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Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Supporting the Positive Development of the Whole Child

“Compassionate,”  “good leader,” “well-liked,” “supportive of peers.”  Year after year my husband and I have listened to teachers use these adjectives to describe our 10-year old son during annual parent-teacher conferences.  These descriptors say little about his academic performance, but most certainly suggest that he is a socially and emotionally intelligent child. To be honest, we are both relieved and gratified that the behaviors he displays at home are consistent in other settings when he’s not under the watchful eye of his parents. More importantly, we appreciate that his teachers hold these noncognitive skills with the same regard as academic skills. Indeed, educators, researchers, and policy makers at large are increasingly recognizing that social and emotional learning (SEL) is an influential predictor of success in academics as well as adult well-being and productivity.[1]

Social-emotional learning is a broad term used to describe the process of developing social-emotional competencies such as relationship-building, self-awareness and management, and responsible decision-making[2]—all of which provide students with the tools and confidence to establish and maintain positive relationships, set and achieve goals, and persevere through the many trials that they will face, both big and small. I can recall many instances when our son has faced struggles in his academics or other arenas of his life and handled them with a positive attitude and firm belief that he could make his situation better.  Undoubtedly, our son like many students has benefitted from positive SEL modeling and instruction from his family, teachers, peers, and community.

Just in the past few years, there has been an uptick in advocacy for the integration of SEL instruction in school programs across the country.[3] What is noteworthy, in my opinion, is that SEL education is being promoted as both intervention and prevention from preschool all the way through the high school grades. For example, Fresno Unified School District, along with other districts in California that are part of a collaborative known as the CORE Districts, have used SEL survey data to inform adoption of SEL practices and processes at the district level and the implementation of SEL instruction in all of its schools in an effort to support the growth of the whole student.[4] Moreover, organizations such as the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) have spearheaded the advancement of evidence-based SEL programs through various publications and guides that help educators to select programs that are suitable for their students.[5]

Already we are seeing the positive impacts of SEL programs, not only on students, but also on school culture and climate.[6]  What’s more, the most recent federal legislation under Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for states to include nonacademic indicators in order to provide a more comprehensive view of school performance. These actions give me hope that SEL instruction will be woven into the fabric our education system much like subject areas such as reading and mathematics.

While we applaud educators who are on the forefront of this movement towards fostering the positive development of the whole child, I will also add that this is a community responsibility. We are all responsible for modelling positive SEL, praising examples of good character, and encouraging our children to be kind, compassionate, patient, and understanding.



[1] Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development 82 (1), pages 405-432.  


[3] Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2016). The Missing Piece. A national teacher survey on how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools.

[4] McDermott, J., & Rainville, B. (2017). From the Central Office to the Classroom: Scaling Social-Emotional Learning in Fresno Unified. Panorama Education.


[6] Hough, H., Kalogrides, D., & Loeb, S. (2017). Using Surveys of Students’ Social-Emotional Learning and School Climate for Accountability and Continuous Improvement. Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE): CA.


Shelly Menendez is a Senior Research Associate for the Program Evaluation and School Improvement Services Division at Measurement Incorporated.

Please learn more about our program evaluation and professional development services on this website.

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