Skip to content

Understanding Why Social Emotional Learning is Important for Schools

Written by
August 4th, 2016

For many years, the focus within classrooms has been centered on assessments.

How students were performing on state exams were supposed to tell the story of student achievement—or at least, most of the story.

However, the number of research studies has increased on this topic and the evidence for why social emotional learning is important, and essential, for student success is overwhelming.

Table of Contents

  • What Is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?
  • Why Is Social Emotional Learning Important?
  • When Did SEL in Schools Become a Priority?
  • What is the Goal of SEL?
  • How Should We Approach SEL?
  • How Does Social Emotional Learning Impact Learning?

What Is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?

A common social emotional learning definition states that SEL is the process of developing the… 

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-control; and 
  3. Interpersonal skills

… that are vital for school, work, and life success.

This social and emotional learning definition encompasses skills like:

  • Developing healthy identities
  • Managing emotions 
  • Achieving personal and collective goals
  • Feeling and showing empathy for others
  • Establishing and maintaining supportive relationships
  • Making responsible and caring decisions

Why Is Social Emotional Learning Important?

Studies have shown that many risky behaviors such as drug use, bullying, and absenteeism are often linked to poor social and emotional skills.

What’s more, SEL has been linked to actual performance within the classroom and assessments, solidifying why SEL is important.

According to Roger P. Weissberg, the editor of Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice, citing Durlak et al.: “SEL not only improves achievement by an average of 11 percentile points, but it also increases prosocial behaviors and reduces depression and stress among students.”

With new insights and ongoing research, schools are now upping their efforts to properly develop and assess a teaching methodology that will account for social-emotional learning concepts and skill sets.

When Did SEL Become a Priority?

In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to establish greater accountability among educators for student achievement.

Its plan was to measure academic performance through state standards and assessments, with a special focus on boosting performance of certain groups of students such as:

  • English Learners (ELs); and
  • Socio-economically disadvantaged students.

Schools were required to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), which would result in rewarding schools that did well, and providing sanctions for schools that didn’t. Sanctions included possible student transfers and potential loss of federal Title I money.

What happened over the next decade and a half was a gradual realization of the limitations surrounding NCLB.

Complaints surfaced about its narrowed focus on testing, and it failed to compensate for other social factors like behavior and attendance.

In 2013, several California school districts received waivers from penalties under NCLB law. It freed districts from key sanctions and provided additional funding for school improvement.

The California Office to Reform Education (CORE) proposed reducing the number of students within a subgroup from 100 or more to 20 or more, which would account for another 150,000 students that were left unrepresented in the CORE districts under NCLB.

Under CORE, students would be measured not only by state assessments but a more holistic view of SEL and engagement:

  • 60% – Scores on state exams, HS graduation rates
  • 20% – Parent and teacher surveys (perception data)
  • 20% – SEL factors like chronic absenteeism, suspensions and expulsions

These changes have resulted in at least two critical outcomes.

  1. Now, there is greater insight on the academics of specific student groups, which has spawned conversations around issues of disproportionality (especially amongst Black and Latinx students).
  2. New initiatives are being introduced to teach soft skills as part of educating the whole child.

What is the Goal of SEL?


The goal of social emotional learning in education is to promote and improve students’ attitudes and beliefs about themselves, their relationships with others, and their education.

This could mean various types of skills related to emotional intelligence. Many researchers, however, generally agree on five specific subsets of core competencies:

  1. Self-awareness – To process one’s own thoughts and feelings, and learn how to express them to others
  2. Self-management – To control one’s own emotions and behaviors in different contexts and environments
  3. Social awareness – To empathize and understand people from various backgrounds or cultures, as well as internalize social norms of behavior
  4. Relationship skills – To build and maintain meaningful relationships with others by active and healthy communication
  5. Responsible decision making – To make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions

These sets of competencies are related to one another in various degrees and involve multiple cognitive and behavioral skills. All of these skills can and must be developed within the school and home environments.

How Should We Approach SEL?

