Social Emotional Learning: What It Is and How to Encourage It


August 15, 2023 | jamesclinic

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Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is an important learning process in which social and emotional skills needed to successfully navigate life are developed. Strong social-emotional skills help you make well-informed choices, handle daily challenges and setbacks, and build positive relationships. While SEL is often discussed in regard to skills children need to learn, adults too can benefit greatly from SEL.

How does SEL help?

The team at Understood.org explains that SEL helps individuals work on key traits, such as:

  • Setting goals
  • Coping with positive and negative feelings
  • Developing interpersonal skills
  • Resolving conflicts
  • Learning how to talk about challenges
  • Building self-esteem

Children with and without learning differences or behavioral challenges can benefit from SEL. Just like children aren’t born with the ability to read or do math, they also aren’t born with strong social-emotional skills. Such skills must be developed over time and SEL can support their growth.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) there are 5 key aspects of SEL. These skills can be fostered in a variety of settings, including at school, in community programs, and at home. Better yet, the skills are developed across settings and adapted to fit individual’s goals and values. The “CASEL 5” include:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

By developing the above skills, children often experience less emotional distress, says Understood.org, and fewer behavioral problems at school. Furthermore, lessons in SEL have been shown to lead to an increase in attendance at school, as well as improved grades and test scores. Whether your goal is to support your child’s success in school or boost their social/emotional functioning outside of the classroom, developing SEL skills can make a significant positive impact on your child’s sense of self and ability to thrive.

When can I teach my child SEL?

CASEL explains that the above SEL skills can be taught at any developmental age, childhood through adulthood, and across environmental and cultural contexts. Taking a developmental perspective on SEL allows social skills and competencies of all age levels to be targeted and developed. SEL standards and instruction are, therefore, designed to meet the age-appropriate needs of each group at hand. For all children, there are helpful SEL skills to be learned and applied to whatever stage of life they are in.

The Importance of SEL for Children with Learning Differences

All children face challenges growing up, but children with learning differences are at an increased risk of experiencing social and emotional challenges. Despite all their efforts, children with learning differences, such as dyslexia, ADHD, or processing challenges, may still struggle to progress academically and experience high levels of frustration. Such frustration is often accompanied by anxiety of not being able to meet expectations, and low self-esteem.

For children with challenges beyond those inherent to navigating childhood, SEL is particularly important. Dyslexia expert Michael Ryan, MD, explains to LD Online that a person with dyslexia is prone to feeling a variety of emotions, including anxiety, anger, self-image issues, and depression. Furthermore, handicapping conditions, like dyslexia, can have significant impacts on the family and lead to family problems if overlooked. Caring adults must appreciate the cognitive and emotional challenges presented by a condition like dyslexia and then implement appropriate strategies for helping children with learning differences succeed academically and socially.

How You Can Foster SEL at Home

As awareness of SEL grows, many schools are incorporating SEL concepts into their programs. If your child’s school has not yet adopted SEL principles, though, there are many things you can do at home to introduce the concept of SEL and grow these essential skills for your child over time.

If you’re interested in implementing SEL concepts in your own home, explore the parent resources provided by the Social-Emotional and Character Development (SECD) Lab at Rutgers University. The SECD Lab provides handouts, tool kits, videos, and brochures full of tips for how to develop your child’s SEL skills. Resources are provided in English and Spanish for children of all ages.

Quick tips for fostering SEL in your home include:

      Listen: play games, listen to music, read books, and discuss with your child why listening is important

      Model empathy: read poems, share stories about differences and appreciate those differences, do community service with your child, have your child help care for things around the house

     Develop coping skills: practice calming techniques together, create stress-free afternoons, honor grief and positive memories after the loss of a loved one

      Set goals: help your child identify a long-term goal that could be accomplished within a few months and then help them work towards it, identify the value of hard work in achieving goals, discuss the importance of and the skills needed for perseverance

      Address bullying: discuss how it feels to be bullied, left out, or ignored and then identify ways to deal with bullying and support friends who may have been bullied

Whether your child is exposed to SEL in school or not, incorporating such lessons into your home environment is a great way to support your child’s social/emotional well-being and strengthen their skill set across environments. SEL is not for any single environment. SEL skills are applicable across all aspects of children’s and adults’ lives, including home, school, sports, work, and family and social relationships. Strengthening your child’s SEL skills now will help prepare them for and thrive during whatever challenges they encounter, not just in childhood, but throughout their life.

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