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Intro to Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), Mental Health, and Trauma

July 10th, 2020


Let’s talk about something that we’re probably all hearing about a lot, and maybe we don’t have a lot of information about it. Let’s dig into the topics of mental health needs for our students and the effects of trauma on students as well as social-emotional learning. 

What is social-emotional learning (SEL)?

Social-emotional learning is how well a student is able to practice and demonstrate the skills that are needed to regulate their emotions and to know how to interact with people. There are the social and emotional aspects that come together. Some students are more able to do that based on their experiences and opportunities in life, while other students have more challenges.

Often, we have to take time to teach kids the skills that they’re going to need and give them the opportunities to practice those skills. So that when it comes to life, they’re able to walk out of our schools being able to demonstrate that they can be socially and emotionally prepared for the things that get thrown their way. 

How does SEL relate to mental health?

Mental health is the overall term we use to represent how able a student is to regulate emotion—to identify that “there’s a thought that’s happening that affects my body,” and then being able to adjust and behave in a specific way (or in adaptive/maladaptive ways). 

Mental health is the outcome of the social-emotional learning that has to happen. So, when we think about the skills that are needed to act socially appropriate and the ways that students need to regulate their emotions, those can all be taught in isolation. Mental health is the outcome of the person’s ability to tie the social-emotional learning together. 

How does trauma impact learning?

What we know about trauma is that it actually affects a student’s ability to learn. It affects the brain. Students who are exposed to trauma—and not just like one time trauma, but multiple traumatic experiences over time—can be impacted in the brain. Trauma can actually change the student’s functioning and ability to behave in specific ways and take in the information they need. 

It creates the “fight-or-flight” response in our brain, which produces a high level of cortisol. By doing that, the frontal lobe isn’t able to actually make the connections that it needs to. So, trauma has a significant impact in how well our students can learn. 

As educators, we need to know that if students have experienced trauma, then we need to take a step back and layer in supports. We need to create a safe place for these kids to walk into every day where they can expect what will happen, so that the fight-or-flight response settles down and they can access the information they need. If we know that students have had traumatic experiences, then we can shift what we need to do as educators and give opportunities to support those kids.


Illuminate Education partners with K-12 educators to equip them with data to serve the whole child and reach new levels of student performance. Our solution brings together holistic data and collaborative tools and puts them in the hands of educators. Illuminate supports over 17 million students and 5200 districts/schools.

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