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Student Wellness 101: A Social and Emotional Learning Primer

Updated: Nov 2, 2022

According to a recent Department of Education Report (2021), the gaps that existed before the COVID-19 pandemic - in access, achievement and outcomes - are widening.

The same research indicates that nearly all students have experienced challenges to their mental health and emotional well-being during the pandemic for a variety of reasons: lost access to school services, isolation, parent job loss and similar.

Taking a back seat to other K12 initiatives prior to the onset of Covid, social-emotional learning (SEL) assessment and related services have transitioned quickly from a ‘Nice to have’ to a ‘Must have’ for the majority of districts across the country.

What is social-emotional learning (SEL)?

Developed and defined by the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “SEL 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.”

The easiest way to grasp what SEL means is to take it out of the context of a class or course of study and view it for what it is at its core - a collection of classroom (and school) cultural practices designed to infuse inclusiveness, joy and curiosity into the learning process. Beyond academic-related skills, SEL focuses on helping students with the following to develop critical skills to success:

  • Realize self-efficacy (‘I can reach a goal I set for myself’)

  • Foster a growth mindset (‘I can improve myself with effort’)

  • Develop self-regulation (‘I can manage my emotions, thoughts and behaviors’)

Why does social-emotional learning matter?

Ultimately, learning takes place on an emotional level. According to Robert Sylwester (A Celebration of Neurons, 1995), “emotions drive attention which drives learning, memory and just about everything else.” Emotions also have ‘memory’ – just as a memory of a joyful event or experience can bring a smile to one’s face, the opposite is true as well. It could become an impediment to future success without proper support and guidance for students who’ve experienced trauma, depression, loss, or family upheaval.

What does evidence-based SEL look like in the classroom?

CASEL lists five interrelated competencies that impact relationship and achievement: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

CASEL's wheel of social and emotional learning

Grounded in CASEL’s five competencies, successful SEL programming helps students develop their skills with structured supports and targeted instruction to navigate and manage better emotions, set goals, practice making good decisions and foster positive relationships.

CASEL provides links to hundreds of evidence-based programming options to assist schools in formal instruction of SEL practices. Check out their free Program Guide to get started.

In addition to packaged curriculum, however, teachers can integrate daily classroom activities designed to help students reach the goals laid out in social and emotional learning competencies. Here are a few samples from that list.

  • Tell students routinely why you, the teacher, feel happy/optimistic about their future

  • Routinely encourage middle and high school students to reflect and analyze in journals or pairs to share how their thoughts and emotions affect decision making and responsible behavior

  • During a lesson, talk about how you motivate yourself when you need to

  • Discuss characters in literature or figures in history, how they felt and why they took certain actions or behaved the way they did

  • Have students research and report on informal and formal community resources

  • Use interactive teaching strategies (cooperative learning, project-based learning) to provide students with opportunities to develop and practice positive social communication skills

What are some social-emotional learning frameworks?

Many schools typically adopt shared standards (via local or state directives) with regard to assessing SEL competencies. There is a mix of direct (student-demonstrated), indirect (student self-survey) and anecdotal-observational assessments. Age-appropriate expectations provide a framework for knowing which competencies should be assessed/present within the various ages of development.

Given the potential losses and disruptions to everyday life students may have experienced over the past 18 months, the need for districts to implement SEL assessments and programming is perhaps more important than at any point previously. SEL programming sets out to provide students with the knowledge and skills to help them better navigate their ever-changing social and emotional landscape.

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