George Lucas Educational Foundation

Social Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning

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In my role as a school coach and graduate level instructor, I work with a lot of schools and a lot of teachers. No matter where I am- rural, urban, elementary, secondary- and no matter what topic we're discussing, we come back to the same big idea:

In order to be truly successful, there are things kids need to know that go BEYOND the curriculum. How can students learn to be fully developed citizens and human beings, able to function not only from an intellectual perspective (which can be challenging enough!) but also from an empathetic, visceral place?

The question isn't new- much of what currently falls under the heading of Social-Emotional Learning can actually be traced back to Socrates admonishment that one must "Know thyself." But is "knowing myself" a trickier proposition in the 21st Century? Should schools and teachers be responsible for supporting the social and emotional development of their students and, if so, how can we do so without sacrificing content knowledge? If not, whose job is it? And what will be the cost if we *aren't* attentive to this aspect of education?

I can't wait to hear what you're thinking!

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Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

What a great conversation! I'll have to be honest- I was hoping that we'd agree that it was schools' job to teach SEL, since that's the position I hold as well. As far as the how? Well, again, I'm biased since I work with a group of teachers who've been developing and evolving a system to do just this since the mid- 1980's ( I agree with Becky that it takes a safe space to start with- we begin with the creation and maintenance of the Collaborative Learning Community.

The specifics of how we teach it combine problem-based learning with clear, observable behaviors that align with the skills we're trying to teach. So "collaboration" looks and sounds like this and, while we're solving this content-based problem together, we're going to practice being good collaborators, using those descriptors to determine whether we are or not...

I've seen it work- and I'm sure it's not the only model out there. It's just the one I like best. :-)

Tracy Mendham's picture
Tracy Mendham
College Learning Specialist and Academic Advisor

As a teacher, I do think it's my responsibility to pay attention to social-emotional learning. I work at the college level, and at that age we think more about teaching strategies than skills, so I think and talk about students having positive social networks, or if I'm being really geeky, personal learning networks. I think almost any workshop I teach can benefit from working a strand of social learning in, and it doesn't always have to take away from the rest of the content. Often all I have to do is stop assuming that students are learning alone and that they don't need any support or discourse as they pursue their studies. Then I'll remember that, for example, the workshop on mobile apps for students should include a mention of Facebook (or any communication method, really) for informal study groups. What good is anything else I teach in a course if the student doesn't have a friend he or she can ask at 11 o'clock at night for the misplaced syllabus?

Lissa Albert's picture
Lissa Albert
Cyberbullying Awareness, Social Media, Cybersafety Expert

As an educator who teaches about cyberbullying, social media and the link between the two, I believe very strongly in critical thinking skills. Kids believe (almost) all of what they see on the Internet or in text messages, and this leads to their belief in the bullying they may be experiencing as well. We all know that abuse victims commonly believe they have done something to deserve what they are experiencing; bullying victims are very much the same way.

We must teach kids not to believe everything, and that when people say something, it is not always true. Perhaps if we can teach them critical thinking skills, it will help them to combat the low self-esteem they develop when hearing the same taunts and abusive language they hear from the bullies they encounter.

As well, it is a hugely important skill in social media; I cannot count how many times I have played "internet police" for adults on my Timeline, correcting their reposting of free gift cards, cruises, Apple products etc...these scams are sometimes harmless but much of the time, they tap into the user's personal information and can leave them vulnerable.

Social media is here to stay; rather than eschew or warn against it, it is time teachers embrace and teach its benefits. Not only for students, but to inform best practices, curriculum planning, and reach out across the world to enhance teaching experiences the way we never used to be able to do!

Allison Upshaw's picture

"80% of what we teach is who we are." I heard this quote first from Eric Booth at the 1st International Teaching Artists Conference in Oslo last year. For me, this was a reminder that my socio-emotional health is the biggest factor in what my students learn in that area among others. That is true with my work at the collegiate level as well as the elementary level. It many not be my responsibility as a teacher but, I feel it is my responsibility as a concerned citizen to see that the youth I interact with are the most well rounded individuals they can be and that part of that comes about because of their interaction with me.

