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Ask the Education Coach: What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Education expert Anoo Padte offers her advice

Anoo Padte

Published on: March 30, 2017

Young girl with pencil

What do you think of when you hear “social-emotional learning?” Do you see young children in a warm, secure classroom, learning to share, take turns, “use their words” and express their emotions? That’s part of the picture — social-emotional learning is a cornerstone of healthy early childhood development — but its impact extends well beyond the early years. 

Here’s an “official” definition of social-emotional learning, per the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL): “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.”

What’s this mean in layman’s terms? The facets of SEL can be broken down into several specific competencies identified by CASEL:

  • Self-awareness, or "the ability to recognize one’s own emotions." In my experience, teachers foster self-awareness by acknowledging students’ emotions and by taking them seriously.
  • Self-management, or "the ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions in different situations and being able to organize oneself to pursue a task." Self-management is developed by offering students vocabulary for sharing feelings and practices for managing them (deep breath, relaxing activities and mindfulness practices are common). Self-management goes beyond healthy emotional expression. Masterful teachers recognize that even little children can have strong reactions to mistakes and challenges. In such situations, they help students break down tasks, plan their work and take small, steady steps towards accomplishing a goal. This cultivates healthy learning habits and a positive mindset. 
  • Social awareness, or "the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others." Alongside being able to recognize one’s own emotions is the ability to recognize and respond to emotions in others. Emotion coaching offers learners with language and helpful empathetic responses. 
  • Relationship skills, or "the ability to establish and maintain healthy relationships with diverse individuals and groups." Teachers foster this by intentionally pairing learners, offering lessons that invite perspective taking and service opportunities that broaden students’ understanding of people’s lives.
  • Responsible decision-making, or "the ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety and social norms." This facet touches on the ultimate outcome of strong social-emotional coaching. Ultimately, well adjusted individuals make decisions based on ethical thinking and a strong sense of responsibility. Teachers foster such decision-making by coaching students, offering lessons on social dilemmas and by making learning real-world.

So why does SEL matter? For one thing, new research shows that it has significant impact on fueling academic success. 

Take this 2011 analysis of 213 different schools that offer SEL programs to a total of 270,034 kindergarten through high school students. The analysis showed an 11 percent gain in students’ academic outcomes compared to students who did not participate in SEL. This meta-analysis has led the way in establishing a link between social-emotional learning and academic outcomes. 

The analysis is supported by the work done by researcher, author and MacArthur "Genius" Grant recipient Angela Duckworth. She’s pioneered research on “grit,” or, as she defines it, “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” Grit, she says, is more critical to success in life than IQ. How’s that connect with social-emotional learning? Grit is rooted in self-management. You can’t successfully regulate emotions or organize enough to pursue a task without it.

So what’s a parent to do with all of this information? I recently completed a survey of leading social-emotional programs including MindUp, Second Step, Emotion Coaching guidance from the Talaris Institute and Positive Discipline. My findings: You can use these common at-home practices to foster social-emotional growth:

  • Start with yourself: Cultivate practices for slowing down, noticing your own emotions, taking responsibility for them and sharing them using rich emotions vocabulary.
  • Listen, connect and empathize: Take your child’s emotions seriously, don’t judge them (no matter how exaggerated they seem) and be willing to see from your child’s perspective.
  • Problem solve together, offer appropriate limits: Partner with your child to solve a problem, offer solutions that apply in different situations and offer age-appropriate limits.
  • Foster self-efficacy: Have faith your child’s capacity, offer challenges just outside the child’s reach, share tools and lots of encouragement, help your child become self-reliant and self-motivated.
  • Process not product: Focus on the process of addressing a challenge not on the outcome or results, break the problem down and see mistakes as integral and essential to learning.
  • Get to know your child’s interests: Make time to connect with your child on her turf, with her interests — and yes, that means visiting places, engaging in experiences, listening to music and checking out media you are not interested in.

If that seems like a lot, don’t sweat it. The most effective SEL practitioners stay attuned only 30 percent of the time. If you can do only one thing, do this: Start with yourself. 

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