ultimate goals of SEL, which include building lifelong skills—and engaging in constant practice—around developing healthy and positive identities and interpersonal relationships. SEL must be woven into the fabric of education, both at school and at home, with adults role modeling these actions and behaviors. In order for growth to happen, it also involves taking a deep, sometimes uncomfortable look at the foundation of what makes us…us.

Defining SEL: What is it?

Social-emotional learning is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. (CASEL) 

  • Similar to the physical and cognitive development that children and adolescents experience, their social and emotional development is just as critical to the building blocks of who they are as a person. The process of social-emotional learning takes place throughout the lifespan and contributes to the knowledge; attitudes; and ability to develop healthy relationships, pro-social behaviors, self-confidence, empathy, and more.  
  • The foundational SEL skills are just that – the foundation of social-emotional health. These skills, which include the 5 CASEL competencies, are self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills, and social awareness. By learning these skills and repeatedly applying them in new and diverse settings, both children and adults start to refine their ability to recognize and regulate their emotions, collaborate and connect with peers, set goals and take actions to meet them, better grasp the consequences of their actions and more.  
  • As we get older and begin to understand and apply such skills in more complex ways and be put in more complicated situations with peers and other adults, whether it be navigating new challenges in relationships or managing the drive to gain more independence, these same foundational skills ultimately become the base of risk behavior prevention. 
  • Through the continued application of the CASEL 5 competencies, children and adults alike begin to refine personal attributes and characteristics that define who we are. Through these skills, we become caring, collaborative, empathetic, and confident members of our communities, contributing our own unique and diverse skills and perspectives to those around us.  ​ 

The bottom line? Social-emotional learning is for all of us, and it’s a part of everything we do.

What the Research Says   

Not only does SEL benefit kids in profound personal ways that help them tackle life’s problems and traumas with healthy strategies, it also benefits their learning. CASEL found that student participants in robust SEL programs showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement. But the key to SEL success is that the adults must be trained in it first. SEL pioneer Marc Brackett noted that “adult development before child development” needs to happen in order for it to work and begin benefitting everyone. Other research agrees: 35% of teachers who leave the profession say the reason is due to problems with student discipline, classroom management, and student mental health, but the data shows that when teachers receive training in the behavioral and emotional factors that impact classroom management, they feel better equipped to promote a positive school climate. According to CASEL, “More than a decade of research tells us that teachers who have knowledge about child and adolescent development are better able to design and carry out learning experiences in ways that support student social, emotional, and academic competence and enhance student outcomes.”

It Begins with Us 

There are endless ways to support social-emotional learning, from creating safe and supportive learning environments that provide access to spaces and materials that promote autonomy and self-regulation to curriculum instruction and experiential learning. We can create sensory spaces in every classroom, practice mindful breathing, and teach SEL skills in lessons and activities, but social-emotional learning is multi-faceted and complex—and it begins with us.  

It requires us to look within ourselves and become aware of what we are good at (and not so good at) and opportunities to grow so that we can identify SEL practices that support our unique needs. For children to be healthy and happy learners, they must feel safe and supported through a nurturing relationship with a trusted adult. How do we become nurturing adults while also balancing work, family, finances, and other aspects of daily life? By taking time to nourish ourselves. Adults can develop social-emotional skills by prioritizing self-care, building healthy relationships, and discovering and practicing ways to better manage stress and different emotions. We can’t pour from an empty cup. As we fill ours, we can better support our children by modeling these skills in action and creating a space where they feel empowered to do the same.