What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL): Why it Matters

Maybe you’ve heard some buzzwords in the field or seen the SEL acronym in a social media hashtag, but do you really know what social-emotional learning is?

We’ll break it down to help you better understand why there is such a focus on social and emotional learning in early childhood education.

Social and emotional learning is the process by which children and adults acquire the knowledge, skills, and behaviors to build and maintain positive relationships, manage feelings, and navigate their daily lives.

There is an alarming amount of suspension and expulsion reported in early childhood education, particularly for students of color. Implementing and following a SEL program can have incredible short and long term effects that reduce challenging behaviors in the classroom and create avenues for children to process strong emotions productively.

What Does the Research Say?

Research shows that social and emotional skills are the foundation of learning. If a child’s social or emotional needs are not met, they are not able to participate fully in school and have difficulty processing new information.

But in order for children’s social and emotional skills to develop, they must be taught and practiced. Just like a child needs to learn the concept of more and less in math, they must learn turn taking in play. Just as children learn gross motor skills, like skipping and throwing, they must learn emotional skills like breathing to calm their bodies or using language to communicate their feelings.

SEL is an integral part of not just child development but human development. Children and adults are constantly learning and growing their social and emotional knowledge and skills.

Social and Emotional Skills and Competencies

There are several critical skills that people need in order to function productively in society. Consider these the foundation for young children and adults alike.

Empathy – Perspective-taking and the ability to understand or share the feelings of others is a difficult skill, especially for young people!

Self-control – Managing and regulating your own body and emotions is difficult if you haven’t learned techniques for doing so. This is why SEL instruction is so important in early childhood!

Self-awareness – Acknowledging your feelings and how your actions impact others does not always happen naturally. Guiding children to recognize these things will encourage them to do it on their own.

Problem-solving – Taking a moment to calm down, assess a situation, think of solutions, and solve problems with a peer is a very advanced level of emotional regulation.

Making responsible and caring decisions – Cause and effect must be learned just like any other concept. Children do not inherently connect their actions to their impact.

Establishing and maintaining positive relationships – Healthy relationships and attachments are critical in feeling comfortable and confident to learn and try new things.

Finding ways to manage stress – Fostering techniques to manage strong feelings at a young age will help someone throughout their lives.

Embedding SEL in Your Early Childhood Program

Early childhood education programs have the potential to profoundly impact how children develop healthy identities, cultivate healthy relationships, and manage emotions. Because children spend so much of their lives at school, it is important to acknowledge the effect the education community has on a child’s social and emotional development.

SEL practices encourage protective factors and reduce risk factors. In short, social and emotional instruction is proactive; teachers focus on strategies to help children understand feelings, their impacts, and how to manage interactions. Rather than reacting as difficult things happen, proactively practicing these social and emotional skills regularly will set children up for success when a problem does arise.

It is important to note that implementing SEL programs is not just at the classroom level. It is a systematic approach. This means all staff, parents, families, and students should be aware of the social and emotional practices, norms, and guidelines. Consistency is key.

Social and Emotional Skills Matter Across Cultures

There are many differences in cultures, and those should be acknowledged and celebrated. Social and emotional skills play a huge role in every culture, but communication styles can be very different. Learn about the families in your program, what they know and believe about social and emotional skills, and include them in your SEL plan.

Consider home visits, inviting families into the classroom, or holding family meetings at school. It is important that families and their choices are respected and integrated into your program.

Including Families in Your SEL Plan

SEL is not just for school! The best thing you can do for your students is include their families in everything you do.

Creating communication channels for families is key to a successful SEL program. Sharing strategies and learning experiences with families can help create a home-to-school bridge.

Young children learn through repetition and consistency, so having parents, siblings, and other family members participate in your SEL program will reinforce the social and emotional skills you’re building.

The Case for a Holistic Approach to Social-Emotional Learning​

SEL practices and instruction are part of the entire school day for teachers and their students. It is important to be intentional about designing learning experiences and activities where children are given opportunities to learn and practice social and emotional skills.

This looks different in each classroom or program, but overall SEL should be woven into everything you do. There’s not a specific, “Ok, let’s work on social-emotional skills now,” time.

Rather, social and emotional topics might be covered at circle time, during a turn-taking game outdoors, or when discussing emotions about a particular role-play interaction in dramatic play.

How Educators Should Approach SEL

Educators should approach SEL with intentionality. Make sure it’s embedded throughout your day, including during routines, transitions, and outdoor play. Plan for how you will include SEL strategies during teacher-led activities, child-led learning activities, and free play.

Ensure your social and emotional learning practices include all children enrolled as well as their families and their communities.

This poster from The Pyramid Model, a social and emotional learning framework, is a great reminder that SEL should be equitable, inclusive, diverse, and create a culture of belonging.

How Social-Emotional Learning Helps Children Succeed in School, the Workplace, and Life

Social and emotional learning has incredible long term effects for young people and adults. Becoming self-aware and learning the fundamentals of social and emotional management helps students as they progress through school and enter the workforce and the world.

Practicing positive social skills and the ability to calmly communicate thoughts and feelings is powerful for folks of any age.

Research shows that students who receive SEL instruction have stronger academic performance and higher academic achievement. They are better able to focus and learn new things because their social and emotional needs have been addressed.

Positive outcomes, including better mental health, stronger coping skills, and more successful relationships are also associated with those who have been educated through social and emotional learning lenses.

SEL practices in schools help students become productive young adults that can solve problems, effectively participate and communicate with others, and set and achieve personal and collective goals. The ability to manage emotions and stress correlates to more stability in all areas of life, including personal, work, and familial relationships.

Social and Emotional Learning Wrap-up

Now that we’ve better defined SEL and how it supports students, parents, and families, we hope you realize even more what a positive impact your early childhood program can have on the well being of others.

The Discovery Source has partnered with The Pyramid Model to create classroom materials that support social and emotional learning. We would love to tell you more about The Pyramid Model or how our materials can support other SEL programs you might be using.

For more information on social and emotional learning, classroom social-emotional supports, or professional development related to social and emotional learning, contact us!

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