Social and Emotional Learning in the Context of Education

Ayah Abdo, Aryanna Brown, Joelle Koresky, Megan McMahon, and Sara Michie


Please cite this page as:

Abdo, A., Brown, A., Koresky, J., McMahon, M., & Michie, S. (2022, April 1). Social and emotional learning. Classroom Practice in 2022. Retrieved [date], from

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a framework that is crucial for both education, as well as for continual individual development. It is a process in which individuals learn how to better manage their stress, emotions, behaviour, achieve their goals, exercise empathy, create relationships and make informed decisions. Through SEL, people are aware of the way their words and actions may affect people and learn to make decisions and regulate emotions that are best for themselves and those around them. In the context of education, SEL can be fostered in both the classroom, as well as schoolwide and in partnership with the community. To do this, the five competencies of SEL must be practiced in every aspect of the classroom or school, not simply in the core subjects. It must be the groundwork for the classroom environment and present itself in different ways through both social and educational opportunities. To begin to see how SEL can be fostered in the classroom and school community, the core competencies must be reviewed first. The five competencies of SEL are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

The Five Competencies

The first competency is self-awareness. Self-awareness is one’s ability to understand their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. With self-awareness, one is able to recognize one’s strengths and weaknesses as they are aware of their social and personal sense of self through the development of self-efficiency. The second competency, self-management, consists of one’s ability to manage their emotions, feelings, and behaviors. This includes implementation strategies to manage stress and reach desired goals that one may set for themselves. An important aspect of this competency is having good organizational and planning skills, as this contributes to better self-discipline and management. The third competency is responsible decision-making. This consists of one’s ability to make thoughtful choices regarding personal and social interactions. This includes the consideration of safety and ethics in decision making as well as reflecting and evaluating the effects of one’s actions. The fourth competency is relationship skills. Relationship skills regarding SEL include being able to create and maintain relationships that are healthy and supportive for all members involved. This competency entails active listening, clear communication, seeking help when needed, and displaying leadership skills. Further, relationship skills in SEL involve the individuals resisting peer pressure, being open to different social and cultural demands, and standing up for the rights of others. The fifth competency is social awareness. Social awareness is the ability to empathize with others. This includes people with diverse backgrounds. This also includes the quantities in which they feel sympathy for others with their social norms in a different setting. Social awareness includes things such as putting yourself into someone else’s shoes, expressing gratitude, understanding the influences that different organizations have on people and recognizing strengths and weaknesses in others.

SEL: An Important Investment

Research from the Friendzy foundation has demonstrated that there is increasing demand in jobs that require individuals to have mastered the skills of social-emotional learning. This is because SEL and its five competencies are considered valuable and highly transferable skills, and make the individual an asset to any team. With a mastery of social-emotional learning, individuals are more successful as they can easier problem-solve, make responsible decisions, regulate stress and emotion, and work well with others. Therefore, it is vital for educators to be implementing the SEL framework into their classrooms as these skills are important for the future success of these students.

What Does the Research Say?

Looking at the effectiveness of social and emotional learning, research has found that there are many benefits to the implementation of this framework. As Molly Lawler concludes in their article, “Mindfulness and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)”, on an individual level, the implementation of SEL in schools promotes empathy, emotional regulation, and helps children develop and meet short and long-term goals. This framework is a holistic approach that encourages children to understand the consequences of their actions, and how others may feel about their behaviour. Due to this, SEL moves from simply being an effective approach to a preventative approach as well. Divecha and Brackett wrote on this in their article titled, “Rethinking school-based bullying prevention through the lens of social and emotional learning: A bioecological perspective.” It should be noted that the implementation of SEL in schools has been proven to reduce school-wide bullying, aggression and violence, as well as increase academic success in students. Henceforth, there are many positive aspects to SEL and conclusive research on why we should be adding SEL into the day-to-day routines of the classroom.

Conversely, one of the main critiques of social-emotional learning, as posed by Brittney Herbert in her work, “The impact of social-emotional learning through the lens of our educators” is that it may overlook students with trauma, disabilities, or more severe mental health issues. This is due to the fact that SEL is an overarching framework that can be applied to the entire environment, such as the whole classroom or a school-wide approach. However, educators may fail to apply it on the individual level to more vulnerable students with additional needs. As well, these students may fall between the cracks if social-emotional learning is the only approach used. This problem can be avoided if SEL is applied alongside other interventions, such as a trauma-based approach, or a Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Therefore, although SEL has many benefits, the framework in itself may not be able to help students requiring additional support or assistance, and should be used in combination with other, more targeted approaches to help each individual student succeed.

Research on SEL

Looking for further research on the effectiveness of social and emotional learning? Click here to explore more statistics and findings on the framework.