Understanding the various elements and standards that constitute SEL is just the first step in the process.

The next step is to determine how to build an effective implementation of a system-wide SEL program. This requires a three-pronged approach: professional learning, curriculum, and measurement.

Professional Learning

Critical to the success of any new initiative is ongoing, job-embedded professional learning for teachers and staff. SEL programs are no different. Educator teams need support to understand what SEL is and to implement evidence-based SEL practices and programs.

They also need training on how to validly administer SEB assessments, how to interpret the results of screening, and how to take action on the data.

High-quality professional learning increases team buy-in and accelerates the effective system-wide implementation of SEL curriculum and screening tools. But most importantly, it will amplify the impact of your programs, ensuring that the benefits of integrated SEL programs are fully realized.


Social-emotional skills can be taught, and there are many SEL curricula and programs available to support the development of social-emotional competencies. Just like with math and reading, students need explicit social-emotional instruction using an evidence-based program. Various SEL programs take different approaches. Some focus on teaching core competencies such as Self-Awareness and Responsible Decision-Making and others focusing on the development of specific SEL skills such as setting and achieving goals and developing positive relationships.

When selecting a curriculum or program, it’s important to identify your SEL goals so you can determine whether the curricula you’re evaluating have the content and supports to help you meet those goals.

Context is also an important factor to consider. Curricula that take into account different cultural backgrounds, beliefs, and social settings when designing their lesson plans will be more effective with a broader range of students. While a SEL curriculum plays an important role in a school-wide SEL program, SEL should not be relegated to a specific time, class, or stand-alone lesson. Rather, incorporate SEL into the fabric of the school day, from a morning check-in on how students are feeling to pointing out a character’s social-emotional skills when reading a book. Integrating SEL into every part of of students’ educational experience provides opportunities for students to practice and build their skills.


While curriculum is a key component of an effective SEL program, too often districts choose a SEL curriculum before identifying which SEL skills their students are strong in and which they may need instruction and practice to develop. Prior to selecting and implementing a SEL curriculum, educators should first select a social-emotional behavior screener and measure their students’ social-emotional skills. With these data, educators will have insight into where to focus instructional efforts in order to bestaddress the specific needs of their students.

Similar to how we monitor student academic progress to gauge the effectiveness of core curricular programs and teacher professional learning, social-emotional screeners provide insight into the effectiveness of school-wide SEL efforts.

Other Considerations

Here are a few additional points in mind when approaching SEL data for student success.

1. Be aware of Student Conditions

We need to understand that every student comes into the classroom with various outside factors that could affect their learning ability.

If students are dealing with issues like family dysfunction or peer pressure, they won’t be as prepared or focused on learning.

Come up with ways to identify those problems and address them early on.

2. Understand Student Dispositions

We need to apply our efforts in figuring out a student’s beliefs towards education.

    • How willing are they to learn? 
    • What are their motivations for school? 
    • What things actually support, enhance or reinforce their beliefs about education?

Addressing their purpose within the classroom or helping define their “why” is crucial in getting students to participate as much as they can in their own education.

3. Educate the Whole Child

As we take those two points into consideration, we’ll be more equipped to educate the whole child.

A resource that could be helpful in this process is an MTSS collaboration and management solution. Having a system that will…

    • measure
    • track; and
    • analyze data

…in regards to student behavior and performance will allow educators to keep a pulse on student progress and identify any red flags along the way.

How Does Social Emotional Learning Impact Learning?

This approach towards the overall health of a child and their mindset to embrace learning is critical. When educators approach SEL from a perspective of equity and wanting to ensure that conditions of a school are appropriate for healthy learning, students will be given the best chance to succeed in their education and in life.



Illuminate Education equips educators to take a data-driven approach to serving the whole child. Our solution combines comprehensive assessment, MTSS management and collaboration, and real-time dashboard tools, and puts them in the hands of educators. As a result, educators can monitor learning and growth, identify academic and social-emotional behavioral needs, and align targeted supports in order to accelerate learning for each student. 

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

Share This Story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *