What is Social Emotional Learning?

Sep 19th, 2017 | Category: Columns, The Counselor In the Classroom
By Israel Espinosa

Lupe, a middle school student, lingers after class in her science classroom before heading to her gym class. Her teacher, Mr. Patel asks her if everything is ok. Lupe explains that she is having problems with her friends due to false rumors that involve a boy that her friend has a crush on. Lupe believes that the situation may lead to an altercation with her friend. Mr. Patel encourages Lupe to come up with different methods of handling the situation. Lupe is able to identify several strategies that involve tactful, yet non-confrontational approaches to speak with her friend and communicate her concerns and feelings. Lupe settled on a specific strategy and Mr. Patel encouraged her to touch base with him later that day in order to let him know how things turned out.

Each day students are faced with real-life situations that may have an effect on their learning and well-being as well as the learning and well-being of their classmates. This example demonstrates the opportunities that educators and students have to communicate and promote growth in the development of “personal and interpersonal skills we all need to regulate ourselves, our relationships, and our work effectively and ethically” (O’Brien & Resnik, 2009). Specifically, situations such as these allow children the chance to calm themselves if they are experiencing frustration and confusion, make friends, resolve conflicts respectfully, and make ethical and safe choices. This is the opportunity Social Emotional Learning (SEL) creates.

“What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?” This is often the first question some educators ask as a new set of standards and responsibility was placed on teachers in the state of Illinois in 2003. Many of my colleagues in secondary education have often commented that they are now being asked to be counselors as they are made to feel responsible for a student’s conduct. While there is a shift in the thinking of social and emotional learning in the classroom, it is important to note that the standards are not expecting educators to be counselors. On the contrary, the SEL standards serve as a process whereby children and adults develop essential competencies. These abilities are fundamental for both teacher and student as they provide a capacity to integrate skills, attitudes, and behaviors to deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges (Bouffard & Weissboard, 2013) According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) these competencies include, self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (CASEL, 2013).

SEL itself is a process by which children develop awareness and management of their emotions as well as set and achieve important personal and academic goals. It utilizes social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships. Importantly, it assists children in demonstrating appropriate decision making and responsible behaviors to achieve school and life success. The Children’s Mental Health Act is landmark legislation that has significant potential for assisting school systems achieve their goals and has been nationally recognized for its impact on school improvement and success for its inclusion of all students (Beland, 2007; O’Brien & Resnik, 2009). The essence and purpose of the act is to ensure that Illinois schools “(a) regard social and emotional learning (SEL) as integral to their mission and (b) take concrete steps to address their students’ social and emotional development” (O’Brien & Resnik, 2009). This is in turn has provided the promotion of positive school environments. These examples include evidence based SEL classroom instruction, more challenging and engaging curricula, and the ability to infusing SEL concepts throughout the regular academic curriculum (Weissberg & Cascarino, 2013; Jones, Bouffard, & Weissboard, 2013). Other examples as in Lupe’s situation lead to engaging students actively and experientially in the learning process during and outside of school, opportunities for participation, collaboration, and service for both students and teachers, and the ability to establish a safe, supportive learning community with respectful relationships and trust. Moreover, it has been found that SEL strongly promotes the involvement of families and surrounding the community (Jones, Bouffard, & Weissboard, 2013). Lastly, research has demonstrated that SEL improves academic outcomes. In a study by Durlak,et. al. (2011) increases in multiple areas consisting of skills, improvement in attitudes about self, others, and school, and improvement in prosocial behavior were seen in students. A reduction in problem behaviors and emotional distress were noted. An increase in in standardized achievement test scores were also noted in math and reading.

What is fascinating about SEL is that it brings us into the 21st Century in terms of the skills it promotes that are essential in our modern multicultural world. Students are reinforced to utilize critical thinking, problem-solving, ethics and social responsibility, communication (Partnership for 21st Century Skills, 2007). Effectively, they learn to apply teamwork and collaboration, demonstrate leadership, global awareness and self-direction. In the world of business, these are critical competencies to have in order to be an effective leader. Goleman (2000) demonstrates in a Hay/McBer analysis of data on 3,781 executives was correlated with climate surveys from their employees and 50-70% of employees’ perceptions of the working climate was linked to the emotional intelligence characteristics of the leader. The importance that is placed on the social and emotional learning is essential to the future of our students. LEJ


Beland, K. (2007). Boosting social and emotional competence. Educational Leadership, 64(7), 68-71. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, (2013). 2013 CASEL guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs-Preschool and elementary school edition. Chicago, IL Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Taylor, R.D., & Dymnicki,

A.B., Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review, March-April.

Jones, S. M., Bouffard, S. M., & Weissboard, R. (2013). Educators’ social and emotional skills vital to learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(8), 62-65.

O’Brien, M.U. & Resnik, H. (2009). The Illinois social and emotional learning (SEL) standards: Leading the way for school and student success. Building leadership: Illinois Principals Association bulletin, 16(7), 1-5.

Partnership for 21st Century Skills. (2007). The intellectual and policy foundations of the 21st Century Skills Framework. October 2007.

Weissberg, R. P. & Cascarino, J. (2013). Academic learning + social-emotional learning = national priority. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(2): 8-13.

Author Information

Israel Espinosa holds a degree of Doctor of Psychology, and is an Associate Professor of
Psychology at Concordia University Chicago. Previously Dr. Espinosa served as the vice president
of programs and quality at Methodist Youth Services, and supervisor of counseling services
at Arden Shore Child and Family Services. His research interests are multicultural counseling,
assessment and art therapy. Currently, Dr. Espinosa is examining the mental health effects of
deportation on families of deported immigrants.