Student Well-Being

Does SEL Make Students Ready for Work? We Asked Educators

By Lauraine Langreo — November 21, 2022 2 min read
A diverse group of students wearing book bags and climbing ladders and books to assemble a large puzzle
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Educators overwhelmingly say that teaching social-emotional skills in the classroom is helpful for students’ career readiness.

Eighty-four percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders said they believe the social-emotional learning conducted in their schools has a “positive” impact on students’ “soft skills,” according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 824 educators conducted from Sept. 28 to Oct. 1.

The survey results suggest that even though SEL has run into political pushback in some communities, educators still believe that it’s important to teach students how to control their emotions, empathize with others, set goals, persist through challenges, and think creatively.

“Whenever we speak to what SEL is, and as we define SEL for our teachers, we are explaining that SEL skills are essential to success in school, work, and in life,” said Juany Valdespino-Gaytán, the executive director of engagement services for the Dallas Independent school district. “And we explain that when employers are looking for potential employees, they are looking for these skills that they know that they need in order to be successful when working with others.”

Some business leaders say that these “soft skills,” or interpersonal attributes, are arguably more important than “hard skills,” or job-specific knowledge.

“It’s the soft skills, like thinking critically or problem-solving analytical skills, the ability to work in teams, communication—those are all the top skills that employers say that they most value and need in their workers,” said Maud Abeel, associate director for the nonprofit Jobs For The Future.

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conceptual illustration of a ladder leaning against the wall of a maze.

In Dallas ISD, where SEL has been an intentional classroom practice since 2016, Valdespino-Gaytán said teachers have recognized that teaching SEL skills has been really helpful, not only because it makes student interactions better, but also because they’ve seen improvement in students’ academic achievement.

Still, not all educators are on board. Fourteen percent said teaching SEL in the classroom has a “neutral” impact on students’ soft skills and 2 percent said it has a “negative” impact, according to the EdWeek Research Center survey. About a dozen of 270-plus comments in the open-ended response section of the survey were also critical of teaching social emotional learning skills in the classroom.

“SEL is a waste,” said a high school history and social studies teacher in Arizona in the open-ended response section of the survey. “We continue to teach students to be sensitive and soft. Young people no longer know how to overcome obstacles. They cry about it, ask someone else for help, or act out irrationally.

“If we, as educators, stopped holding these kids’ hands, stopped allowing them to retake, make up, and pass just for showing up, maybe we would see a more hardworking, self-reliant generation,” the respondent continued. “Failure is failure, learn to recover.”

For Abeel, it’s surprising to hear that educators would hold that view on SEL. Both she and Valdespino-Gaytán reiterate that SEL skills are vital.

“It’s imperative to help people understand that we’re not talking about teaching a separate set of ‘woke’ skills,” Abeel said. “We’re really talking about foundational inter- and intrapersonal skills that are essential to human development.”

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A student in Stephanie Brugler, during the educational development of SEL with her students of Jefferson PK-8 school.
A student in Stephanie Brugler 3rd grade class participates in an SEL lesson on emotions at the Jefferson PK-8 school in Warren, Ohio, on Nov. 1, 2022.
Daniel Lozada for Education Week


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