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Lesson 6.13

Social-Emotional Learning:
Intangibles that Support Academics

Can schools teach self-awareness?

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Students draw life lessons from the rough and tumble laboratory of recess breaks.

They reach conclusions in the moments of boredom between moments of structure. The chaos of school regularly generates teachable moments, and we all should thank the teachers, principals and other school staff who keep their cool and help students draw the right conclusions.

The chaos of school regularly generates teachable moments

Many schools lend structure to building emotional intelligence (EQ) as part of the curriculum, especially in early grades. Educators describe this aspect of education as social-emotional learning (SEL). The term has survived long enough to have become both officially adopted and politically rejected. In a 2021 report, How to Sell SEL: Parents and the Politics of Social-Emotional Learning, the Fordham Foundation found that most of the basic ideas of SEL are broadly accepted, but attitudes about the term itself are sharply divided by party affiliation. Republicans tend to regard the term with suspicion.

SEL takes a "systemic approach to wellness" by integrating communities, families, and schools into its framework. The primary means of instruction is via classroom programs and practices, but when done well, SEL permeates the school’s curriculum and culture.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified five interrelated sets of competencies.

  • Self-awareness. The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior.
  • Self-management. The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations, and to set and work toward personal and academic goals.
  • Social awareness. The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures 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, including the skills to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.
  • Responsible decision making. The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.

"Soft" Skills

Crucially, social-emotional learning strategies equip students to keep their cool, and help others do the same. Full Circle Fund has worked with the Niroga Institute, a Bay Area organization that helps students learn yoga techniques to build awareness of their own state of mind. Other programs that focus on social/emotional learning include Engaging Schools and Responsive Classroom.

Social-emotional skills are sometimes labelled "soft" skills, but most can agree that soft skills are hard to learn. Schools that put a focus on building social-emotional skills share a premise: these skills can be taught and learned intentionally.

Got Grit?

MacArthur fellow Angela Duckworth, a leading expert on social-emotional learning, has famously characterized qualities of determination and resilience as grit." She argues that social-emotional capacities such as grit are vital life skills, and that schools must teach them intentionally.

Her message has found a responsive audience. Individuals respond to influence, but systems respond to measurement. If social emotional skills are important, shouldn't those skills be measured, too? The Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states to include nonacademic measurements of success, so it seems likely that some will try to incorporate social-emotional measures. Duckworth urges caution. Mindsets are tricky to measure in an authentic way.

Buzzword alert: agency

Not everyone agrees that focusing on grit is such a good thing. Taken too far, grit has an isolating, go-it-alone implication. Pedro Noguera, another influential commentator, prefers for schools to focus on developing agency, the capacity of individuals to act independently, especially in a social setting.

SEL, grit, agency and a strong support network have all been necessary in post-pandemic schools. The pandemic has had isolating effects on student mental health - the CA Department of Education offers resources.

There is a fuzzy boundary between social-emotional learning (which, arguably, emphasizes skills and approaches) and character education (which arguably, aims to help students at a deeper, more permanent level). The next lesson turns to character education.

Updated October 2017, August 2021


Can teachers incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) just into their own curriculum and class structure?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Alisa Sabshin-Blek August 24, 2020 at 12:22 pm
Thank you for highlighting the importance of social- emotional learning. Perhaps next year you can add to something about diversity and racial bias to Ed100.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale February 2, 2019 at 1:21 pm
I worry about the subjectivity of assessing soft skills, but I don't see a very good way to quantify either.
In the old days, teachers provided written comments ("plays well with others"), which was definitely subjective but could be helpful. If year after year teachers were describing a child the same way, the same issues could arise. This is not to say that social-emotional skills and strategies should be ignored, I'm just not clear on assessment of success.
user avatar
Lm December 8, 2018 at 4:29 pm
When considering emotional learning I have often wondered what happened to the golden rule - do unto others... - in our school system. Perhaps it was done away with because it was considered a religious expression? Whatever the reason, as a child it was reiterated daily when I was in school. To treat others as you would like to be treated - think of everyone, not just yourself. I don't hear anything as simple and profound in the school system anymore. Sure, every school has its principles - perseverance, integrity, etc. or a slogan "everybody is somebody" and a slew of other ways to get character traits into our children. It just seems like the golden rule was a blanket rule - for everyone. It didn't matter what school you attended and what grade you were in. A list of moral codes and character guidelines are great but there's nothing like telling someone to treat others as you would wish to be treated. Reflection is a powerful tool.
user avatar
Caryn December 10, 2018 at 8:57 am
Hi Lm, thanks for your comment. I agree, teaching self-awareness is critical to raising emotionally intelligent children. Your comment reminded me of Karen Armstrong, winner of the 2008 Ted Prize. Her talk "Let's Revive the Golden Rule" is a powerful call to action. She went on to launch The Charter for Compassion in 2009. I'd love to hear how other readers see emotional intelligence being taught in their schools and whether or not they feel like it's making a difference.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar March 3, 2018 at 5:21 pm
You can find more resources on social-emotional learning on the California Department of Education web site:
Social-Emotional Learning
user avatar
Carol Kocivar July 19, 2017 at 3:12 pm
Thanks, EdSource for highlighting a new review of studies from around the world that show that social-emotional learning has long term benefits.
user avatar
s.harder November 17, 2015 at 11:24 am
In our county, several school districts use the YMCA's Project Cornerstone Asset Building Champions (ABC) program to teach self- and social awareness ( As an added bonus, the program engages parents who volunteer in the schools to read specially selected books and lead activities that teach valuable life lessons. This helps create positive connections between children and other adults in the community.
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