Social-Emotional Learning: The Complete Guide

When we talk about education, there are certain images that are invoked. Perhaps the most common image we think about when we think about education is an image of students in a classroom, all sitting at desks and quietly listening to a teacher.

At the level of higher education, this transforms into an image of young men and women sitting in a lecture hall. However, once again, we get an image of people listening quietly to an instructor.

The overall image is often sterile, with a lecture occupying the majority of the class time and little else happening.

However, classes don’t have to be this sterile environment, particularly at lower education levels where teachers have greater room to experiment with their classes. Reflecting on her experiences, former teacher of the year Sydney Chaffee wrote about how social and emotional learning impacted students.

One example she cited was former global teacher of the year, Hanan Al Hroub, who led happy classes that felt warm and inviting. These classes included impromptu songs and used fun devices around the classroom, like a trampoline, to make the classroom even more inviting.

However, this wasn’t the only example of social-emotional learning (SEL) that Chaffee pointed to. He also pointed to teachers who were changing their classrooms to make them more engaging, inviting laces. These classrooms included creative spaces where students self-regulated their learning.

Teachers acted as more than just academic instructors, but also helped students to reflect on their own emotions and grow from those. These teachers indicated that they felt schools should be more than just places where students learned academic information, and instead hoped that schools would become places where the whole student was addressed, including their emotional and social selves.

Teachers suggested that addressing the whole student meant teaching students how to self-regulate their emotions using classroom resources. Spots in the classroom were set aside where students could go to write in journals or assemble pictures in ways that helped them express themselves.

The point of these spots in the classroom was to create warm classrooms where students felt loved. These were defining characteristics of social and emotional learning that Chaffee pointed to, and there’s a body of literature suggesting that these kinds of classrooms are good for the student.

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, the definition of social and emotional learning is the process through which not only children, but also adults, come to an understanding of their emotions, establish goals for themselves, and act in a healthy manner toward themselves and others.

Social learning requires individuals to grow in several ways. First, they must increase their self-awareness. This means that people start to better understand their strengths and limitations. This helps people to be appropriately confident, meaning that they have confidence performing in areas where they’re strong but are willing to seek help in areas where they’re not. It’s important to know when to seek help, since knowing when to seek help is the way by which people grow.

Self-management is the second component of social and emotional learning. People who know how to appropriately self-manage themselves are better at managing their own stress and impulses. These people are also better at establishing goals for themselves and establishing ways of achieving those goals.

Social awareness It is different from self-awareness in that it focuses more on awareness of others. Socially aware people better understand the perspective of others, which helps them to better empathize with them. In an increasingly diversifying world, this is an important skill, since it helps people to understand others who come from very different cultures.

A fourth component of social and emotional learning is helping people to develop relationship skills. Relationship skills are skills like communication, listening and cooperating. These skills are important not only because it helps students be successful in their classrooms, but in their personal lives. Good communication and relationship skills help them when the’re partnering with others and working in groups, or when they need to ask for help. These same skills help them to have healthier relationships with friends and family.

The last component of social and emotional learning is helping people make responsible decisions. Teaching students to do this means showing them how to make constructive choices. These choices are based on ethical standards and take into consideration the safety of others and social norms. In other words, responsible decision makers make decisions that benefit not only themselves but take into consideration others as well.

Based on these concepts, it should be clear that social and emotional learning isn’t an attempt to teach students academics, but an attempt to contextualize the teaching of academics within the context of students learning how to manage their own personalities.

Teachers become more than just academic instructors but psychological supporters who help students become self-regulators of their own emotions. Teachers may not completely understand the connection between this form of learning and more traditional approaches, but helping students in these five core areas makes the student better able to manage themselves and their relationship to others, which produces results in the classroom.

Principles of Integration

A lot of time has been spent getting to the root of social and emotional learning and establishing the principles that underlie this particular form of learning. One of these principles is the importance of creating. In this context, creating refers to empowering students such that they develop their own ways of working through conflicts.

Students should be able to identify conflicts in their lives, report on them, discuss potential ways of working through them, and then reporting on whether they were successful at working through those conflicts. This process demonstrates to students that they are responsible for creating their own solutions to conflict.

Teachers can help students through this through the principle of integration. Similar to the discussion by Chaffee, this principle refers to the fact that teachers have to plan for academic and social instruction in a joint lesson. This leads to the third principle of communication.

Communication needs to be ongoing between all stakeholders in the classroom. Educators, administrators, parents, and even partners in the community all have a stake in student outcomes. However, since it’s the teachers designing the lessons and overseeing development in the classroom, they need to come up with a strategy for when to communicate with other stakeholders.

Schools can help their teachers by forming teams that can discuss the integration of social and emotional learning across the entire organization. By making it a school wide phenomenon instead of a single classroom event, stakeholders can improve the social and emotional outcomes for students.

The fourth principle should come easy to teachers: instructing students. Teachers should consider emotional and social learning no differently than they consider teaching academics.

Teaching students about their social and emotional growth can help students just as much as learning about science, math, or the arts. For this reason, it’s important for teachers to look at examples of best methods for teaching students about their social and emotional growth, particularly as it relates to dealing with challenging social situations.

However, the most important principle to remember about social and emotional learning is that this kind of instruction is about empowering students. It’s about empowering them to be in control of themselves and create a better life for themselves by owning their emotions and relationships.

Students should be given regular feedback about how they’re acting in the classroom that students can use to adjust how they engage with others and themselves. By providing regular feedback, just the same as with any academic lesson, teachers give students the tools they need to succeed when it comes to dealing with their social and emotional lives.

