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University of Minnesota Extension

Social and emotional learning (SEL)

What it is

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

Why it matters

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

SEL skills are also associated with decreases in

  • 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 such as

  • Self-control
  • Empathy
  • Teamwork
  • Problem-solving
  • Perseverance

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.

We organize our SEL trainings and toolkit around four strategies that youth programs can use to increase their intentional support of SEL:

  • 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)

Tips for program staff

  • 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.

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Reviewed in 2022

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