Promoting Social and Emotional Learning to improve academic engagement

08/21/2012  |  Kathy Beland, M.Ed.
social and emotional learning

Ninth grade students in St. Lucie, FL take a daily seminar that leads to significant improvements in their behavior and academic readiness. Every Friday, after a week of individualized, computer-based learning, at-risk high school students in Apopka, FL meet to intentionally develop the skills, attitude and resolve needed to stay the course to graduation. 

Student leaders in Iola, KS take groups of freshmen under their wings and teach them how to survive and thrive over the next four years and; in the process, they significantly reduce rates of bullying and academic probation at their school. The common thread in these school stories is SEL—not an easily identifiable acronym in education, especially in high schools, but one that is gaining traction quickly.

What is SEL?

Social and emotional learning, a process long thought to occur naturally through social interactions and with guidance from parents, is now a movement in its own right.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is comprised of teachable skills in five core competencies—social awareness, self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. SEL includes skills such as recognizing and managing our emotions, taking others’ perspectives, developing caring and concern for others, establishing and maintaining positive relationships, setting and achieving goals, resolving conflicts peaceably, and making responsible decisions.

There is a growing realization that these skills are critical to doing well in school, work, and life in general. SEL has become the focus of school district initiatives across the Nation (, a subject of proposed legislation in Congress (HR2437, HR3989, and HR3990), and the type of “know how” employers seek most in new hires (Are They Really Ready for Work? report at

In 2010 SEL gained wheels when CASEL published a meta-analysis of over 200 research evaluations that found SEL programs were correlated with significant academic outcomes for students (on average an increase of 11 percentile points on standardized tests), improvements in students’ attitudes and behavior, and a reduction in conduct problems. The majority of these studies were conducted at the elementary school level where SEL-based curricula have a strong presence and teachers view educating the whole child as within their province. Middle schools, too, carve out time for SEL through student advisories, mentoring programs, bullying prevention, and grade-level houses within the larger school.

A growing number of high schools have gotten on board with the idea of SEL, if not necessarily the practice. The key questions they grapple with include: Which SEL skills do high school students need and benefit from the most? When, where, and how should these skills be taught? How can we build commitment to SEL among the faculty, not just those teachers facilitating SEL lessons? For the past six years I and co-author Julea Douglass have been involved in the development, piloting, and dissemination of a SEL program in high schools across the country ( The remainder of this article will tell you what we learned about the answers to these questions.

Which SEL skills?

While we used the SEL Competencies as our blue print, we also delved into research on human motivation and adolescent development to group and prioritize SEL skills. In Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation (1995), psychologist Edward Deci identifies what appeared to motivate young adults in experimental studies and proffers how educators might help students meet their needs for autonomy, belonging, and competence — easily remembered as ABC. Within school, autonomy refers to students being self-directing and of having a “voice and choice” in matters that affect them. Belonging refers to students feeling connected to their teachers and peers and of being a part of a whole. Competence (having well-honed skills and abilities) refers to students to becoming contributors to and valued members of the school community.

Autonomy. Student autonomy is a vehicle for the main task of adolescence: identity development. Who am I? What do I like? What am I good at? What do I want to do in life? Finding positive answers to these questions develops a sense of direction that provides a bridge into adulthood.

Teachers can promote autonomy by first reflecting on and improving their own teaching practice. How much time do they spend giving information, direction and advice vs. asking students for their thoughts and ideas on meeting a challenge, solving a problem or making a decision? How well do they listen to the feelings behind the words and respond authentically to students’ questions and concerns? What choices do they give students that allow them to shape their learning?

From here, teachers can move to honing their skills in facilitating student-centered discussion. Our program uses “think-pair-shares” in order to provide every student with an immediate opportunity to talk, be heard, and become psychologically present in class. These are followed by a large group discussion in which students choose who has the floor and identify whether they are “adding on” or “thinking differently” from previous contributors. This encourages them to listen to each other, pose and explore “essential questions” related to SEL, and together construct meaning and understanding.

To become autonomous, students need to develop SEL skills in self-awareness and self-management. Recognizing internal emotions—whether they are on the surface, underlying, or masked—and their origin in thought, helps young people realize that by changing their thinking, they can change their behavior. Not a simple task, but a source of great hope and empowerment. I have watched students delight in recognizing how they can challenge and change habitual, negative responses into positive ones, get off “hedonic treadmills” that lead to chronic dissatisfaction, and change “mindsets” about their abilities that have held them back in the past.