Ways of Integrating Resources to Teach Social Emotional Learning

While it’s all well and good to talk about the components of personality that social and emotional learning addresses, it can be confusing for teachers to come up with ways of adopting this teaching approach.

Writing for EdSurge, author Kelly Stuart detailed three different techniques that can help teachers better integrate social and emotional learning into their classrooms. These techniques start before the class even begins and continues long after the class is finished.

Techniques for Integration

Integrating social and emotional learning begins at the planning phase, where it’s easiest to forecast ways of adopting new teaching approaches. As with most lesson plans, planning for integration starts with considering what the purpose of the lesson is.

Teachers should begin by considering the lesson’s purpose. This means not only considering what the academic goals of the lesson are, but establishing what the social goals of the lessons are.

Once these goals have been established, teachers should consider how to structure the lesson. Although some independent work is almost unavoidable in the classroom, teachers should also identify areas in their lesson plans where students can work together in a social setting. This is important to encouraging the social skills students will need throughout their lives.

Teachers should consider their role in the classroom and how to facilitate lessons. They should identify areas where students are most likely to need help but otherwise let students engage with one another.

An important part of integrating social and emotional learning is the reflective phase of classwork. Once assignments have been completed, students should look back on their work and identify not only who they worked, but how they worked with others. Students can use these reflective periods to identify their issues working with others, and from this, teachers and students can work on building skills that will help students work with others.

Teachers may not completely understand how to integrate social and emotional learning, even when given a general outline. Stuart noted that a tool teachers should take advantage of is online videos demonstrating this teaching approach. By watching how other teachers plan to achieve both social and academic goals during a lesson, it’s easier to understand how to integrate this approach. However, watching examples of others isn’t the only way of learning from other teachers.

Instead, teachers should also set up debriefing periods in which they get together with other teachers to reflect on the approaches they used. By doing so, it may be easier to identify what practices were put into place that were effective at combining academic and social goals into a single lesson.

Examples of Integration

With all of this said, it’s important to review actual examples of how social and emotional learning are integrated into normal instruction. Author Christina Pirzada identified three ways that teachers integrated this approach into classroom reading.

The first technique she recommended was emphasizing the journey during the reading ,rather than the destination. For instance, it may be possible to teach students about the important quality of being resilient in the face of difficulties.

Reading literature about individuals from history, from Thomas Edison to Martin Luther King, Jr., can be used to emphasize how important being resilient is. Focusing on what these people faced and how they overcame can help teach students about what resilience means and how to become resilient themselves.

It’s clear when reading stories and history that there are easy ways to teach about important qualities, like resilience. However, it’s not impossible for teachers in science fields to also integrate social and emotional learning into their reading. This is particularly the case for teachers who are reviewing biology lessons.

Science teachers can point to lessons in the reading that review brain impulses and how they impact personality. Through these kinds of lessons, teachers can show students how their brains work and how stress and negative emotions affect them. By understanding what’s going on in their own bodies, students can better understand that there are some emotions that cannot be avoided but have to be dealt with.

Teachers can also use these lessons to discuss how different patterns of thinking impact how the brain works. By learning about these, students can become better prepared to change their ways of thinking.

Finally, history teachers are particularly primed to help students connect harmful events to the past with making positive actions in the present. History teachers can look at negative incidents from history and attach them to important modern concepts, like social justice.

Teachers can then show how students in the past took positive actions to impact society around them. This is a great way of showing students that they can positively impact society and be forces for good. This helps to empower students and help them understand that they’re not passive members of the community. Instead, they can be positive agents for change.

In a presentation for Education Week, author Ross Brenneman recommended using a six part system for integrating social and emotional learning into the classroom. It begins with envisioning the environment the teachers want to create before taking an inventory of the classroom.

What factors are enhancing the ability for students to healthily deal with their emotions and relationships? What factors are harming those same things? After that inventory has been taken, actions to address those situations can be identified. Perhaps certain students need to be addressed privately, or maybe teachers have to change how they engage with their students.

Once the teacher identifies what needs to be done, teachers can start preparing their lessons and how those actions will be integrated into those lessons. Perhaps teachers will need to do more facilitating of groups to ensure healthy discussions, for example.

As the program is ongoing, teachers can identify where students are struggling in their social and emotional growth and act as supportive coaches, guiding them to more healthy ways of engaging with the world around them.

Finally, an assessment of the social and emotional growth of students can be performed. If there are shortcomings, the teacher can return to their vision and tweak it, adjusting what they would like to see from students in the future.


It should be clear that there is no one technique or approach that will help teachers to better integrate social and emotional learning . How such learning takes place can be vastly different in a literature class versus a math or science class. However, there are core principles and techniques that teachers can keep in mind when they’re designing their lessons. Further, Ros Brenneman pointed out a successful, six step wheel by which teachers can envision and implement social and emotional learning in a way that fits their course.

As with anything new, implementing this form of learning can be difficult at first. That’s why it’s so important to continually assess the outcomes of social and emotional learning. By treating this form of instruction like any other, teachers can constantly work on their instructional method and improve the ways that students handle their emotions and relationships with the people around them.

Read Also:
Teaching Methods and Strategies: The Complete Guide
Blended Learning Guide
Collaborative Learning Guide
Flipped Classroom Guide
Game Based Learning Guide
Gamification in Education Guide
Holistic Education Guide
Maker Education Guide
Personalized Learning Guide
Place-Based Education Guide
Project-Based Learning Guide
Scaffolding in Education Guide

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