Social & Emotional Learning – Part I – What Is It?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been a hot topic in education since the mid-1990s, when experts in various fields developed the theory to better prepare students for school and life.

Since then, school districts around the country have worked hard to implement the social and emotional learning theory in their curricula, policies, and procedures.  Administrators, teachers, and staff receive professional development training on these topics.

To better understand exactly what SEL is, and how it impacts the overall learning process, it’s best to look at the theory in its individual parts.

At its core, social learning theory:

  • Is the belief that all learning takes place in social settings because both cognitive functioning and environmental factors influence how we learn
  • States that new information and behaviors can be learned by first watching others and then imitating them
  • Categorizes each individual student as the observer while the teachers, parents, and peers around them serve as models 
  • Explains the learning process as a series of observation, internalization, imitation, and feedback events

Social learning theory posits that as desirable behaviors are rewarded, they increase among students.  To the contrary, as undesirable behaviors are punished, they decrease among students.

When the social learning theory is put into practice in the classroom, students should learn more because of direct observation, internalization, imitation, and the feedback loop.  These functions all work together to create the desired learning and behavior results schools are looking for.

Emotional learning:

  • Is focused on teaching students the soft skills that employers are looking for
  • Includes character-building skills like conflict resolution, moving on after making a mistake, advocating for yourself, sharing your feelings in a safe way, having empathy for other people, and actively listening

The purpose of incorporating emotional learning in the classroom is to help students be better prepared to learn by ensuring that their emotional needs are being met and they have the ability to see outside themselves and experience how others feel.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is about teaching students better self-awareness and the interpersonal skills needed to get along with others.  Proponents of SEL argue that it helps students find more success in the classroom, academically and socially, increases graduation rates, and that it creates a more positive learning environment for all. 

Those who are not proponents argue that SEL is often used to push progressive social agendas onto students, such as the Critical Race Theory or the redefinition of gender.  They further argue that it violates students’ privacy, and it prevents administrators and teachers from holding students accountable for bad behaviors. 

Regardless, SEL impacts the entire learning process because teachers are required to use observation and modeling as part of their instructional practices.  This is often referred to as the I Do, We Do, You Do Model.  SEL sets the standard for student-centered discipline as the basis of teachers’ classroom management strategies.