- 3 mins
Why is SEL Important?
Written by Drs. Chanda Murphy and Tegan Reeves, Moshi Researchers
From parenting strategies to apps, everyone seems to be talking about social and emotional learning (SEL). But what is it, and why is it so important?
When researchers or educators talk about SEL, it is usually referencing programs and activities that help build skills in relationships, feelings, and self-control. SEL is linked to lots of benefits including better grades, closer friendships, and success later on in life.
Over thirty years ago, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) started the conversation. CASEL initially started as a multidisciplinary group that cared about quality learning for adaptive and healthy lives. On their website, they explain that “SEL is 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”.
That’s a lot of information, so let’s break it down. Below we’ve pulled out each of the components that CASEL identifies and highlighted why they are important. We also recommend some books that explore more about the components.
Part of the learning that happens in SEL is a bigger understanding of ourselves and others. When kids learn the language around feelings, they can label those feelings. Similarly, when taught about why the brain reacts to different situations (like fear), children have more control over how they choose to act. Knowledge about our emotional and social selves is crucially important. In his book Permission to Feel, Marc Brackett talks in-depth about what this knowledge might look like at home and in the classroom. In The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer demonstrates how mindful action is both knowledge-building and skill-building.
Especially in early childhood, cognitive understanding is secondary to feeling and action. That is why practicing the skills of mindful attention, compassion, and decision-making sometimes happens before we fully understand those skills. In The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel talks about the ways that mindful practice, attention, awareness, and connection to others help build a healthy and adaptive brain.
When we change our understanding and behavior, the way we look at things changes, and this concept is not only true for adults but can be developed in childhood. As kids build vocabulary around their feelings and practice things like compassion, they are building the capacity to notice and shift their own attitudes. From empathetic responses to motivation to act, there are a number of ways that SEL can improve our attitudes. In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck explores the impact that our attitudes and beliefs can have in every area of our lives.
To be able to put our skills and knowledge into practice, we first need to regulate the emotions that are influencing our attitudes and behavior. As adults, we can see how this shows up. For example: when we swear at the driver who cuts us off in traffic or when we snap at our partner even if we don’t mean it. The awareness and management skills that we develop with SEL activities help to give us the space in those emotional moments to recognize how those emotions might influence us, and if we really want them to. In his book Brainstorm, which focuses on teenagers, Daniel Siegel delves into the ways that the overactive chemistry in our brains impacts behavior. And in Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman introduces how emotional awareness can help us find healthier and more adaptive lives.
Personal and Collective Goals
Often we don’t talk enough about motivation when it comes to emotions. The feelings (and awareness of them) that exist through our own sense of self, or how others perceive us, impact the ways that we set and achieve goals. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan are well-known psychologists who introduced the importance of motivation in the ways that we set personal goals and the actions we take toward them (for a good overview, see Deci & Ryan, 2000). Among the key factors of that conversation are the internal signals that help us understand the value of behavior. As we learn SEL skills like awareness, we can start to connect to our intrinsic motivation. Similarly, psychologist Jean Piaget (and many others) discovered how peer interaction and the influence of socialization craft our moral compass in a way that helps us move toward positive collective goals and be happy, healthy members of society.
In their most basic form, relationships are a function of connection and support. Awareness of our own feelings and setting proper boundaries are things that we learn and practice from a very young age. By developing skills like self-compassion and empathy, children can start to explore healthy boundaries and the impact of supportive relationships. In his early work, John Bowlby discusses how meaningful relationship building and the influence of peers can be. In much more recent work, Kristen Neff dives into compassion as a crucial component of supportive relationships (see for example Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself).
Responsible and Caring Decisions
If our goal is to support the generation(s) coming after us in becoming responsible and caring citizens, we need to start with developing social and emotional knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivation, and relationships. This seems like a lofty aim, and it can sometimes get lost when we are dealing with challenges, or just need to get to work on time. Yet, it can be achieved through taking small and intentional steps toward supporting SEL. Decision-making that is responsible and caring impacts all aspects of life. Some would argue that academic achievement is the ultimate goal of education, and the conversations around SEL don’t diminish that notion. In fact, some studies are showing that mindfulness and related practices might be linked to higher achievement in schools. In her book Mindfulness and Yoga in Schools, Catherine Cook-Cottone offers activities designed to empower students through active healthy practice.
You are now a part of the conversation! But it doesn’t stop here. We invite you to check out some of the resources mentioned and learn more about SEL’s benefits and long-term impacts.