Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Connecting SEL to Academic Outcomes

Skills that students develop in social and emotional learning—empathy, collaboration, and so on—are closely connected to standards in many academic subjects.

December 7, 2020
Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for American Education

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is sometimes perceived as being just one more thing heaped on educators’ plates, but it’s truly valuable—in small, frequent doses, it helps bring about many valued outcomes.

Let’s take a look at four subjects—visual and performing arts, social studies, health, and English language arts—to see how SEL skills are connected to desired outcomes in these subjects.

Visual and Performing Arts (VPA)

The standards for VPA define four artistic processes: creating; performing, presenting, and producing; responding; and connecting. As students create art, they need to understand their own feelings, and be organized enough to engage in the creative process. Presentation requires students to consider the point of view of potential audiences, and have the emotional control and resilience to deal with high-pressure situations and with setbacks. Responding and connecting involve accepting feedback constructively, as well as being able to give insightful feedback to others in constructive ways. These are all SEL skills that are implicit in VPA success.

Instructional implications: Help students understand the process of how the art they are studying was created. What were the artists’ purposes? What was their context? Who supported them? What challenges did they encounter? How did they respond? Encourage students to brainstorm different approaches before starting projects. Have them consider how different artists might approach the same project. Teach them to analyze what it is about artistic creations that elicits specific emotions in them, as well as to look at the flow of emotions in such things as musical compositions, theater, dance works, and the like.

Social Studies

The National Council for the Social Studies notes that “the primary purpose of social studies is to help young people make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.” Understanding the public good and working toward collaborative solutions requires perspective taking and empathy; making informed and reasoned decisions in a civic context requires students to have systematic instruction in decision-making strategies that include constructive and persistent responses to obstacles.

Civic involvement will take place in groups and requires skills in working with others. Without sound SEL competencies, the emotional and intellectual challenges of civic engagement are far more likely to be frustrating than attractive. Those who wish to help students have constructive engagement with peers now and throughout their adult lives should focus strongly and intentionally on students’ SEL skills.

Instructional implications: Reaching the goals of social studies requires numerous SEL competencies that can be built into daily instruction: listening to others’ opinions while managing one’s emotions; respectful debate that includes multiple perspectives; empathic understanding of social issues; and group participation skills for working on committees and meaningful involvement in student government.


We’re all born with certain attributes that relate to our health and in life situations that give us access to more or fewer health resources. Yet regardless of the extent to which those attributes and situations provide challenge or potential, health is related to choices that people make. These decisions occur at multiple levels, such as societal decisions about health insurance, pricing of prescription drugs, and availability of care; family choices about how to use resources for nutritious food or rent or heat; and individual choices about smoking and use of drugs or alcohol, exercise, sleep, and eating habits. It’s also important to know how advertising, media, and peer pressure influence health decisions. Having strong SEL competencies in ethical decision-making and problem-solving skills and knowing our own feelings are vital for optimizing health, and students gain from learning to make good choices with regard to all aspects of their health.

Instructional implications: Teach students a consistent strategy across all health issues that gets them in the habit of thinking about consequences of actions to themselves and others, short term and long term. It’s also essential for students to learn how to manage emotions of uncertainty and to delay gratification. SEL programs teaching explicit problem-solving strategies and emotion regulation will be synergistic with health instruction.

English Language Arts

The ELA Common Core State Standards ask students to read fiction and also nonfiction texts that provide facts and background knowledge in areas such as science and social studies. Students should be challenged and asked questions that push them to refer back to what they’ve read. This stresses critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills that are required for success in college, career, and life.

In discussing new research on text complexity and its practical implications, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association note: “While the complexity of reading demands for college, career, and citizenship have held steady or risen over the past half century, the complexity of texts students are exposed to has steadily decreased in that same interval.” The solution: “increasing the complexity of texts students read as a key element in improving reading comprehension.”

The report does not acknowledge the emotional consequences of students suddenly being confronted with complex texts. Teachers can help by teaching students to manage emotions of frustration and anxiety and to problem-solve how to find meaning among strings of words that initially make little or no sense.

Instructional implications: SEL abilities are implicit in the problem-solving process of decoding and extracting meaning from text, as well as mastering the emotional challenges of sticking with words and passages one does not understand, rather than giving up or being satisfied with a superficial grasp of material. Instead of saying a student is a poor reader, or doesn’t understand science or math, observe more carefully how the student interacts with text. It will often be SEL skills that need to be strengthened so that reading comprehension, especially with complex texts, can improve.

The same analyses can be applied to any other subject area, from PE to math to vocational education topics. Educational standards often implicitly assume that students have SEL competencies, leading to misattribution of achievement difficulties as subject area deficiencies. While the latter exist, academic improvement across the curriculum would be aided vastly by systematic instruction in SEL.

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