What is SEL?

Three hands palm down in a circle against a yellow background
(Image credit: Image by falco from Pixabay )

SEL is an acronym for social-emotional learning. SEL activities at schools are designed to help students and teachers develop healthy identities, manage emotions, and achieve personal and collaborative goals. 

COVID-era challenges and the ongoing mental health crisis in young people have led more districts to focus on initiatives that integrate SEL lessons and opportunities into classroom activities and teacher training. 

Here’s all you need to know about SEL. 

15 Sites/Apps for Social-Emotional Learning

SEL For Educators: 4 Best Practices

Explaining SEL to Parents

What is SEL and What is its History?  

Various SEL definitions exist but one of the most frequently cited comes from The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). “We define social and emotional learning (SEL) as an integral part of education and human development,” the organization states (opens in new tab). “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” 

The concept of SEL is not new and forms of social and emotional learning have been a part of education throughout history, however, the modern usage of the term can be traced back to the 1960s, according to Edutopia (opens in new tab). At the end of that decade, James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center, launched the Comer School Development Program. The pilot program incorporated many destined-to-be common elements of SEL and focused on two poorer and predominantly Black elementary schools in New Haven that had the city’s worst attendance and academic achievement. By the 1980s, academic performance at the schools was better than the national average and the model became influential in education. 

In the 1990s, SEL entered the lexicon and CASEL was formed. The nonprofit organization was originally housed at Yale but is now based in Chicago. CASEL remains one of the leading organizations promoting the research and implementation of SEL, although there are now many other organizations dedicated to it. These include the Choose Love Movement (opens in new tab), which was founded by Scarlett Lewis after her son, Jesse, was murdered during the Sandy Hook school shooting. 

What Does SEL Research Show?  

A good deal of research strongly suggests a link between SEL programs and student wellbeing as well as academic success. A 2011 meta-analysis (opens in new tab) that examined 

213 studies with a combined sample size of more than 270,000 students found that SEL interventions increased students’ academic performance by 11 percentile points over those who did not participate. Students participating in SEL programs also showed improved classroom behavior, and ability to manage stress and depression. These students also had more positive opinions of themselves, others, and school. 

More recently, a 2021 review (opens in new tab) found SEL interventions reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in young people. 

What Do SEL Programs Look in Practice?  

SEL programs incorporate a wide variety of activities, ranging from group projects to team-building and mindfulness exercises. However, experts say some of the strongest SEL programming is built into everyday classroom lessons. 

“If I'm designing a science lesson, I would have a science objective, but I might also have an SEL objective,” Karen VanAusdal, senior director of Practice for CASEL, told Tech & Learning (opens in new tab). “‘I want students to know how to collaborate in a group to solve a problem,’ might be an SEL objective. ‘I want students to persist through challenging thinking and challenging work.’ I do that in the design of my instruction. And then I also make that apparent to students and transparent to students that this is part of what we're learning here.”

SEL Resources from Tech & Learning

SEL-related sites, lessons, best practices, advice, and more. 

15 Sites/Apps for Social-Emotional Learning (opens in new tab)

SEL For Educators: 4 Best Practices (opens in new tab)

Explaining SEL to Parents (opens in new tab)

Fostering Well-Being and Social-Emotional Learning Skills (opens in new tab)

Promoting Social-Emotional Learning in Digital Life (opens in new tab)

Best Practices for Blending SEL and Technology (opens in new tab)

5 Mindfulness Apps and Websites for K-12 (opens in new tab)

Building A Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) Framework for Mental Health (opens in new tab)

Best MTSS Resources (opens in new tab)

How Deep Work Supports Student Wellness (opens in new tab)

How to Quiet the Hyperactive Hive Mind in Schools (opens in new tab)

Study: Popular Students Are Not Always Well-liked (opens in new tab)

Mindfulness Training Shows Promise for Teachers in New Study (opens in new tab)

Social-Emotional Wellness: ‘Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First’ (opens in new tab)

Teacher Burnout: Recognizing and Reducing It (opens in new tab)

Former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera: Using Poetry to Support SEL (opens in new tab)

How to Remotely Support Social-Emotional Learning (opens in new tab)

Building a Sustainable Social-Emotional Learning Plan (opens in new tab)

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.