Social and emotional learning (SEL)
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What it is and why it matters
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults:
- Understand and manage emotions
- Set and achieve positive goals
- Feel and show empathy for others
- Establish and maintain positive relationships
- Make responsible decisions
SEL skills include being able to:
- Identify and deal with emotions
- Take the perspective of and build relationships with others
- Negotiate conflict
- Make constructive choices
These skills are important in their own right, and they are linked to other student gains, such as
- Improved academic achievement and classroom behavior
- An increased ability to manage stress and depression
- Better attitudes about themselves, others, and school
- Dropout rates
- Drug use
- Teen pregnancy
- Mental health problems
- Criminal behavior
There is increasing recognition that graduating from high school and being prepared for college and career requires a skill set that extends beyond traditional academics. Eight out of ten employers say SEL skills are the most important to success and yet also the hardest skills to find. The overwhelming majority of administrators (96%), teachers (93%) and parents (81%) believe that SEL is just as important as academic learning. Finally, From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope—a 2019 landmark report from a blue-ribbon commission of educators, policymakers, civic and business leaders, parents, students, and scholars—finds that the promotion of social, emotional and academic learning is not a shifting educational fad: it is the substance of education itself.
SEL and youth development programs
Youth development programs are in a unique position to support social and emotional learning. In these programs, young people
- Engage in real-world projects
- Work in teams
- Take on meaningful roles
- Face challenges, and experience the accompanying emotional ups and downs
This makes youth development programs a natural space for young people to learn, practice and reinforce a range of skills like
Program staff have an influential role in the social and emotional learning of young people—they model it, they design projects and activities to support it—but it doesn’t happen by accident. There are things staff can do increase the chance that youth develop social and emotional skills.
- Equipping Staff to understand SEL, attend to staff’s own SEL competencies and cultural values, consider how their program supports SEL
- Creating the Learning Environment to establish expectations, give feedback, integrate reflection and emotional management
- Designing Impactful Learning Experiences -- program activities to help youth practice and develop various SEL skills)
- Using Data for Improvement -- reflective activities and tools to gather feedback and track change)
Learn more about SEL
Start with yourself. Program staff need to know themselves and to hone their own SEL competencies before they are ready to help support SEL skill-building with young people.
Check yourself. Remember that cultural values and personal identity are linked to SEL. They shape how we define success, which varies across the youth and families we serve.
- Be brave. SEL skills can help foster courageous conversations that equip our young people to be changemakers ready to confront injustice and inequity.
- Be aware. While staff can support SEL for all youth, they need training and strategies in conflict de-escalation, trauma and mental health for young people who are struggling.
- Be intentional. It’s important to be able to describe how and why your program supports social emotional skill development. See Mapping SEL.
- Be responsive. Beyond designing programs to support SEL, consider how staff respond in the moment to SEL skill-building opportunities. See Responsive Practices.
- Not sure where to start? Try our Readiness Inventory.
Kate Walker, Brandi Olson and Margo Herman
This toolkit is a flexible set of practical tools, templates and activities that can be used with staff and youth to increase intensional practices that support social and emotional learning. It was developed to go along with the 3-hour training, Social and Emotional Learning in Practice and related issue briefs. 2017.
Perspectives on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) from Out-of-School Time (OST) Leaders in Minnesota
Kate Walker, Dale Blyth and Tim Sheldon
This poster presents results from an online survey of over 900 leaders in the out of school time field. The survey taps their perspectives on social and emotional learning, its importance, its assessment, barriers, current efforts in this area, and which dimensions of SEL are considered most important. 2014.
Natalie Rusk, Reed W. Larson, Marcela Raffaelli, Kate Walker, LaTesha Washington, Vanessa Gutierrez, Hyeyoung Kang, Steve Tran, Stephen Cole Perry
Organized youth programs provide opportunities for adolescents to develop life and career skills while working on real-world projects, such as planning community events or creating public service announcements. In this chapter, the focus is on adolescents’ development of skills for managing emotions. 2013.
Margo examines the relationship between youth program quality improvement and intentional efforts around program design - all to support the development of social and emotional skills. Margo defines and gives examples of youth program quality and SEL in order to understand the distinction between the two and how they can support each other.
