What Science Tells Us About Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

While learning is a cognitive process, students are also social and emotional beings, who are continuously developing the full range of intellectual, social, and emotional skills. Similar to cognitive skills, social and emotional skills can be taught and, with practice, can positively impact an individual’s academic journey. Emotional well-being influences educational performance, learning, and development. Moreover, interpersonal relationships and communication are critical to both the teaching–learning process and the social–emotional development of students. 1,2

Educators can shape the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of classroom climate and incorporate academic mindsets, perseverance, and social skills into their teaching in developmentally appropriate ways. Studies have shown that the classroom climate has implications for students. While a negative climate can hinder learning and performance, a positive climate can foster student learning. There are four key aspects to keep in mind when trying to foster a safe and welcoming classroom environment: checking the perception of students to see how the lesson is going, keeping an encouraging tone, and fostering both student-teacher and student-student relationships.

Thus, explicitly teaching students how to manage their emotions alongside academic content in a sequential and active manner is recommended. Through this work, students develop the habits and mindsets necessary to cope with academic challenges. With this in mind Social Emotional Learning (SEL) focuses on five core competencies: 

  • Self-awareness: a person’s ability to understand how their emotions affect their behavior. 
  • Self-management: a person’s ability to manage their emotions in a way that contributes to achieving goals and aspirations.
  • Social awareness: a person’s ability to empathize with others.
  • Relationship skills: a person’s ability to make and keep a diverse set of relationships.
  • Responsible decision-making: a person’s ability to make good decisions in a variety of situations.

But you might be wondering, does SEL help students? The answer is yes. A meta-analysis that included 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students who participated in evidence-based SEL programs, showed increased achievement by 11% in demonstrating social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance. Furthermore, social-emotional learning engages and strengthens metacognition and can impact engagement and motivation.3


  1. Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. John Wiley & Sons.
  2. American Psychological Association (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for preK–12 teaching and learning. http://www.apa.org/ed/schools/cpse/top-twenty-principles.pdf
  3. Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta‐analysis of school‐based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x
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