Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is the systematic instruction of social-emotional skills in a formal setting. The origins of SEL can be traced back to ancient Greece, as Plato grounded his Academy in civic virtue. He believed that this pursuit was fundamentally important for a harmonious society and that the welfare of the community was paramount. While known mostly for his contributions to mathematics, Pythagoras would later form a school based on honesty and friendship. These complementary philosophies underpin modern-day social- emotional learning instruction.

SEL History

Contemporary education has just recently reconnected with these philosophies. While some noted educators in the 18th and 19th centuries understood the importance of civic virtue, the question of morality was firmly within the scope of religion and theology throughout most of modern history. In the 1950’s, education began focusing on “character development” and began a slow departure from the sermonizing of morality to a more secular discussion of values. This gave way to a larger discussion on the theory of self-concept, which is promoted further in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

The social upheaval of the 1960’s affected the character development movement as social pressure sought to further enforce the separation of church and state. Self-concept and its various constructs became more in focus as society celebrated individual rights and the development of moral reasoning skills. Educators mostly abandoned explicit moral stances and instead focused the students’ ability to define their own values. This dynamic created a void in education that would later prompt Dr. Carol Allred to develop Positive Action.

Pedagogical theory of SEL

Character development provided the opening for the theory of self-concept. This in turn led to a new field that educators termed “character education”, which was in response to the declining trends in youth character. This rapid evolution in education spawned new professional organizations, products and services. Yet many educators remained concerned that teaching anything related to values and morality raises its own set of ethical issues that can often detract from other important topics.

SEL is the refined iteration of this debate. Educators now acknowledge that there are a basic set of important personal social-emotional learning competencies that are crucial for students that were partly abandoned but remain as important today as they were in ancient Greece.

This evolution continues to this day as education begins to incorporate new technologies into the classroom and students are surrounded by interactive technologies. This presents new opportunities, and challenges, for social-emotional learning and educators..

Social-Emotional Learning Skills, Competencies and Standards

There are a basic set of SEL skills that are recognized and enshrined in formal sets of academic standards. These skills have varying levels of interchange and are complementary:

Main Social-Emotional Skills


Positive Action SEL teaches self-awareness through an underlying philosophy that runs through seven units as the basis of all materials. The philosophy, which is taught in Unit 1, is that you feel good about yourself when you do positive actions. This is brought to a conscious and practical level through a Thoughts-Actions-Feelings about Self- Circle which depicts how thoughts lead to actions and actions to feelings about yourself and then back to thoughts.

The circle can be positive or negative, so it is key to intentionally build positive thoughts and behaviors. Positive Action social-emotional learning (SEL), teaches specific positive actions for the physical, intellectual, SEL areas and for the whole self. The Self-Awareness competency is instructed specifically in Unit 5, where students learn by being honest with themselves, they can accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations.

All seven units are making sure students possess a well-grounded sense of confidence by teaching them that they gain self-confidence when they do positive actions and they will learn what those positive actions are for their whole self. Students will be aware of their thoughts and feelings and how these internal self-dialogues impact action. Once aware, students can intentionally engage in more positive thoughts and actions.


The seven units that form the Positive Action SEL curricula all teach self-management. There are also specific units that apply directly to the self-management:

Unit 1 - Intrinsic motivation is taught through the philosophy and the Thoughts-Actions-Feelings Circle: you feel good about yourself when you do positive actions which assumes correctly that you want to feel good about yourself.

Unit 3 - Is specifically termed “Self-Management” and teaches that there are personal resources we all have to manage to feel good about ourselves, including our thoughts, actions, feelings (anger, fear, worry, jealousy, loneliness, anxiety and others). This helps students address impulse control. Improvement in self-management and impulse control is a key link to positive academic and social-emotional learning success for students, and a highly functioning classroom environment. Students are also taught that by managing other resources like their time, energy, money, possessions and talents, they will feel good about themselves and feel like they have more control over what happens to them in school and life.

Unit 6 - Lessons teach setting short- and long-term goals for your intellectual (academic) and personal goals for physical, social-emotional selves. The unit also teaches that you reach your goals by: believing in your potential, having courage to try, turning problems into opportunities and persisting (grit). Grit, goals, perseverance, and growth mindset help turn student dreams and wants into reality. All seven units are about managing yourself by using positive actions for your whole self and are taught through multiple methodologies to illustrate and reinforce self-management concepts.

Social Awareness

Unit 4 teaches students the ability to take perspective and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Positive interactions are based on skills that are promoted by SEL, like empathy, respect, kindness, listening actively, cooperation and fairness. In this unit, Positive Action SEL also teaches understanding social and ethical norms for behavior by teaching the Golden Rule, an established norm for behavior, which is to treat others the way you would like to be treated.

Unit 1, students are taught through SEL to be aware of who influences and supports them in school, family and community and to turn to them when they are in need. Beyond just social awareness in individual interactions, students learn to develop a social web of connections between friends, family, and community.