Gina McGovern and Haviland Rummel
Michael Rodriguez and Eric Moore
This symposium focused on local SEL data and efforts to help inform Generation Next's key action strategies to achieve its newest goal towards helping every child be socially and emotionally equipped to learn.
This webinar explored SEL and what it means for after school programs and adults supporting youth. Participants learned about a newly developed Ways of Being model that conceptualizes SEL and integrates available evidence, as well as practical strategies to promote SEL in their work.
Reed Larson, Lisa Bouillion Diaz and Natalie Rusk
This symposium focused on promoting social and emotional learning in youth program settings. You'll learn about recent, path-breaking research on how youth learn skills such as strategic thinking and emotional management, and what strategies experienced leaders use to facilitate this development.
To fully address youth's learning and gaps in academic performance, we need to redefine educational excellence in a global society. At this symposium, Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz shares a framework for creating a rigorous inclusive environment with a diverse community. He discusses how to reframe the concept of equity issues from a deficit approach to an asset-based approach by identifying the skills young people gain from their diverse life experiences and translating them into success within and beyond the classroom.
Gil Noam and Kimberly Schonert-Reichl
Explore what communities have actually done to measure youth more holistically and how they've used data at the neighborhood, school and program level to enhance social and emotional learning. This symposium is not about what to measure, but about the opportunities that emerge when measuring social and emotional learning, as well as strategies for addressing the challenges that arise. May 6, 2014.
Dale Blyth & Kate Walker
There is increasing evidence that social and emotional factors are critical to young people's success. There is, however, little agreement on which factors to assess or how best to support their development in either school and out of school programs. Learn about one state's initiative to build broader understanding of these factors, their importance and the status of assessing them in practice and policy. 2014.
Dr. Roger Weissberg
Dr. Weissberg shares recent research and proven strategies of how families, schools and communities are strengthening social and emotional skills as an essential part of every young person's learning and development. 2013.
This peer-reviewed series of issue briefs, funded in part by Youthprise, is designed to help people understand, connect and champion social and emotional learning in a variety of settings and from a variety of perspectives. Please direct questions and suggestions for future issue briefs to the managing editor, Kate Walker.
Jodi Dworkin and Joyce Serido, February 2017
Assessing Social & Emotional Skills in Out-of-School Time Settings: Considerations for Practitioners
Dale Blyth and Kyla Flaten, November 2016
Margo Herman and Dale Blyth, June 2016
Jeff Walls, June 2016
Dale Blyth, Kyla Flaten & Timothy Sheldon, April 2016
Susan Beaulieu and Kathryn Sharpe, July 2015
Amber Shanahan, June 2015
Peter Bauck, M.Div., April 2015
Dale Blyth, Brandi Olson & Kate Walker, January 2017
Dale Blyth, Brandi Olson & Kate Walker, January 2017
Cari Michaels, M.P.H. and Elizabeth Hagen, M.A., July 2014
Elizabeth Hagen, M.A., May 2014
Kate Walker, Ph.D. and Elizabeth Potter, M.S., April 2014
Megan Olivia Hall, March 2014
Elizabeth Hagen, M.A., Nov. 2013
Elizabeth Hagen, M.A., Nov. 2013
Youth programs can effectively and intentionally support SEL through equipping staff, paying attention to learning environments, designing impactful learning experiences and using data to improve practices.
This training suite will help you design programs to support SEL, recognize and respond to unexpected opportunities to learn and practice SEL skills, and apply resources and activities from our SEL toolkit.
3-hour foundation workshop for program leaders and direct service providers
Develop strategies to introduce SEL opportunities and growth into your program.
Advanced workshop for program teams of 2-3 staff, offered in 3- or 6-hour format.
Develop a deeper understanding of how your existing program aligns with SEL skill building.
3-hour advanced workshop for direct service providers and programs leaders
Practice responding to unplanned situations, integrating cultural responsiveness and supporting SEL through unexpected conversations and challenges.
Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymnicki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development: 82 (1), 405-432.
Kautz, Heckman, Diris, Bas ter Weel, & Borghans. (2014). Fostering and measuring skills: Improving cognitive and non-cognitive skills to promote lifetime success. Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Cunningham, W., & Villasenor, P. (2016). Employer voices, employer demands, and implications for public skills: Development policy connecting the labor and education sectors. Washington, DC: World Bank Group.
McGraw Hill Education 2018 Social and Emotional Learning Report
Reviewed in 2019