What Is SEL?

How: Approaches and Settings

How: Programs

Related Fields


What is social and emotional learning (SEL)?
Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Although SEL is more than a program, many available evidence-based programs provide instruction in and opportunities to practice, apply, and be recognized for using SEL skills (CASEL, 2013; 2015). Competence in the use of SEL skills is promoted in the context of safe and supportive school, family, and community learning environments in which children feel valued and respected and are connected to and engaged in learning.

SEL is fundamental not only to children’s social and emotional development, but also to their health, ethical development, citizenship, motivation to achieve, and academic learning. (CASEL. 2013. CASEL Guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs – Preschool and elementary edition. Chicago, IL: Weissberg, R.P., Goren, P., Domitrovich, C., Dusenbury, L. P.).

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What skills do socially and emotionally competent children and youth have?
Socially and emotionally competent children and youth are skilled in five core areas:

  • They are self-aware. They are able to recognize their emotions, describe their interests and values, and accurately assess their strengths. They have a well-grounded sense of self-confidence and hope for the future.
  • They are able to regulate their emotions. They are able to manage stress, control impulses, and persevere in overcoming obstacles. They can set and monitor progress toward the achievement of personal and academic goals and express their emotions appropriately in a wide range of situations.
  • They are socially aware. They are able to take the perspective of and empathize with others and recognize and appreciate individual and group similarities and differences. They are able to seek out and appropriately use family, school, and community resources.
  • They have good relationship skills. They can establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships based on cooperation. They resist inappropriate social pressure; constructively prevent, manage, and resolve interpersonal conflict; and seek and provide help when needed.
  • They demonstrate responsible decision-making at school, at home, and in the community. In making decisions, they consider ethical standards, safety concerns, appropriate social norms, respect for others, and the likely consequences of various courses of action. They apply these decision-making skills in academic and social situations and are motivated to contribute to the well-being of their schools and communities.

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Providing children with comprehensive social and emotional learning (SEL) programs characterized by safe, caring, and well-managed learning environments and instruction in social and emotional skills addresses many learning barriers by enhancing school attachment, reducing risky behaviors, and promoting positive development, and thereby positively influencing academic achievement. Other research shows that SEL has an 11-to-1 return on investment, offers benefits that extend into adulthood, and is strongly supported by teachers.

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Why is SEL essential to the school and life success of all children and youth?
Our emotions and relationships affect how and what we learn and how we use what we learn in work, family, and community contexts. On the one hand, emotions can enable us to generate an active interest in learning and sustain our engagement in it. On the other hand, unmanaged stress and poor regulation of impulses interfere with attention and memory and contribute to behaviors disruptive to learning.

Moreover, learning is an intrinsically social and interactive process. It takes place in collaboration with one’s teachers, in the company of one’s peers, and with the support of one’s family. Hence, the abilities to recognize and manage emotions and establish and maintain positive relationships impact both preparation for learning and the ability to benefit from learning opportunities. Relationships are the engine of learning.

Because safe, nurturing, well-managed learning environments are essential to the mastery of SEL skills, they are essential to children’s school and life success. SEL skills and the supportive learning environments in which they are taught contribute to the resiliency of all children—those without identified risks and those at-risk for or already exhibiting emotional or behavioral problems and in need of additional supports.

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What empirical evidence supports the effectiveness of SEL programming?
Several hundred studies using experimental designs with control groups have documented the positive effects of SEL programming on children of diverse backgrounds from preschool through high school in urban, suburban, and rural settings. Some of the best reviews of this body of research have been done by Greenberg, et al., 2003; and Zins, et al., 2004. Joe Durlak of Loyola University (Chicago) and Roger Weissberg of the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted a research synthesis of 213 studies of such programs.

The research clearly demonstrates that SEL programming significantly improves children’s academic performance on standardized tests. Moreover, compared to control groups, children who have participated in SEL programs have significantly better school attendance records, less disruptive classroom behavior, like school more, and perform better in school. The research also indicates that children who have participated in SEL programs are less likely than children in control groups to be suspended or otherwise disciplined.

These outcomes have been achieved through SEL’s impact on important mental health variables that improve children’s social relationships, increase their attachment to school and motivation to learn, and reduce antisocial, violent, and drug-using behaviors. The research also indicates that SEL programs with the best outcomes are multiyear in duration, use interactive rather than purely knowledge-based instructional methods, and are integrated into the life of the school rather than being implemented as marginal add-ons. (CASEL. 2013. CASEL Guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs – Preschool and elementary edition. Chicago, IL: Weissberg, R.P., Goren, P., Domitrovich, C., Dusenbury, L. P.)

Learn more about the impact of SEL

Learn more about the growing body of research on SEL



What instructional methods are commonly used in SEL?
The educational goals of SEL are more likely to be achieved when evidence-based approaches are used to reach students in all settings where they spend their time.

  • Young children can to be taught through modeling and coaching to recognize how they feel or how someone else might be feeling.
  • Prompting the use of a conflict-resolution skill and using dialoguing to guide students through the steps can be an effective approach to helping them apply a skill in a new situation.
  • Through class meetings students can practice group decision-making and setting classroom rules.
  • Students can learn cooperation and teamwork through participation in team sports and games.
  • Students can deepen their understanding of a current or historical event by analyzing it through a set of questions based on a problem-solving model. Learn more about evidence-based programs.
  • Cross-age mentoring, in which a younger student is paired with an older one, can be effective in building self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and enhancing academic skills.

See examples of SEL in action.

Learn more about evidence-based programs..

What can principals do to promote SEL?
A key to promoting effective schoolwide SEL is ensuring that all staff members have initial and ongoing professional development and support for implementing programming. In addition, principals can promote SEL by:

  • Indicating to school personnel and families that they are committed to schoolwide SEL as a priority.
  • Developing and articulating a shared vision of their students’ social, emotional, and academic development.
  • Supporting completion of a schoolwide needs and resources assessment.
  • Creating opportunities for teachers and support staff to participate in development of an action plan for SEL implementation.
  • Involving others in school leadership functions and decision-making.
  • Modeling win-win resolutions to conflict.

Learn more about what SEL looks like in schools here.

Learn more about evidence-based programs in use by districts, schools, and teachers.

What can teachers do to promote SEL?
In addition to providing instruction in social and emotional skills, teachers’ involvement in promoting SEL goes beyond the classroom and includes the following:

  • Participating on a school team or committee that selects SEL programs and oversees the implementation and evaluation of SEL activities.
  • Communicating regularly with students’ families about SEL classroom activities to encourage reinforcement of SEL lessons at home.
  • Modeling and providing opportunities for students to practice and apply SEL skills in the classroom.
  • Using participatory instructional methods that draw on students’ experience and engage them in learning.
  • Using SEL skills in teaching academic subjects to enhance students’ understanding. For example, in language arts or social studies lessons, students can be encouraged to discuss how characters or historical figures did or did not express understanding of others’ feelings or use good problem-solving skills.

Learn more about what SEL looks like in the classroom here.

Learn more about evidence-based programs in use by districts, schools, and teachers.

What can parents to do to promote their child’s SEL?
Parents can promote their child’s SEL by learning more about their school’s SEL initiative and modeling behaviors and adopting practices that reinforce their child’s SEL skills at home. Examples include:

  • Participating in family informational meetings at their school to learn more about its SEL initiative.
  • Asking their child’s teacher about how SEL is used at school.
  • Participating in their school’s planning, implementation, and evaluation of SEL programming.
  • Participating in SEL trainings to become more familiar with SEL concepts being taught in their child’s school.
  • Volunteering to assist in their child’s classroom.
  • Participating with their child in SEL-related homework assignments.
  • Emphasizing their child’s strengths before discussing deficits and needed improvements.
  • Making a list of “feeling” words with their child and being an “emotions coach,” encouraging the child to express feelings.
  • Giving their children choices, asking what they can do to solve a problem, and helping them identify pros and cons of alternative solutions.
  • Making sure that the consequences of misbehavior are fair and consistently enforced.
  • Encouraging their children to share and be helpful to others by participating in community service projects.

Learn more about resources for parents.

What can student support services professionals do to promote SEL?
Student support services (SSS) professionals can be valuable members of an SEL steering committee due to their knowledge of human behavior, program planning and evaluation, community resources, classroom management strategies, and students’ personal challenges to learning. Their perspective on student needs and the resources being used to address those needs is essential to an adequate SEL needs and resources assessment. Since their work is not confined to the classroom, they also bring an important perspective to identifying schoolwide SEL programming needs.

In small-group work SSS professionals can reinforce classroom instruction in SEL skills with students who need more practice. When conferring with parents on approaches to addressing learning challenges their child is experiencing, SSS professionals can use SEL language introduced in the classroom. When consulting with teachers on classroom management issues, they can assess problems and suggest solutions with reference to SEL skills and the characteristics of a safe and supportive learning environment. When developing and assessing student progress on IEP goals, they can relate these goals to specific SEL standards. SSS staff are also typically the link between schools and the community-based services that students may access. As such, they can extend the SEL framework to these relationships as well.

Finally, coordinating classroom-based SEL instruction with services provided by student support staff can be especially effective in promoting the school success of children who have social, emotional, and mental health problems that interfere with learning.



What are the components of evidence-based schoolwide SEL programming?
Effective SEL programming provides students with opportunities to contribute to their communities, families with opportunities to enhance their children’s social and emotional development, school personnel with ongoing professional development opportunities, and community groups with opportunities such as after-school and before-school programs in partnership with schools (CASEL. 2013. CASEL Guide: Effective social and emotional learning programs – Preschool and elementary edition. Chicago, IL: Weissberg, R.P., Goren, P., Domitrovich, C., Dusenbury, L. P.). Key components of effective SEL implementation in schools include:

  • Instruction in and opportunities to practice and apply an integrated set of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills.
  • Learning environments characterized by trust and respectful relationships.
  • Coordinated implementation that reinforces classroom, schoolwide, out-of-school, and at-home learning activities.
  • Systematic and sequential programming from preschool through high school.
  • Developmentally and culturally appropriate behavioral supports.
  • Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of implementation for continuous improvement.

Learn more about evidence-based programs in use by districts, schools, and teachers.

Why is it important to use an evaluated, evidence-based SEL curriculum?
Many available SEL programs have core elements based on an underlying theory of how desired student changes are achieved. Schools interested in implementing an SEL program are urged to start by familiarizing themselves with evidence-based programs featured in our program program guides. This will give them a better understanding of how these programs work and enable them to adapt such a program to meet the needs of their students and get buy-in from their teachers without compromising the integrity of its core elements.

Learn more about selecting an evidence-based program here.

How can my district or school financially sustain our SEL work?
Through our work with partner districts, CASEL has supported school systems committed to implementing districtwide social and emotional learning (SEL). From 2012 through 2015, four of those districts — Austin, Chicago, Washoe County, Nev., and Wheaton-Warrenville, Ill. — partnered with us to investigate and develop strategies for financially sustaining districtwide SEL initiatives over multiple years. Click here to learn more about the challenges they faced and the lessons they learned, including online budgeting tools, templates, case studies, and related resources.