Learning to recognize and manage emotions not only improves behavior in and outside of school, it also sets the stage for academic engagement. From here, students move to identifying what subjects and activities induce positive emotions, where their interests and strengths lie, and how to get into a state of “flow” in meeting learning challenges. This creates fertile ground for career and college explorations, goal setting, and find purpose in learning.

Belonging. Students are more likely to become autonomous when they are in a warm and caring learning environment. Senior student leaders who facilitate transition activities with freshmen students, student ambassadors and conflict mediators who help students resolve problems, teacher mentors who meet regularly with at-risk students, and cross-grade advisories that help bridge the age gap — all can be effective in developing a sense of belonging in students. To develop a deeper approach that improves the daily life of the school, students need to develop and practice specific skills.

Empathy skills are core to creating a sense of belonging. Empathy includes the ability to recognize how another person is feeling, take the person’s perspective, and feel vicariously what the person is feeling. Learning to recognize emotions through physical, verbal and behavioral cues is a sophisticated skill that can be developed using photographs, role plays, written vignettes, and English literature. Perspective taking can be promoted by teaching, modeling, and practicing active listening skills and then using them consistently in everyday interactions. The third component — actually feeling what another person is feeling — is influenced by whether we have had a similar experience, are like the person, have had positive or negative experiences with the person or the type of situation, and hold a value (e.g., fairness, responsibility) that clashes with empathy in certain situations. We have students rate their level of empathy for different situations and then discuss their differences. This naturally leads to discussion of what hinders empathy: lack of opportunities to learn about and socialize with different students, cliques, labeling, stereotyping, hazing and bullying. From here students can become involved in planning activities that might break down the walls that divide them.

Competence. Competency in navigating social interactions and academic demands leads to a greater sense of self-efficacy and optimism. Thus, competence encourages autonomy which further promotes competence, creating a virtuous cycle. In addition to the skills sited earlier, high school students benefit from developing skills in building and maintaining positive relationships, solving problems, making decisions, negotiating agreements, refusing risk behaviors, persuading others, apologizing, and forgiveness.

Social Learning Theory posits that these skills are best learned through observing a model of the skill, practicing the skill in role plays, applying the skills in real life, and reflecting on use of the skill. Older students can be coached in performing model role plays, students can critique and provide feedback to each other when they practice the skills, and teachers can promote the skills in everyday life at school.

When, and Where?

Schedules are tight, but high schools are finding ways to implement SEL.

Freshman Seminar. Statistics support giving students a large dose of SEL as they enter high school. Ninth grade is a watershed year for students. High school freshmen face increased academic rigor and changes in friendships, and have fewer social supports. Helping students connect to school, see the value of education, and get past this critical juncture is one of the most important and vexing problems facing high schools. Freshman seminars are best when they meet as a regular, credit-bearing class. This tells students that SEL is important and it provides the time needed to truly develop and adopt the skills.

Advisory. Many high schools are adopting the advisory model in which most faculty members facilitate meetings with small groups of students. Advisory sessions are usually shorter than regular class periods and non-credit bearing. Implementation schedules vary widely, ranging from once a month to 4-5 times a week. The upside of advisory is that it involves all teachers and students; the downside is that teacher skill in facilitating SEL is highly variable. Some teachers heartily embrace it, while others feel it is outside of their interest, skill and training. For advisory to work, schools need to provide easy-to-use sequenced materials, in-services in facilitating SEL, and ongoing support.

Academic Integration. Another approach is to integrate different SEL lessons in various subjects and activities. Freshman transition activities can introduce relationship-building skills. Health can handle emotional management, decision making, and social skills that reduce risk behaviors; English can integrate empathy training and self-awareness skills with the study of literature; Science can teach about the research on emotions and human behavior, and all classes can teach skills related to goal setting, managing oneself as a student, meeting challenges, and attitudes about learning. This approach requires good communication and coordination between departments.

Other implementation options include courses which focus on student leadership, special education, work internship, life skills, and study skills. While high school schedules can be a challenge, where there is a will there is a way. Developing the will to promote SEL would be the first step.

Kathy Beland, M.Ed. is executive director of School-Connect® and lead author of School-Connect®: Optimizing the High School-Experience. She can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit
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