By Laura Boycourt

Ask any teacher or parent what they hope for their student, and you’d be hard pressed to find one who doesn’t just wish for academic success but also the development of healthy relationships, confidence, and personal responsibility. This is where Social-Emotional Learning, better known as SEL, comes in.

What is SEL?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” Many SEL models include an emphasis on what the collaborative calls the “CASEL 5”: self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision making, self-management, and relationship skills.

The development and strengthening of these social-emotional skills can come through many means. Working with a partner to build a creation out of blocks. Saying “good morning!” to teachers and other students. Playing games. Discussing emotions and how to process them. These are all examples of what SEL might look like.

Although SEL curriculum and practice can vary state, school, and even classroom, the goal remains the same- to help students develop their whole selves, not just their academic prowess.  

At its heart, SEL is about a student’s “well being socially, emotionally, academically, and all the in-betweens,” says Shana Brickner, Student Services Team Lead at Patuxent River High School in Lusby. 

At Calvary Center School in Annapolis, Director Claire Zarrilli says the preschool’s goal is “help our students develop self-regulation of emotions and behaviors, participate cooperatively in groups, and build positive relationships with others.”

And SEL isn’t just for young ones who may be navigating new feelings and peers; it’s for all of us.

“Who doesn’t need to focus on areas such as social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills?” Brickner says. “These are areas we continuously work to develop, even as adults. How we teach these in schools varies based on age, but at all grade levels, some lessons are more explicit and others are an integral part of everyday lessons.”

Samantha Straub, Chair of Upper School Counseling at the Severn School, says that SEL is critical across all grades.

“The same skill needs to be revisited again and again to account for kids’ developmental readiness and the social framework within which they are operating,” she explains. “In kindergarten, for example, it would be appropriate for teachers to explicitly teach communication tools for sharing playground equipment or for expressing one’s emotions with words. By high school, these same students STILL need lessons in communication, only now the focus might be on the development of refusal skills to resist negative peer pressure or to obtain consent.”  

SEL in Action

SEL may come in the form of a planned lesson, or it might take place naturally when an opportunity presents itself. No matter when and how it occurs, Straub says it’s beneficial for both guidance counselors and teachers to be able to work SEL into the day. 

“Ideally, SEL ought not be a one-off on some curricular check-list, nor should it be handed over exclusively to school counselors to deliver in drop-in classroom visits,” she says. “SEL works best when classroom teachers are trained in the learning benefits of SEL and in how to best incorporate SEL initiatives into their existing curricula.” 

At Patuxent High, Brickner says that in the past, the school has used an advisory period dedicated to SEL, “focusing on building community and connections among staff and students, helping students discover the importance of diversity and being true to oneself, building self-awareness and regulation skills, and so on.” Currently PHS teachers regularly weave SEL into their classroom content, and counselors lead individual and group SEL meetings. Groups, clubs, and other types of school opportunities also provide the setting for social-emotional learning. 

While its curriculum includes lessons specifically dedicated to developing SEL skills, teachers at Calvary Center School find that SEL occurs at many times, Zarrilli says.

“Our school staff all understand that SEL takes place at all times and during all types of activities at preschool.  The staff are attentive to student interactions during circle time, craft projects, centers, free play, recess, lunch, etc., and offer immediate guidance when a child is not using words to communicate his/her feelings, is having trouble following rules, or is behaving unkindly. The opportunities for teaching SEL skills informally occur often, and each situation has immediate relevance to the child(ren) involved, so they are much more likely to be remembered.”

Why SEL Matters

“If all schools focused on was academics, we would be doing a disservice to our students and our community,” says Brickner. She says that because SEL places so much emphasis on the development and growth of healthy social and emotional interactions and habits, students are adding important skills to their toolboxes that will serve them well in the present and well into the future. 

“We are helping students learn to self-regulate their emotions, develop empathy, build relationships, collaborate with a team, respond to conflict in a healthy manner, adjust to transitions, and more. Arguably, these are the skills that are most desired after high school,” Brickner says.

Pointing to guidance and research from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Straub offers that SEL is effective in its power to protect students from making poor choices, such as substance abuse or breaking rules.

“When students feel confident about their ability to tackle challenges, they are more likely to take the good kind of risks that result in personal and academic growth,” she says. “SEL is foundational in making brains and bodies ready for learning.”  

While SEL is critical for the well-being of individual students, the power of its positive domino effect can’t be understated.

“Not only are they (students) ready to learn themselves,” says Zarrilli of children engaged in SEL, “they are also ready to be a positive member of their class rather than require additional non-academic attention from the teacher.  In this way, they are also contributing to every other classmate’s learning.”