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Social-Emotional Learning vs. Mental Health: What’s the Difference?

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October 18th, 2018

With the release of a new survey published recently by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, school principals in K-8 schools say their top concern is the rising numbers of students with emotional problems and mental health needs.

To put it in perspective, this survey has been conducted since 1928; in the 2008 report—just 10 years ago—students’ social-emotional needs did not rank among the top 10 student issues about which the majority of principals expressed “high” or “extreme” concern. Clearly, something has changed in the minds of school principals.

Alongside student emotional and mental health concerns is the recent focus on social-emotional learning (SEL). There is significant confusion around the differences and similarities between student mental health services and SEL programming, as some have come to use the terms interchangeably.

There is clear co-morbidity of SEL competencies and student mental health issues with many students having needs in both domains. However, there are students with clinically diagnosable mental health conditions that do not have identified SEL competencies deficits, as well as students with specific social skill deficits that do not have emotional or mental health needs.

There is an erroneous assumption that SEL programming directly addresses mental health and emotional needs of students (which is only partially true). That is to say, students with mental health needs (and all students, for that matter) can greatly benefit from SEL programming, but it may not necessarily be a sufficient condition to meet the specific individual needs of students struggling with mental health conditions.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the fostering of social and emotional competencies through explicit instruction and through student-centered learning approaches that help students engage in the learning process and develop analytical, communication, and collaborative skills.

The key word in this definition is “competencies.” Competencies are skills which can be taught and learned through proper pedagogy and science-to-practice methodologies. SEL, in many respects, is not an entirely new concept—as far back as 30 years ago, school mental health professionals taught “social skills” which for all intents and purposes is an analog to SEL.

Social-emotional learning strategies center on research that has linked the development of skills like building healthy peer relationships, responsible decision making, self-management, self-awareness, and social awareness to success inside and outside the classroom.

However, it’s important to make the distinction: SEL does not encompass mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and bi-polar disorder. (Although SEL programs can definitely provide strong support for students with diagnosed psychiatric conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and intermittent explosive disorder.)

Student mental health is the primary concern of school and district leaders across the country. According to the National Research Council, the incident rate of mental health concerns in American youth within a given year is estimated to be between 13-20 percent of children living in the United States. This equates to approximately 10 million students who need professional help in the K-12 public schools nationwide. For a typical classroom, this would equate to roughly five children having a diagnosable mental health disorder. Stated another way, a typical school of 500 students could have up to 100 students with mental health needs.

Mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are the most common mental health diagnoses among children and adolescents, although the most prevalent parent-reported disorder is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many students also suffer from fears, phobias, and performance anxiety. A greater concern is the suicide rate of the youth, which can result from the interaction of mood disorders and other factors, and serves as the second leading cause of death among children aged 12-17 years.

The impacts of untreated mental health problems in students are significant and can impact an entire school. Students who are untreated can may experience difficulty following instructions, concentrating, problem solving, staying engaged and motivated, and exhibiting self-control (which can be wrongly attributed as willful disobedience or noncompliance).

Students can also have difficulty regulating emotions and maintaining friendships, which can lead to a sense of isolation and disconnectedness—again the co-morbidity of SEL and mental health. In some cases, students can be so immobilized by fear, depression, or anxiety that they avoid school completely. Furthermore, mental illness often manifests in harmful behaviors, ranging from physical aggression and bullying to substance abuse and self-injury—all of which can cause great stress for classmates and teachers.

It’s vital that schools and districts endeavor to address the needs of children from both a social-emotional learning competency perspective as well as from a mental health perspective. Although there is clear co-morbidity of SEL and mental health, these domains are distinct and need to be addressed on their own terms as it relates to assessment, identification, programming, interventions and monitoring progress.

Districts must be highly systematic in collecting SEL and mental health data on students. To this end, it is critical that districts have the capabilities to house these data in a secure fashion; analyze longitudinal trends across the district, schools, and individual students; deploy early warning systems; and triangulate multiple of measures of data (e.g., SEL, mental health, attendance, grades, test scores, climate, bullying) to develop a whole child perspective.

It’s from this whole child perspective that schools will be able to identify the specific needs of all students and deliver the best possible programs, services, and interventions.

To learn more about supporting students’ social-emotional needs and bolstering mental health, download our free playbook:


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  1. Michele Kinzel-Peles on April 30, 2020 at 3:21 am

    I’m the SAMHSA Project AWARE Coordinator for the New York State Education Department. Is Illuminate Education an approved vendor with the New York City Department of Education? Thank you.

    • Martin Yan on April 30, 2020 at 3:33 pm

      Hi Michele — Thanks for your comment. Yes, we are an approved vendor with NYCDOE. Is there anything we can assist you with specifically?

      • Michele Kinzel-Peles on June 2, 2020 at 10:08 am

        I’m the SAMHSA Project AWARE Coordinator for the New York State Education Department. Please email me at with a phone number I can reach you with.
        Thank you,

  2. […] Balow, C. (2018, October 18). Social-Emotional Learning vs. mental health: What’s the difference. Illuminate Education website. […]

  3. Norma Miller on August 14, 2020 at 2:22 am

    This year already has been one that is full of extreme changes. As a teacher of four year olds this is not going to be an easy one. There are many restrictions and guidelines that we are trying to prepare for and to accomodate our students. The investment that I have made on buckets, crayon boxes and school cleaning supplies has been immense. Mentally it is trying. I want the best for our students. I have taught over 35 years and I don’t stop because I love what I do. We are their first experience in school, if it is positive we will have a life long happy learner. That is my goal to try to create a sense of normalcy.
    With respect,Norma Marie Miller

  4. Jean Rubenstein on August 18, 2020 at 7:04 am

    This year as a paraprofessional in a virtual classroom we will have to developed ways to help children with a lot of issues. Trying to read the child’s mood and possible cry for help is going to be very difficult to access the situation.

  5. Mildred Platt on August 18, 2020 at 8:22 am

    Being able to point out cries or a need of a student and being able to help will be a huge task this year.

  6. Iria Gabriela Fernandez on August 18, 2020 at 8:25 am

    having of social-emotional learning practices, tips, and strategies to improve the emotional intelligence and health of students. Many of them simply involve speaking with students about emotions and proper responses.

    • Michael Clarke on August 18, 2020 at 9:53 am

      I would make a log and put entries in on a regular basis.

  7. JoAnne Smith on August 18, 2020 at 10:49 am

    There’s a lot teachers can do to help students feel valued and included, but it’s vital that teachers recognize when a child’s distress and issues are beyond their training and to seek help from outside agencies. The teacher is often the first one to sound the bell, since we see so many children and may know or sense a deeper problem.

  8. Janna Hochfeld on August 18, 2020 at 10:53 am

    I agree with keeping a log.

  9. Lorraine Berg on August 18, 2020 at 3:14 pm

    I will keep a log as well.

  10. Katrina Arroyo on August 19, 2020 at 9:04 am

    Mood disorders can affect children’s S E L because parents may not be aware of their condition.

    • Margarita Bofill on August 19, 2020 at 7:21 pm

      We, can make a difference on children’s SEL. Keeping a log and applying SEL strategies can make a big difference.

  11. Donna Johns on August 27, 2020 at 6:59 am

    Having read the article, I can see that there is a distinction between SEL and Mental Health. As teachers, I believe there are several things we can do to create a classroom environment that fosters the social and emotional well-being of our students as we get to know them personally. However, we more than likely need more information and training regarding specific mental health disorders and how to address them in the classroom setting in order to better serve our students.

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