Terry Baker's picture

A professional school counselor can teach these skills as part of a comprehensive guidance and counseling program. We teach a curriculum that includes personal/social growth, academic success and individual planning. Self awareness, community and social responsibility, decision making, self management etc are essential pieces of the curriculum. All of these are part of SEL. Outside the classroom, counselors provide remedial skill building and skill development via individual and small group counseling. Naturally, this works best within a building culture and community that supports SEL as well as the implementation of a CGCP.

PAUL OBAH's picture

Very nice Laura!
Yes: Schools are ultimately responsible if we seek to achieve what I describe as the very visible objectives in our lesson plans. A student's EQ is key to having a learner who TRULY learns. Only then are lesson objectives ultimately achieved. The nice thing is that preparing the learner to be receptive and, ending with a well-rounded person, can be done - and is done, without 'sacrificing' curriculum content. We can drive this through the ambience we set in our school.
1. How often do we allow the student develop a sense of responsibility, of ownership for his/her actions?
2. How well do we infuse into our school programmes situations that help the learner develop life skills?

I am of the opinion that our 'HIDDEN CURRICULUM' can capture those skills we need for our learners to grow into 'fully developed citizens and human beings'; society needs much more than the intelligent person who cannot function socially and emotional. So I'm all for Becky's comment on creating routines; doing things consciously to help students develop the right values and, attitudes becomes a matter of routine if the approach is a whole-school thing.

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Great discussion!

Should schools and teachers be responsible for supporting the social and emotional development of their students and, if so, how can we do so without sacrificing content knowledge?

This is a great question, and it seems to come up often! I recall a story of a principal that was trying to promote social and emotional learning (SEL) programs at his school, and a teacher asked, "How will this fit, our plates are full!" The principal replied, "SEL is the plate, it's what holds everything together."

SEL and academics don't have to be a zero-sum game, where teaching one comes at the cost of another. In 2011, an article was published that reviewed over 200 social and emotional learning programs and found that on top of all the behavioral benefits, academic performance also went up 11%, on average. Content knowledge isn't sacrificed by SEL, it's enhanced by it.
Here's a link to the article:

A big question is "how?" -- how do SEL programs enhance academic learning? The article has a few ideas: students who are more self-confident are also more persistent in the face of challenges, SEL helps students deal with test anxiety and stress, SEL promotes problem-solving, and SEL helps students develop self-control and planning skills. Perhaps if life was all about rote memorization and drill-and-kill tests we wouldn't need SEL programs, but to get students to really learn effectively and retain what they learn, I think SEL programs are key.

Here's a great resource on SEL research:

And here's an example of a school that has effectively used SEL programs to build academic achievement:

That was one of my favorite schools to cover, because they didn't act as though SEL was something they'd do for an hour every day, it was part of the school's culture.

Andrew Vivian's picture
Andrew Vivian

Great question Laura.

I have been working in International Baccalaureate (IBO) schools for the past 15 years, and the IBO begins with the question "What do we want our students to be?"

The characteristics of compassionate, successful people who will make a difference to their societies, country and planet are embedded into all aspects of school operations.

From my experience, it definitely works. Good IB World schools are a delight to be in.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Youki, thanks for sharing all those links- that's quite a set of resources! I know that CASEL ( has done a lot of research on this as well.

Andrew, I've also worked with some IB schools and agree that they are excellent sites for SEL work. Interestingly, the IB schools in which we did Critical Skills (Antioch's SEL program) work, found themselves most ready to roll out the Common Core as well.

Paul, I think you raise a couple of great questions as well- I'd love to hear what other folks think about them.

Zainab's picture
K-12 teacher from UAE, Dubai

I think schools must offer a curriculum about that to be taught to students; Japan has something like this.
I assign five minutes of each class to ask students a question about social life " What are you going to do in such situation?"
then I create a short discussion, some times I support the discussed topic with a video.
Students like it so much, some parents sent me thank
you(s), others sent me some suggested topics.

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