What is SEL?

What is SEL?

Jaclyn Siano

In the past, education was seen solely as an intellectual journey where children absorb knowledge about the world that surrounds them. Today, it’s much more than that. Thanks to scientists who work in the field of human development, we began to understand how psychology and mental health affect academic success and life skills in general. In turn, educators began to adapt their practices in an attempt to provide a more positive educational experience for everyone.

There’s no doubt that we’ve come a long way from when students were seated for hours at a time while being told they have to memorize factual information by heart and never question the teacher's words. Nevertheless, there’s always room for improvement. One way to take the school's curriculum to the next level is to introduce social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom. Is this just the latest trend or an actual revolution that will gradually transform classrooms? Why should educators learn what SEL is?

Today, we’ll try to answer these and other questions concerning SEL. We’ll explain not only what SEL is, but why it’s important, and how it can benefit both students and educators.

Defining SEL

SEL stands for social-emotional learning which is an educational practice that aims to integrate social and emotional skills into the school’s curriculum. In other words, SEL is a methodological framework that teaches students skills beyond pure intellect, such as understanding and regulating emotions, practicing empathy, reflecting on one’s identity and learning how to become a better person.

While mainstream school subjects teach students how to develop intellectual skills and abilities through math, science, chemistry, history, biology, and other subjects, SEL introduces techniques through which students learn social and emotional skills and abilities.

After all, we live in a complex society in which we can only survive by cultivating relationships with other people in the community. In order to thrive, we need to not only understand ourselves, but others, too. Of course, understanding how the world works is important, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. The other piece of the puzzle is learning how everyday interactions with other people will induce both positive and negative emotions. Being aware of the function and nature of these emotions will help children to integrate into society more successfully, build better relationships, and handle life challenges in a more mature way.

Social Emotional Learning — Words Alive

The Five SEL Elements

To better understand what SEL is in practice, let’s break down the core components that make up SEL’s methodology. 

The five main components of social-emotional literacy are:

  • Self-awareness;
  • Self-management;
  • Social awareness;
  • Relationship skills;
  • Responsible decision-making.


As the name suggests, self-awareness encompasses knowledge and skills that relate to the self, or the person’s own identity. More formally, self-awareness is the ability to reflect, focus on ourselves, and understand how our actions, thoughts, and/or emotions affect our behavior, both toward ourselves (self-perception) and other people (interpersonal relationships).

Children with high self-awareness skills and abilities can easily reflect on their own actions and intercept their behavior more objectively. In practice, this means that children will know why they feel certain emotions and understand why they react with certain behaviors.

There are two states of self-awareness: public self-awareness and private self-awareness. The former is the awareness of how we appear to others or how our behavior is perceived by other people. The latter is the awareness of who we actually are. It’s a more intimate knowledge, and one’s self-image may or may not be in alignment with one’s public self-awareness.


Self-management is a step further than self-awareness. This implies that children must have self-awareness to be able to master the skill of self-management, which is the ability to regulate our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions in a productive way.

The most common example of self-management is self-discipline and the ability for children to delay instant gratification to achieve a goal. Psychologist Walter Mischel’s most famous experiment, one that left a profound legacy in the field of developmental psychology, was about self-management. The famous “Stanford Marshmallow Experiment” provided children a choice between one small but instant reward, or two small rewards if they waited for a longer period of time. The interesting part about the experiment was that it was designed as a longitudinal study, meaning researchers followed up with the children who participated over the years. The results revealed an outstanding discovery. Children who were able to delay gratification and wait for the second reward were the ones who later got higher SAT scores, better jobs, lower substance abuse, lower likelihood of obesity, and overall greater life satisfaction. 

To put this in perspective, children who can self-manage their behavior and emotions have better chances of succeeding later in life.

Social Awareness

Social awareness, or social consciousness, is the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, cultural background, or life choices. It also encompasses skills that allow children to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, while still being flexible and respecting others who might adhere to different social norms.

Sometimes in psychological literature, social consciousness is referred to as collective self-awareness or a collectively shared social identity of a group of people.

This type of awareness is a skill that helps children understand how they fit into their community, what’s their role in society, and how they might contribute to the social group they identify with and want to be part of.

Thanks to social awareness, children can understand the difference in behavior and interactions at home with family, at school with teachers and peers, and at informal gatherings with friends. This is a fundamental ability that allows people to build strong and close relationships with other people - a major factor in a happy and fulfilling life.

Relationship Skills

Speaking of interpersonal relationships, the fourth component of social-emotional learning aims to provide children with the knowledge and ability to communicate and bond with a range of people in healthy ways.

There are three keywords here: communication, diversity, and healthy relationships.

Communication skills refer to strategies and resources that help children learn how to clearly express themselves, express their thoughts and feelings coherently, as well as listen to others and identify the true intent behind one’s behavior or message.

Diversity underlines the ability to build and maintain different types of relationships. To give you an example, this includes relationships with parents, siblings, teachers, other authority figures, peers, colleagues, and partners (romantic relationships). Children need to understand and distinguish their emotions toward different people in their lives.

Finally, healthy relationships underline an ability to set firm boundaries, regardless of the nature of the relationship. This means that one needs to have self- and social awareness to be able to successfully recognize and establish appropriate behaviors toward and from others.

Responsible Decision-Making

Last but not least, responsible decision-making is a set of skills that allow children to make constructive choices about their own behavior, as well as social interactions with others based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. 

These skills depend on children’s understanding of consequences, or to be more specific, how and why various actions have such consequences. To give you one example, let's say that a child feels hungry and thinks about the sandwich in their backpack while they're in class, but chooses to wait for their lunch break and eat in the cafeteria. We can say that is a responsible choice based on their understanding of the consequences of eating during class. While this is a very simple and trivial example, we can easily extrapolate this ability to other more fundamental choices.

Realistically evaluating the consequences of their own, as well as others’, actions is one of the ultimate goals of SEL. 

The Basics of Social-Emotional Learning for... | GGSC

Why Is SEL Important?

By now, it has become clear why social-emotional learning is an important aspect of children’s education, but nonetheless, let’s summarize the main benefits of integrating SEL as part of the school’s curriculum.

  1. SEL Helps Children Achieve Higher Academic Success

If we ask ourselves and think about the most common reasons why children struggle with academic performance, get bad grades, or have a negative attitude toward school (example: “School is stupid!”), we’ll probably come up with a number of reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the children’s intelligence. In other words, children have the potential to succeed academically, but their emotions, inner conflicts, poor interpersonal relationships, or negative social and emotional experiences in school stand in the way. 

One way to look at SEL is as a personal development framework, which means it targets all these aspects mentioned above. It teaches children about time management, goal-setting, priorities, decision-making, and support through healthy relationships which affect the motivation, attitude, and ability to learn academic material.

  1. SEL Promotes Teamwork and Leadership Skills

Thanks to SEL, students will learn how to collaborate with their peers and colleagues. They’ll also learn how to make smarter decisions and take an initiative that aligns with their long-term goals. This will also allow them to recognize opportunities for growth and have the courage and confidence to seize such opportunities.

Another aspect that improves is how students handle challenges. Thanks to self- and social awareness, students can learn to delegate school responsibilities among themselves, by knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses. That way, through mutual support they can tackle difficult tasks.

  1. SEL Helps Students’ Emotional Well-Being

Knowing where one stands in society or one’s close community and how they improve their societal position is a major factor that influences students’ emotional well-being.

Building close and strong relationships, as well as identifying with peers one’s age is crucial for the positive psychological development of children and adolescents. Through SEL’s many strategies and resources for understanding and developing interpersonal relationships, students will be happy, satisfied, and enjoy a better quality of life.

  1. SEL Promotes Prosocial Behavior and Empathy

Beyond being happy and emotionally satisfied, thanks to SEL, students will learn how to be responsible and active citizens in society. They won’t shy away from taking initiative because they’ll have a better understanding of social and ethical norms, meaning clearly distinguishing right from wrong.

Understanding other people also promotes empathy, which means children will respect the people around them and handle conflicts in a more mature way. 

All of this leads to prosocial behavior, which means the students’ actions will benefit others by helping, cooperating, comforting, sharing, and donating. Such behavior also serves as a great source of inspiration for other people in the community. In other words, students with high social-emotional literacy usually end up being role models of a better society.

Key Findings Regarding SEL

We can also glance at SEL’s benefits through the numerous research studies that aim to investigate the effectiveness of this framework.

According to a study by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) organization, students who participated in SEL programs improved their academic performance by 11 percentile points, improved their classroom behavior, and showed an increased ability to manage stress and depression compared to students who did not participate in the study.

At the end of the study, CASEL researchers concluded that around 27% more students would improve their academic performance while 24% would improve their social behavior.

The Committee for Children reports similar findings. According to their research, SEL is responsible for:

  • 42% decrease in physical aggression among students;
  • 20% less bullying by students with disabilities;
  • 5–12% decrease in school dropout rates associated with SEL;
  • 79% increase in fundamental skills that are viewed as “the most important qualities” for job success;
  • 13% increase in academic achievement with SEL.

Before You Leave

There’s so much more we could discuss about SEL, but for now, we hope that our article answers all of your questions concerning the nature and importance of SEL as part of the school's curriculum.

Going forward, we advise that educators and educational institutions start to slowly acknowledge the role of social-emotional skills in students’ development, personal growth, and academic success. This will hopefully open the doors to embracing and gradually integrating inclusive practices where social and emotional skills are some of the main goals of formal education.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, we suggest a light reading on emotional intelligence by researcher Marc Brackett. His book titled, “Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive” is a valuable resource to educators and administrators of academic policies who want to avoid overwhelming and stressful classrooms.

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