Relationship Skills

The same principles that are taught in Unit 4 for social awareness are at work in building relationship skills. Teaching students to treat others the way they like to be treated is fundamental to building positive relationships. The focus is on the other person, instead of yourself, and how to treat them positively and when that happens, relationships will work better.

Positive Action has a Conflict Resolution Plan, that supports SEL, integrated into Unit 4 that teaches students how to resolve conflicts by looking at some main ways they like to be treated and asking them if they are treating the others involved in the conflict that way i.e., are you being respectful to others, empathetic, kind, cooperative, fair and listening actively? If they find they are not, they try to correct it. In Unit 1 they are taught to seek and offer help wherever they see it is needed as a positive action to feel good about themselves.

Responsible Decision-Making

In Unit 2 responsible decision-making is taught directly as well as also being inferred in all seven units—how to make positive choices versus negative ones and how to know what positive and negative decisions would look like in all parts of the self: physical, intellectual, social and emotional. In Unit 2 (Intellectual positive actions) students in select grade levels are also taught how to use “The Problem-Solving, Decision-Making Checklist.”

It guides them through each unit and asks them if the decision they are thinking of making would be positive or negative for the goal of that unit i.e., would the decision make them feel good about themselves (Unit 1), would it help them intellectually, physically (Unit 2), would it help them manage themselves better (Unit 3) would it be good for relationships (Unit 4) for their honesty with themselves (Unit 5, self-honesty) and with the goals they have for themselves holistically (Unit 6)?

Other Important Skills that are taught through SEL


Positive Action SEL provides students with guiding principles to better develop their communication skills. Language art skills are embedded throughout the program. A 3rd party analysis found a high-level of alignment with common language arts education standards.

“EdGate analyzed 837 lessons for language arts correlation purposes in 2014. We looked at these lessons from the teacher's perspective as well as from the student's perspective in order to align to Language Arts Standards for Common Core National as well as individual U.S. States and Washington DC. What we consistently found throughout the K-5 curriculum was ample opportunity to discuss, speak, listen and ask and answer questions. In all aspects of the program we found lessons that incorporated reading comprehension, word work, writing, planning and research.”


While empathy is often considered an innate skill, it can be nurtured and further developed. Empathy forms the basis of Unit 4: Treating Others How You Like to Be Treated. Throughout the unit, students learn how to identify the emotions of others and how best to relate to those emotions. As students progress through the program, they will learn how to read social cues from verbal and non-verbal forms of communication. Positive Action SEL employs numerous activities for teaching empathy including games, storytelling and role-playing.

As students enter the secondary grade levels, they will participate in theatre plays with casts and scripts, to be acted out in the classroom. These types of role-playing activities provide students with real-world scenarios to observe and identify emotions in their peers, and how to understand the implications of those emotions. The use of fictional characters and role-playing provides a safe and effective approach for students to examine each other and themselves.

Emotion Recognition

Recognizing the emotions of others is a SEL skill that requires development and practice. This skill begins with students understanding the different states of human emotions. Once students understand each of the discrete human emotions, they can begin to recognize those emotions in themselves and those around them. Students will learn how to identify cues from body language and other forms of non-verbal communication. Positive Action SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) provides practice opportunities in the form of stories and role-playing which can benefit their mental health and improve their coping skills.

Emotion Management

Along with recognizing emotions, SEL lessons provided by Positive Action teaches students how to manage their emotions and govern their response to those emotions. This a skill that requires formal practice and instruction as many students may progress through school without positive role models at home to shape their behavior. Without some form of skill practice, many students will be unprepared to face the stronger emotions as they mature and progress through school and life. Positive Action SEL helps students focus their emotions into social and emotional learning activities that are productive and appropriate.

Social and Emotional Learning Research Outcomes and Benefits

Positive Action is one of the most effective SEL programs available. The randomized-controlled trials in Chicago and Hawaii found multiple SEL outcomes with statistical significance well beyond the current accept standards. Below are a few of the published outcomes:

Improvement in pro-social behavior
Improvement in affiliation with good friends
Reduction in disciplinary referrals
Reduction in violence
Reduction in bullying
Improvement in honesty

Social-Emotional Learning Implementation

As education continues to evolve, it is clear that SEL is an important element in creating an effective learning environment. By implementing SEL with Positive Action, schools and districts will see immediate improvements in school climate, student behavior and academic achievement.

As education continues to evolve, it is clear that SEL is an important element in creating an effective learning environment. By implementing SEL with Positive Action, schools and districts will see immediate improvements in school climate, student behavior and academic achievement.

This will have the ancillary effect of improving teacher and staff morale, which jump starts a virtuous feedback cycle. This cycle will later affect students’ families and the surrounding community. While we may never achieve the harmonious civilization that Plato envisioned, implementing Positive Action program for Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) can assist educators in creating the supportive learning environment that every student deserves.