Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an educational process that aims to help children develop social and emotional life skills.

These include managing difficult emotions, dealing with stress, understanding empathy, and building healthy relationships.

Research has found that SEL has various positive effects on children, including benefitting their emotional well-being and academic achievement.

This article looks at what SEL is, the benefits of SEL, and the five components of SEL. It also looks at SEL activities in schools and at home, and why some people find the process controversial.

Children engaging in social and emotional learning. -2Share on Pinterest
valbar STUDIO/Stocksy

SEL refers to the way children learn important social and emotional life skills. SEL programs aim to help children develop self-awareness and interpersonal skills.

Many schools schools include SEL programs in their learning from pre-kindergarten to high school. Educators may integrate SEL into their curricula alongside core subjects such as math and reading.

The concept of SEL is not new but has gained attention in recent years, with reports emphasizing a youth mental health crisis in the United States during and following the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and Children‘s Hospital Association (CHA) declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health, citing “soaring rates of mental health challenges” among children and their families due to the pandemic.

Helping children develop social and emotional skills could help them manage or prevent behavioral, emotional, and learning difficulties.

SEL programs can help teach essential skills that children may not acquire in the normal course of development, which could improve their academic performance and emotional and social well-being.

Research has found many potential benefits of SEL, which include:

  • Improving academic performance: Various research has found that children who receive SEL show academic improvement. A 2023 study found that SEL programs help children achieve better test scores, even when the program does not have an academic component. 2017 research found that children with strong social and emotional skills are less likely to be held back a grade.
  • Improving mental health: SEL may have a beneficial impact on children’s mental health. A 2023 study suggests that SEL may help address significant risk factors for youth suicide and could play a role in suicide prevention. However, more research is necessary.
  • Encouraging empathy: SEL may also contribute to fostering empathy and equity in children by helping them understand patterns of inequity and discrimination and encouraging diversity and inclusivity.
  • Improving social and emotional skills: 2017 research found that SEL could have long lasting benefits, including better control of social and emotional skills and well-being.
  • Improving peer relationships: Among other benefits, a 2023 review found research supported SEL as beneficial to establishing and maintaining supportive relationships and making decisions that were in the best interests of the larger community.

SEL revolves around five key social and emotional components, or competencies, that support learning and development.

The five competencies are:

  1. Self-awareness: This component helps children recognize their strengths and limitations and understand their thoughts and emotions. Self-awareness encourages confidence and the ability to overcome challenges positively.
  2. Social awareness: Social awareness encourages empathy and the ability to understand the perspectives of others. It can help children develop compassion and understanding for others.
  3. Self-management: This component helps children manage their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors and learn to achieve their goals.
  4. Relationship skills: Relationship skill development in SEL involves communication skills, active listening, navigating complex and diverse settings, and conflict negotiation.
  5. Responsible decision-making: This component helps children learn to evaluate factors such as consequences, ethical standards, and safety to make empathetic and constructive decisions.

SEL activities in the classroom may vary between programs. Examples of SEL activities educators may integrate into the curricula include:

  • Learning to identify other people’s feelings based on facial expressions, behaviors, and other indicators.
  • Using relaxation techniques such as muscle relaxation and belly breathing to help control behavior and cope with stress.
  • Learning how thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can influence each other.
  • Learning problem-solving steps.
  • Identifying goals and the steps involved in reaching them.
  • Learning positive self-talk.
  • Learning social skills, such as taking turns, sharing, helping, and compromising.

Parents and caregivers can incorporate SEL into activities and games at home. These could include:

  • Encouraging children to identify the emotions of characters in books, television shows, and movies — and why they may feel that way.
  • Using relaxation techniques, such as lying down and quietly listening to soothing music or mindful muscle relaxation and breathing techniques.
  • Encouraging self-awareness with journaling and drawing.
  • Helping children find ways to perform acts of kindness, such as donating toys to charity.
  • Encouraging social skills like taking turns and learning to manage frustration by playing simple board games or card games.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), some parents and caregivers believe SEL to be problematic, as they interpret the term as a way to indoctrinate children and advance an anti-conservative agenda.

Although research has found that SEL improves academic performance, some people believe that the programs do not benefit children academically and, therefore, should not be included as part of the school curricula.

Some caregivers also believe that SEL programs may teach children views regarding equity and diversity that conflict with the values they would want to instill.

Controversial views of SEL may be due to misunderstandings about terminology and cultural and political differences.

According to the APA, including parents and caregivers in communication about SEL and providing details on what the program teaches may help to dispel myths and misunderstandings about the programs.

SEL programs help children develop social and emotional life skills that provide various benefits.

According to research, SEL helps improve academic performance, emotional and mental well-being, social skills, and behavior in children.

Educators may incorporate SEL into their curricula with various activities, to help teach social and self-awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management, and relationship skills.

Parents and caregivers may also incorporate SEL activities into the home to encourage and reinforce social and emotional development.