Corrected: The original version of this article misattributed a comment by Mark Brackett to Stephanie Jones.
Immerse yourself in the world of social-emotional learning, and one thing quickly becomes clear: What, exactly, social-emotional learning is can be hard to pin down, and people often resort to analogies and examples to explain it.
The ample amount of jargon in the SEL field (and, to be fair, all of education) doesn’t help.
To help clear some of this confusion, Education Week reached out to researchers and practitioners in the field to ask them to define social-emotional learning and compiled their answers here.
This is much more than a fun thought experiment for education nerds. It has real-world consequences: Because social-emotional learning is a nebulous term—in part because of a lack of consensus on everything that falls under the SEL umbrella—it’s easy to misunderstand or even misrepresent the concept.
For some educators, a lack of clarity over what, exactly, SEL is can present significant barriers to teaching it. Fifteen percent of teachers, principals, and superintendents said in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey that SEL being poorly defined in their district presented a major challenge to teaching it.
Parents are also confused about what social-emotional learning is. While they are strongly in favor of schools teaching social-emotional skills such as helping students learn to manage their emotions, set goals, and approach problems with optimism, the term “social-emotional learning” does not poll well with parents, according to a 2021 survey from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the polling firm YouGov. (They prefer the term “life skills.”)
The term has also gotten swept up in political debates over how to teach about topics such as racism and sexuality, and some conservative groups have suggested that SEL promotes political indoctrination of liberal beliefs.
Here are the jargon-free definitions, analogies, and examples of SEL that seven experts shared with Education Week:
“Social-emotional learning is the process by which children and adults learn how to solve inter- and intrapersonal problems in order to maximize their ability to flourish across environments.”
—David Adams, CEO, The Urban Assembly
“Social and emotional learning is the reason my son loves school again and can focus on learning. It is the relationship that he has built with a supportive teacher and the way he has developed skills to process his emotions, make friends, practice curiosity, and solve problems.”
—Aaliyah A. Samuel, President and CEO, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL
“SEL can’t be addressed only in a 10-minute morning meeting or every Thursday, fourth period. It can’t be isolated in occasional assemblies for students or in workshops for teachers. SEL—which includes the principles, tools, and strategies that build self- and social-awareness, healthy emotion regulation, and responsible decisionmaking—has to be an everyday thing and part of the school’s DNA. There needs to be a common language among all stakeholders. It has to be integrated into leadership, instruction, faculty meetings, family engagement, hiring procedures, and policies.”
—Marc Brackett, Professor, Yale School of Medicine, and Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence
“When I use a metaphor to teach SEL, I use fire fighting versus fire prevention. If I’m a forest ranger, and there are constantly forest fires, yes, I’m going to go put out those fires. But it makes a lot more sense for me to teach everyone at the campsite fire prevention. If I can teach people how to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts, and bounce back from setbacks, I’m going to put out less fires. ... What we need to do is teach, proactively, skills that help kids do fire prevention. Like, how to access mental health resources, how to bounce back from setbacks, how to build healthy relationships.”
—R. Keeth Matheny, Former Teacher, Founder of SEL Launchpad
“Brick-masonry structures are made with bricks bonded together with mortar; these structures can withstand even the most powerful storms. SEL is like the mortar. It connects people together by teaching how to develop and maintain relationships even when we disagree or are different from one another. SEL is like the mortar. It connects practices, skills, and emotions to help us create a healthy identity. SEL is like the mortar. It connects individual bricks of knowledge helping us to effectively apply ourselves and achieve goals. SEL is like the mortar. It creates empathetic, contributing, resilient humans who can withstand even the most powerful storms.”
—Trish Shaffer, MTSS/SEL Coordinator, Washoe County School District
“When you think about setting up a fish tank, you go in and purchase your fish, gravel, filter, little plants, all of that. When you are creating learning environments, you have the curriculum, the Texas essential knowledge and skills, lessons of how students will get an understanding of all these concepts. And you have the water. But if your pH is off, your fish will not survive. You can have great facilities, content, people, but if people don’t feel like they belong, unsafe, disconnected, or unable to regulate their emotions, learning will not take place.”
—Statia Paschel, Director of SEL and Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness, Austin Independent School District
For this last example of what SEL should look like, Stephanie Jones, an education professor at Harvard and the director of the EASEL lab, asks people to imagine a classroom with a teacher reading to students:
“Just imagine, what does it take for that group to engage in that task together successfully? Think about what those children need to do to hear what’s happening in the book: to hear the words, to hear the meaning, to feel the experience of the characters or the actors in the book, whoever they might be. It takes focused attention. You have to be able to put your attention inside the book and maybe shift it from one thing to another, one chapter to the next or one idea to the next. In a group, typically, you have to be able to manage your behavior. You can’t be bumping everybody all the time because that’s going to disturb their experience of reading the book. You have to be able to understand, experience and manage the emotional world because emotions come up in books. They come up in interactions, they come up in conversations. To understand what is happening in the book, the child needs a sense of ‘What’s the emotion that’s happening for me right now? And, what am I noticing about this character in the book and how that is related to the story?’ And finally, the child needs to feel a connection and a sense of trust with that adult. Something that confirms that the child is seen and valued in that setting and can successfully manage interactions with those children and with that adult. The technical (aka skills and competencies) of SEL is all of these things and is deeply woven into all aspects of learning.”