What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?


Today’s youth are facing increasingly rigorous and complex demands in both academic and social contexts. How can schools ensure that students are prepared to address these 21st century challenges?

Today’s youth are facing increasingly rigorous and complex demands in both academic and social contexts. How can schools ensure that students are prepared to address these 21st century challenges? Social emotional learning (SEL) aims to equip young people with skills that are critical to learning, collaborating, and finding fulfillment in our emerging economically competitive and globally connected world.

Download Defining Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Infographic

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), 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.

CASEL defines social emotional learning in terms of five core competencies:


The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a growth mindset.


The ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations — effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself. The ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals.

Social awareness

The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

Relationship skills

The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.

Responsible decision-making

The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. The realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.

Schools use multiple approaches to integrate social emotional learning

There are multiple approaches to helping students develop these social emotional competencies. One approach is implementing an evidence-based SEL curriculum such as those listed in the CASEL Program Guides to teach competencies through direct instruction of SEL lessons. Another approach is infusing SEL instruction into academic curriculum, for example, asking students to identify and discuss emotions of characters in literature. Schools may also integrate SEL instructional practices, for instance, increasing student voice by including students in classroom discussions and decisions. Finally, schools can create SEL-centered policies and structures like non-exclusionary disciplinary policies and advisory periods. These approaches are not mutually exclusive; in fact, implementing multiple approaches will strengthen SEL implementation.

Evidence for social emotional learning continues to grow

Educators, administrators, and employers agree that SEL is important. A 2013 survey of 605 public school educators showed that 93% of teachers want a greater focus on SEL in schools. More recently a similar survey of 884 public school principals found that 98% believe students from all types of backgrounds would benefit from SEL and that 95% are committed to developing students’ social emotional skills. Employers agree that developing these skills is critical. In a 2013 survey of 704 employers, half of those surveyed said they had trouble finding recent graduates to fill vacant positions because they lacked the communication, adaptability, decision-making, and problem-solving skills needed to do the job.

Research demonstrates that effective SEL implementation delivers a multitude of benefits to students. In a 2011 meta-analysis, SEL was shown to raise students’ achievement scores by an average of 11 percentile points. SEL was also found to increase social emotional skills and positive attitudes toward self, others, and school while decreasing conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use. Furthermore, a 2015 economic study found that high-quality, research-validated social and emotional learning programs bring a return of $11 for every $1 invested.


Measuring and monitoring social emotional learning is critical to success

Here at Kickboard we have seen schools improve student outcomes by embracing SEL. Kickboard provides schools with a tool to track and analyze students’ demonstration of social emotional skills and behavior. We’ve also teamed up with Aperture to offer the DESSA System, a social and emotional assessment and intervention system featuring the nationally recognized Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) and DESSA-mini. In addition, Kickboard users can implement our new DESSA SEL Inventory, which defines key skills to track across eight social and emotional competencies. Use this behavior inventory as defined or refine it to align with your school’s’ specific SEL efforts and current focus.