Social Emotional Learning History: An Intriguing Guide
Jan 19 2022

Social Emotional Learning History: An Intriguing Guide

Positive Action Staff
Did you know that between 40–50% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching?

Many cite loss of passion from feeling underpaid, undervalued, and overworked.

Fortunately, social emotional learning (SEL) as an educational approach makes learning more fun and rewarding—for both teachers and learners.

As teachers deliver SEL lessons, their classes become less disruptive and more cooperative. That’s because SEL equips students with skills and competencies to help them effectively manage their behavior and emotions for more resilience and better relationships.

As they teach their classes, educators learn these key skills too.

To have a better understanding of SEL and its benefits to both students and teachers, let’s explore its intriguing history.

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning is a methodology that helps students to develop self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills.

SEL can be applied in the classroom, at home, and in students’ greater community.

There are five core social-emotional learning competencies as shown below:

1. Self-awareness - Children are taught how to recognize their emotions and the impact they have on their behavior

2. Self-management - Learners are taught how to take ownership and control of their thoughts, emotions, and actions. They also learn how to create frameworks that help them achieve their goals

3. Social awareness - Students acquire skills to empathize with others, even when they’re from different backgrounds

4. Relationship skills - Learners are equipped with skills to build and maintain healthy relationships with people from different backgrounds and they learn how to improve their communication skills, peacefully resolve conflict, and also when to ask for or offer help

5. Responsible decision-making - Students are taught how to respond appropriately to situations by considering ethics, potential consequences, and the well-being of themselves and others

By integrating SEL in schools, educators can teach students critical life skills to not only help with their personal development but also with their academic performance.

SEL at school creates a virtuous cycle for positive interactions, and a culture where students and teachers respect one another and enjoy the learning-teaching experience. It motivates both teachers and students to do their best.

The Intriguing History of Social Emotional Learning

While it has gotten a lot of popularity in recent years, social emotional learning isn’t new. It can be traced as far back as ancient Greece.

Writing about education in The Republic, Plato proposed a holistic curriculum that would call for a balance in training in physical education, science, math, the arts, character, and moral judgment.

While it wasn’t fully articulated and studied, SEL is a timeless pursuit that continues to be the goal of education in the modern world. However, implementing social and emotional learning in modern school systems is quite new and still evolving.

Below, let’s explore the evolution of SEL in modern times.

1920s–1930s: Vygotskian Perspective on Learning as Unified

In the 1920s and 1930s, the work of Lev Vygotsky emphasized the key role of social interaction in the development of cognition. His work became foundational in SEL education over the next several decades—particularly in sociocultural theory.

Sociocultural theory suggests that how people interact with others and the culture they live in shapes their mental abilities.

Vygotsky strongly believed that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning.” He was the first modern psychologist to suggest that the culture one grows in plays a key role in their nature.

“Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level.”

Cole, John-Steiner, Scribner, and Souberman, Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (1978)

Vygotsky suggested three key areas of sociocultural theory:

Zone of proximal development: Vygotsky believed that learning should be related to a child’s developmental level. With ZPD, a child’s actual learning ability (what they can do without help) and their potential learning ability (what they can do with help) are recognized.

Private speech: This is when children talk to themselves, which Vygotsky saw as the starting point for all mental development. He argued that children talk to themselves to guide themselves through action.

Make-believe play: He believed that children use make-believe play to test multiple skills and achieve important cultural abilities.

1968s: Educating Poor Minority Children

In 1968, renowned child psychiatrist James P. Comer and the Yale Child Study Center created the Comer School Development Program (SDP).

The goal of the program was to improve the educational experience of poor ethnic minority youth.

It did so by building supportive bonds among children, parents, and educators.

“In every interaction, you are either building community or breaking community. The mechanisms. . . . are secondary” - James P. Comer

The Comer School Development Program encompasses academics and social-emotional development. At the time, the term social-emotional learning hadn’t been coined yet.

Comer suggested six developmental pathways: cognitive, social, psychological, linguistic, and ethical.

The program was tested in two poor, predominantly African American elementary schools in New Haven, Connecticut. Those schools typically reported low standardized test scores and high student and teacher absenteeism.

The program was a success. Compared to schools that weren’t on the program, SDP schools showed significant gains in achievement, attendance, and general behavior.

In the 1980s, the Yale Child Study Center started field-testing SDP in other schools in New Haven—with similar success.

Over the last several decades, hundreds of schools across the US have successfully used the Comer School Development Program to help their learners close the achievement gap.

1990s: Reflecting on Socio-Emotional Learning

In 2009, Diane Hoffman examined and wrote a critical cultural analysis on trends in the field of social-emotional learning in the US.

She focused on how emotional skills and competencies have informed programmatic discourse. Hoffman explained that program literature stressed links between SEL and academic achievement, while also placing emphasis on ideals of caring, community, and diversity.

Even so, some practices across SEL programs tended to undermine ideals with their focus on emotional and behavioral control strategies.

With such practices, SEL became another way to focus attention on measuring and remedying a student’s deficits—rather than redirecting teachers to focus on relational contexts.

Hoffman concluded that SEL needed more work to deliver on its promise of fostering increased achievement and equality in American education.

1995s: Why Emotional Intelligence Can Matter More Than IQ

In 1995, Daniel Goleman released his book, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More than IQ.

The widely-read book made emotional intelligence interesting to the general public. Goleman argued that emotional intelligence (EI) is as important as IQ for success.

The term “emotional intelligence” was coined by Salovey and Mayer (1989) to describe the ability to monitor theirs and others’ emotions and use them to guide behavior.

Expanding on this concept, Goleman stated that there are five key elements to emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand one’s own emotions. It also encompasses one’s ability to understand the effects their emotions have on others.

  • Self-regulation: The ability to control your impulses and actions and therefore express yourself more appropriately. Someone highly skilled in self-regulation is also able to take responsibility for their actions, adapt to change, and respond appropriately to other people’s emotions and behavior.

  • Motivation: Having an interest in continuous learning and self-improvement, despite obstacles. People with this skill have initiative and the commitment to complete tasks even in the face of adversity. They set goals and follow through with them.

  • Empathy: Having the ability to understand others’ emotions and reactions. With this skill, one is interested in other people’s worries and concerns, anticipate others’ emotional response, understand social norms, and why people act the way they do.

  • Social skills: Having the ability to build and maintain strong relationships, find common ground with others, and communicate effectively. People with great social skills can pick up on jokes, have good time management, resolve conflict, negotiate and persuade others, and lead or manage others.

1997s: Promoting Social and Emotional Learning

This period marked the school-based promotion of social competence—creating the first SEL framework.

In the book Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, the authors noted that fostering knowledgeable, caring, and responsible students was one of the most urgent challenges facing schools, families, and communities.

They proposed social and emotional learning to provide a framework for meeting this challenge.

The authors drew upon scientific studies, site visits, theories, and their own experiences to create approaches to social and emotional learning.

They came up with 39 guidelines to develop, implement, and evaluate effective social and emotional strategies. The guidelines are applicable for students at all levels.

The authors include Maurice Elias, Joseph Zins, and Roger P. Weissberg. All of them are members of the Research and Guidelines Work Group of the Collaborative for the Advancement of Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

1994s: What Does the Research Really Indicate?

After testing out different models of social-emotional learning, questions arose on its effectiveness.

In 2006, Lynn Waterhouse argued that emotional intelligence theories lacked adequate empirical support, and therefore shouldn’t be the basis for educational practice.

In response to her critique, researchers came out to disprove the validity of Waterhouse’s claims. They quoted numerous studies to show how emotional intelligence correlated to real-world success—whether in school or at work.

In this period, the terms SEL and CASEL also emerged. CASEL is the acronym for the Collaborative for Academic Social & Emotional Learning.

CASEL’s mission is to make evidence-based SEL a key part of education from preschool through high school.

Increase Your Students’ Social-Emotional Intelligence With Positive Action

Social emotional intelligence is the key to improving your students’ behavior, academic performance, and social success.

To boost your students’ social-emotional learning intelligence, you have to create an environment that is both supportive and challenging.

Where should you start?

Positive Action is here to help. We’ve developed an evidence-based SEL curriculum that’s designed to improve social-emotional learning in students at all levels—right from pre-K to high school. It simplifies the implementation of SEL with prepared lessons.

Positive Action’s model is multi-purpose, benefitting both educators and students in various areas of SEL.

It’s designed to increase physical, emotional, intellectual, and social skills. Acquisition of these skills leads to better physical health, reduction of disruptive behaviors, reduction of depression, improved academic performance, stronger interpersonal relationships, and reduction in bullying.

Our success stories speak for themselves. For instance, Positive Action was implemented in 34 elementary and middle schools in Compton — where it reenergized the education system for students and teachers.

“We insist that our teachers use the program because it helps us with our major tasks: improving our attendance, bettering our test scores, and decreasing our disciplinary referrals. We have wonderful outcomes.” - Saunya Ingersoll, the Compton Unified School District Prevention Coordinator

“Due to the daily reinforcement, my students’ behavior has improved immensely and, therefore, has made a positive impact on their academic achievement and attendance. My students now have a clear understanding of their strengths and weaknesses because they now have a new and positive concept of themselves.” - Mr. Watkins, a fourth-grade teacher at a Compton School

Buy our learning aids and kits and let us help you revolutionize the learning environment for your students.