Social-Emotional Learning in Relation to EDUC 5202

Building relationships

In an article titled “The central attributes of connectedness with teachers from the students’ perspectives,” Irene García-Moya discusses the importance of student-teacher relationships to the healthy development and wellbeing of the students. Social-emotional learning in the classroom is critical for building relationships. On CASEL’s “Guide to Schoolwide SEL,” they discuss the concept of building effective relationships with students, and touch on how the teacher should incorporate activities and lessons that engage the students in aspects of SEL, such as managing emotions, developing empathy, establishing healthy relationships. Irene García-Moya also states that students in who feel more connected with their teachers are more likely to confide in them and ask for help. Further, these students tend to show through their overall performances in the classroom, that their teachers have a powerful impact. This directly correlates with SEL as it shows that students are less reluctant to share and expose their emotions to teachers who they have better relationships with. Further, an important concept covered in the class lecture includes the topic of reflexivity and how important it is in relation to building relationships. Dr. Catherine Vanner discusses how reflexivity is the constant process of becoming, and reflecting on your practice as a teacher, and identifying personal areas for growth. As teachers, if we can deeply reflect on ourselves and constantly model growth, we will be able to better teach SEL to our students.


Curriculum Connections

As covered in the class lecture, there are various types of curriculum, including explicit, hidden, null, and extra or co-curricular. With the current push of social-emotional learning in schools, this framework has moved from being a null curriculum (what has not been taught) to a much more explicit curriculum (what is taught). Looking at The Ontario Curriculum, many subjects, such as the new 2020 mathematics curriculum, incorporate SEL as part of the mark students will receive for that subject. In the case of mathematics, SEL means that children are learning to problem-solve and manage stress while working individually and collaboratively on various problems. However, aside from the explicit mentions of SEL in the curriculum, it may also be hidden, in which students are learning social-emotional skills without the direct instruction of it. If students are required to work in groups to create a science presentation by the end of a period, they are indirectly learning to make decisions, problem-solve, manage their stress, and plan alongside others in a collaborative manner. This indirect learning of SEL may also be seen outside the classroom, touching on extra-curricular curriculum, as after-school activities help children develop pro-social skills and emotional regulation. Therefore, the implementation of SEL is very embedded in all types of the school curriculum.


Moving towards Safe and Healthy Schools & Inclusivity

Bullying can be detrimental to the safety and health of a school community. When considering moving towards safe and healthy schools, SEL is an important factor. In the article, “Bullying prevention and intervention in the school environment: Factsheets and tools”, Dr. Debra J. Pepler and Dr. Wendy Craig discuss bullying and the Whole School Approach. This approach looks to dismantle bullying on a school-wide level by working with all members of the school including the students, staff, parents/guardians and community as a collective, and has been seen as the most effective approach to preventing bullying and promoting healthy relationships. An important component of this approach is social-emotional development. CASEL states that families, communities and schools play a large role in supporting children’s social-emotional development, and that it should be incorporated into aspects of their daily lives inside and outside of the classroom. Specifically, having learning activities that promote understanding of differences, inclusion and positive leadership are essential bullying prevention activities. By promoting positive relationships in and outside the classroom, all children and youth can be engaged in bullying prevention. Students who bully others tend to have problems with externalizing behaviour, social behaviour and negative attitudes towards others. Having a sense of belonging in the school environment including connectedness and engagement at a school-wide level has been a protective factor for victimization and bullying and lead to more prosocial behaviour. Effective bullying prevention includes teaching students SEL competencies, having all staff endure training and setting policies and procedures regarding behaviour expectations which can in turn lead to a safer and healthier school setting.


Managing the Classroom

In the article titled “Implementing SEL in the classroom: A practitioner’s perspective” by Charley Todd and colleagues, they examine the five SEL competencies and its effective impact on the students as they are proven to decrease the frequency of conduct issues in the classroom. The article also suggests the SEL model benefits the students in their ability to identify their emotions which leads to a better understanding of our wants and needs leading to better conflict resolution skills. By implementing the SEL model into the classroom, specifically self-awareness, educators would be able to do this implementation throughout their development of classroom management. In Kristin Sayeski and Monica Brown’s article titled, “Developing a Classroom Management Plan Using a Tiered Approach,” they suggest the Response to Intervention (RTI) model. The RTI model is made up of three-tiered approaches that use data to assess the students, monitor their progress as they receive targeted intervention, and identify the students who are in need of support. Sayeski and Brown classify the second tier of intervention as first-line intervention, where teachers evaluate their service management techniques and reinforcement strategies. In this tier, self-awareness is a vital SEL competency that educators should encourage students to use and implement when the students are taking part in the reinforcement strategies that the educator has implemented in the classroom to promote positive classroom behavior to effectively manage the classroom. For example, if the teacher has implemented a token strategy, students are becoming more aware of their behavior and following the desired behavior. As the RTI is further implemented in the classroom, students become more aware of their behaviors as educators are monitoring their behavior. The students then begin to become more aware of their emotions and behaviors throughout the year of the methods used for classroom management.


Social Justice

There are many ways that SEL relates to social justice. Social justice looks to confront inequality. The framework can consequently help to dismantle social inequality as it allows students to practice empathy and look at things from the perspective of students who may be facing oppressive barriers. Teachers can implement SEL practices, such as teaching empathy, through posing scenarios in the class that allow children to see their privilege without singling out marginalized students. Additionally, SEL asks children to look at how their words and actions may hurt or offend other students, such as using racialized stereotypes. Teaching students to treat others with respect and think before they speak will ultimately allow them to make caring decisions that work to avoid hurting or oppressing their fellow peers. Rather, it will empower students to take part in social justice movements and push for equality and safety for all. The integration of SEL also promotes a school climate where everyone feels respected and supported. If implemented correctly, a student entering kindergarten will move through each grade with a consistent sense of feeling cared for, as well as caring for others. The goal of SEL should be for all students to stand up for another, care for each other, and work together to eliminate adversity.

Integrating SEL into the Classroom

Lastly, when effectively integrated in the classroom, the social and emotional learning competencies have proven to show a beneficial impact on the students. Therefore, educators must understand how to properly integrate the framework. The competencies can be integrated in several different ways in the classroom. For example, the first competency of SEL is self-management. Charley Todd and colleagues, author of “Implementing SEL in the classroom: A practitioner’s perspective”, suggests an example of using color zones or wheels in the classroom to help students manage and identify their emotions. The color wheel consists of four different colors, each representing a different emotion. Red represents emotions that are hard to manage (i.e. anger or rage), yellow represents intensified emotions (i.e. silliness or worry), green represents more neutral emotions (i.e. happiness or calmness), and blue represents more somber emotions (i.e. sadness or tiredness). Teachers can implement the color wheel for the class to use to check up how students are feeling throughout the day and implement use of the colors to identify their emotions as that is a step to being able to manage their emotions. This leads to the development of the second competency, self-awareness in the classroom. In the article “Establishing systemic social and emotional learning approaches in schools: a framework for schoolwide implementation”, Eva Oberle and colleagues discuss adult-modeling as an effective method to integrate self-awareness into the classroom. This means having the educator demonstrate the competency of self-awareness in front of students so that they can see the skill in practice. While in class, the educator could discuss their personal and social identity to the students, identify their feelings and values, demonstrate a growth mindset, and examine their prejudices and biases. Specifically, the educator may identify their emotions out loud using the color wheel. The third SEL competency, responsible decision-making, can be implemented in the classroom through various activities. An example of this is implementing a “What would you do?” exercise that allows students to practice their decision-making skills. In this activity, students are to be given a problem that they might find themselves in, and as a class or in groups, students can collaboratively come up with a solution using the steps of conflict resolution. Heidi Malloy and Paula McMurray outline these steps into five different steps in their article, “Conflict strategies and resolutions: Peer conflict in an integrated early childhood classroom”: identify the problem, analyze the situation, solve the problem, consider ethical responsibility, and evaluate and reflect. Integrating the fourth SEL competency of relationship skills can be done by reading picture books that relate to relationships, and then having a student-led class discussion about what occurred in the story. For example, in the article, “Incorporating Picture Books: Is the SEL Curriculum Enough for Our Students?” Jessica Pysarenko, a fifth grade teacher, found success in reading the book “We Are All Dots: A Big Plan for a Better World” by Giancarlo Macri and Carolina Zanotti. This story utilizes the simple concept of dots to exemplify the importance of community. Following the reading of the story, the students discussed what happened throughout the book and the importance of collaboration. As a result, she found her students were more apt to work with other students in the classroom regardless of their differences. Lastly, the fifth SEL competency is social awareness. In their article on Restorative Justice, Kristen Reimer implies that social awareness can be integrated into the classroom by doing listening circles. With this activity, educators would split up students into small groups of four or five students and provide them with the space to practice vulnerability with one another; a way of emotional therapy for them. By having students participate in an activity as such, students are able to look at the different perspectives of their classmates as well as recognize their strengths, emotions, and practice vulnerability.


To conclude, integrating social-emotional learning into the classroom is a vital aspect of children’s learning, growth, and development. Each of the five competencies of SEL contributes individually towards students learning to manage their stress, emotions, behaviour, achieve their goals, exercise empathy, build relationships and make informed decisions. Further, teaching SEL in the classroom relates to many course concepts from Classroom Practice. SEL helps with building relationships, can be seen in different parts of the curriculum, increases classroom safety and inclusivity, betters classroom management, and can counteract social justice issues. Overall, there are various noteworthy benefits to the SEL framework as a whole. It can be easily adapted and incorporated school-wide and into the classroom through curriculum and day-to-day practices, and in doing so, educators will see the encouragement of empathy and emotional regulation, the ability to reach goals and the reduction of adversity in the school.


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Classroom Practice in 2022 Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Catherine Vanner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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