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

Written by Chris Balow, Ph.D. on October 18, 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 depression, anxiety disorders, 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.

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