There have been a lot of conversations lately about social-emotional learning, but the term isn’t universally understood. So, with the help of OCDE’s Educational Services team, we’ll dive into what social-emotional learning is — and what it isn’t.

Social and emotional learning, or SEL for short, refers to the life skills that we use in our interactions with others (social) and within ourselves (emotional). These skills include managing our emotions, developing positive relationships and making responsible decisions, all of which are essential for success in school, work and life.

SEL isn’t a fad or even a new concept in education. In fact, it’s been around for decades, and research on the benefits of SEL has been conducted for over 30 years. 

The term social-emotional learning was first coined in 1994 when the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, was established. CASEL’s work translates scientific findings into effective school-based practices that support student and adult social-emotional growth.

The group’s framework, known as the CASEL wheel, is shown below. At the center are five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The blue rings that surround them are how and where the competencies can be supported.

A graphic that shows how social and emotional learning works. It can be found at

CASEL defines social and emotional learning as the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to:

  • Understand and manage emotions
  • Set and achieve positive goals
  • Feel and show empathy for others
  • Establish and maintain positive relationships
  • Make responsible decisions

In other words, it’s about developing the essential skills that help students succeed in school and navigate their lives. The CASEL framework promotes the concept of families and schools working together to support children’s academic goals, safety and mental well-being. With that in mind, here are a few common questions about SEL.

Isn’t social-emotional learning a distraction, taking time away from academics? 

Social-emotional learning is not detached from learning. It’s actually part of the learning process, and it’s been proven to boost academic performance and deepen engagement with content. 

Research shows that schools that incorporate social and emotional learning score, on average, 11 percent higher on standardized tests than schools that don’t. They also have greater student engagement and motivation, as well as fewer suspensions, disciplinary referrals and classroom disruptions — not to mention increased teacher morale, motivation and retention.

When you have students who are in class and engaged, while being taught by motivated, inspired teachers, you have increased achievement. Students who have stronger social-emotional skills are also more likely to graduate high school, enroll in and graduate college, and be career-ready. In fact, the majority of the top 10 career skills identified by the World Economic Forum (2020) all involve social-emotional skills. 

Educators want students to work cooperatively in groups, turn work in on time, listen actively and demonstrate integrity. Social-emotional learning brings those skills to the forefront and develops them by integrating them into the curriculum and school activities. As both students and adults practice and reflect upon skills like demonstrating a growth mindset, perspective-taking and compassion, it creates a culture of excellence and belonging that makes teaching and learning more effective and productive. In the long run, the research suggests it doesn’t require more time; it saves time.

Is social-emotional learning therapy? 

Social-emotional learning is not therapy. And while social-emotional learning and mental health are related, they are not synonymous terms. 

Social-emotional learning supports positive mental health in many ways. By promoting responsive relationships, emotionally safe environments and skill development, social-emotional learning develops “protective factors” to prevent mental health risks. Schools are key in teaching students these skills and in providing opportunities where they can be practiced.

Consider the analogy of how students receive health lessons on the food groups, the benefits of regular exercise, and how to read a nutrition facts label. These are lessons that equip students with knowledge that will hopefully prevent them from needing to see a registered dietician or nutritionist when they are older.

Both social-emotional learning and mental health education build student knowledge and skills at each grade level and teach them how to maintain and improve their health, prevent illness and develop healthy attitudes and behaviors. They include the ability to practice life skills such as managing emotions and stress, dealing with conflict, making responsible decisions, developing good character, and building resilience during difficult times.

Educators are already responsible for supporting social-emotional skills within a school, and a school-wide social-emotional program supports them with these responsibilities. Educators are expected to model skills such as managing one’s emotions, communicating effectively and setting personal goals as leaders. This, coupled with their backgrounds on cognitive development and knowledge of their students, makes them uniquely qualified to teach these skills. And social-emotional instruction supports them in meeting the needs of all students in an intentional, developmentally appropriate way. 

Is social-emotional learning a way to teach students a specific political agenda?

Social-emotional learning is not political, and decisions around implementation should be co-created and shaped by local priorities set by schools, families and communities. 

Communication, empathy and perspective-taking are crucial for productive conversations in a complex world. Students and adults need to lean into skills that will help them reflect on and communicate their own perspectives, listen to others with vastly different viewpoints, and work together toward common ground. According to a 2022 survey released by the National PTA, more than three-quarters of parents support their children learning social skills like respect, cooperation, perseverance and empathy in schools.  

Families certainly have the primary responsibility to teach social and emotional skills, but schools also have a shared responsibility because students arrive with different developmental levels of social-emotional skills.

Schools aim to equip students with the skills necessary to be productive, responsible and prepared citizens. That means they must meet students where they are and extend their skills. If a student learns responsibility, they will arrive to class curious, complete work and study for the test. If a student is respectful, they will listen in class, support their peers, and demonstrate empathy. It is essential that these skills are taught and reinforced at school to support what parents are teaching at home. 

A Coordinated Effort

After years of research, the benefits of social-emotional learning are well documented. But knowing what something is doesn’t fully paint the picture of what its absence would imply. Imagine a school without social and emotional learning. It would be a place where:

  • Not all students have the chance to develop practical skills that prepare them for their careers and lives. 
  • Not all students have a trusted relationship with an educator to turn to for help when they struggle with academic content. 
  • Students are lonely, anxious, isolated or bullied.
  • Teachers don’t have the tools to engage students and manage their classrooms.
  • Parents don’t feel welcome in the school.

Social and emotional learning is most effective when it is a coordinated effort that involves all school community partners. When implemented effectively, it can empower students with the skills they’ll need to succeed in school and in life.