Download Now: The Social-Emotional Curriculum Checklist

In education, we love acronyms, and one hot acronym right now is SEL.  You may have heard of SEL standards or SEL curriculum, or even embedding SEL into your lesson plans.  But, what exactly is SEL?

SEL stands for “social and emotional learning.”  The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “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”.   If you have been in a classroom with children or adolescents for any length of time, you do not need research to convince you that these skills are important.  Students who fail to complete and turn in assignments are not making responsible decisions.  Students who have conflict with peers often fail to show empathy for others.  Students who have outbursts in the classroom have not learned the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions.  Our practical experiences point to the need for students to develop social-emotional competencies.

And, our practical experiences are supported by research.   Neuroscience points to the links between cognitive tasks and emotion.  Studies show that students exposed to SEL programs had, on average, a 13% academic advantage compared to students not participating in such programs.   Furthermore, negative behaviors, such as substance abuse, bullying, or violence are reduced when schools make concerted efforts to develop social-emotional competencies.  Some might argue that implementing SEL programs for students take away from valuable academic time or are not cost effective.  In addition to the links between social-emotional competence and academic achievement, SEL programs have been shown to produce an 11:1 return on the investment.

Schools have worked to implement SEL programs in a variety of ways.  Some do purchase curriculum materials specific to SEL.  Other schools work to study SEL competencies and discuss how they can be built by embedding the learning into existing programs and activities at the school.  If you are ready to start a conversation about the importance of social-emotional learning in your school, the CASEL framework for social-emotional competencies is a good place to start.  The framework outlines five broad competencies:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Skills
  • Responsible Decision-Making

With each of these broad competencies, specific skills are highlighted, such as accurate self-perception (self-awareness), teamwork (relationship skills), and goal-setting (self-management).  CASEL even provides schools and districts with a priority-setting questionnaire to gauge readiness for implementing an SEL program.

Why should schools improve social emotional competencies?

In an era of standardized testing and accountability, it is easy to forego a focus on building social-emotional competencies in students.  We think we don’t have time because we need to focus solely on academic tasks.  Yet, the research is clear that students who are competent in these skill areas—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—do better academically.  Finding ways to incorporate social-emotional learning and building student competencies in this area will not only improve their academic achievement, but will serve them well as they navigate through life for years to come.

Download Now: The Social-Emotional Curriculum Checklist


CASEL.  (2017).  SEL impact.  Available:

CASEL.  (2017).  What is SEL?  Available:

National Education Association. (2017).  Backgrounder: The importance of social emotional learning for all students across all grades.  NEA Education Policy and Practice Department.  Available: