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What is SEL?

Marco is a 2nd grader attending his neighborhood school in Watsonville, California. The son of a Mexican family who immigrated to the United States, he is constantly afraid that his parents will be deported back to Mexico. Sheila is a middle school student in a rural community. She wants to become a doctor, but she has a difficult time with high-stakes assessments. During tests, she gets paralyzed and can’t remember the content she carefully studied. Carolina is a sophomore in high school. She feels overwhelmed with all the homework she needs to do every night, on top of going to soccer practice and piano classes. She feels like quitting almost daily.

Do these stories sound familiar? As an educator, you have probably worked with students that were constantly on high alert, struggled in stressful situations or felt overwhelmed. As a parent, maybe one of these students sounds like your child. Emotions are part of the human experience, and it is our responsibility to help students develop their social and emotional capacity.

Social Emotional Learning or SEL is a process through which students, and also adults, learn and practice important life skills that are needed for success in college, professional careers and life in general. These individual skills, normally known as social and emotional competencies, include recognizing and managing our emotions, developing caring and concern for others, establishing positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and handling challenging situations constructively and ethically. Social and emotional competencies also include intercultural competence and understanding, and social responsibility.

Currently, there is a multitude of frameworks that organize and define these competencies. For example, you may be familiar with the 5 dimensions of SEL provided by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), character strengths by Character Lab, Building Blocks for Learning from Turnaround for Children, Six Seconds’ EQ model or the Developmental Assets Framework from the Search Institute. These are just a few examples. If your school is already implementing an SEL curriculum, you may be using that language to talk about these skills. No matter which framework you use, it is important that you—administrators, educators, and families—have a common language to discuss and understand these skills for your own context.

In a review of 136 social and emotional competency frameworks, the American Institute for Research found out that fewer than 20% consider culturally and linguistically diverse individuals and groups; fewer than 20% consider the experiences of youth with disabilities; and just under 6% of frameworks acknowledge trauma experiences. This means that most frameworks do not contemplate the social and emotional competencies of all learners. Therefore, it becomes necessary that schools and educators pay attention to the particular needs of the students they serve, and how the school’s chosen framework fits in with those needs. If there are gaps, find additional resources to enrich and improve your SEL program and practices.

The Five Social and Emotional Competency Clusters by CASEL

Self-awareness – “I am able to identify and communicate how I am feeling”

Self-awareness is recognizing one’s emotions and values as well as one’s strengths and challenges, and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.

It means that you can identify: emotions and feelings; strengths and how to use them; relationship between feelings, thoughts and actions; judgment and biases; and level of optimism. For example:

Self-managementI can appropriately navigate my feelings”

Self-management refers to managing emotions and behaviors to achieve personal and academic goals.

It means that you can demonstrate: regulating one’s emotions; stopping/pausing between stimulus and response; having resilience in the face of challenges; setting healthy boundaries; and setting and monitoring personal and academic goals.

Social awareness – I care about and respect the individual differences of others”

Social awareness is showing understanding and empathy for others.

It means that you can demonstrate: perspective taking; active listening; awareness of strengths in self and others; cultural responsiveness; empathy; and recognizing resources.

Relationship skills – “I can handle conflict in constructive ways”

Forming positive relationships means being able to work in teams, and deal effectively with conflict.

It means that you can demonstrate: listening and communication skills; conflict resolution skills; seeking help; building relationship; and working cooperatively.

Responsible decision-making – “I can predict how my behavior affects others”

Responsible decision-making refers to making ethical, constructive choices about personal and social behavior.

It means that you can demonstrate: evaluating realistic consequences of different actions; making constructive, safe choices; basing decisions on safety, social and ethical considerations; recognizing one’s responsibility to behave ethically; and considering the well-being of self and others.

In addition to developing students’ individual competencies, SEL is also a tool that guides the social and emotional factors in the context that influence learning. For example, the leadership and management style of school administrators and staff impacts the type of learning environment that is created in schools. When principals are warm with students and approachable to families, it is more likely that they will feel welcome in school. If you want more information about leadership development for school administrators, check out this post. At the same time, the rules and protocols that schools put in place to address students’ misbehavior will influence the learning environment that is created at school. For instance, restorative justice focuses on building relationships and repairing harm, rather than simply punishing students for misbehavior. In schools that incorporate restorative practices, when people make mistakes or cause harm, restorative interventions help these students or adults understand the impact of their actions, heal the harm, and restore the community.

Ready to start? Check out the following posts to get you started on SEL implementation and get in touch if you have any questions.

Whole School Approach to SEL

The Secret Sauce for SEL

Getting Your Principal to Support SEL


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