What is SEL? Social-Emotional Learning Defined & Explained.

social-emotional learning explained

"Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all."—Aristotle

Life-changing words from a brilliant man.

This quote reinforces the notion that education should not solely focus on intellectual development but also on a social-emotional level. To nurture the hearts and emotions of your students, integrate a social-emotional learning curriculum in your school!

Social-emotional learning (SEL) emphasizes the importance of understanding and managing emotions, building healthy relationships, and developing social awareness.

It's based on the principle that suggests that by educating your students' hearts, you can help them cultivate emotional intelligenceresilience, and well-being, all of which are vital for success in most areas of life.

Today, we're going to take a deep dive into the inner workings of social-emotional learning and the benefits it can offer for you and your students. We'll also discuss:

Without further ado, let's dive straight into the nitty gritty of social-emotional learning.

What Are Social-Emotional Learning Skills?

To fully understand social-emotional learning, it's useful to begin with a clear definition. 

SEL refers to the process of acquiring and applying skills related to:

  • Understanding and managing emotions 
  • Nurturing positive relationships 
  • Making responsible decisions
  • Exhibiting empathy
  • Working towards personal goals

SEL equips students and young people with the abilities required to succeed in life, both at school and beyond. 

It encompasses five key areas that will help your students navigate their own lives successfully and interact effectively with others. These areas include:


First and foremost, you must lay a solid foundation for social-emotional learning that will help your students to develop and maintain healthy, identities and a concept of self early on.

Exposing students to social-emotional learning from a young age helps them develop necessary skills, such as understanding their emotions, triggers, and personal values, so they can effectively navigate their interactions and make better choices.

Positive Action's Kindergarten Kit

For example, our Kindergarten Kit includes a full-color mural that represents the Kingdom of Positive Action, explored by two hand puppets: Picks-It and Nix-It. 

The story begins with Picks-It showing Nix-It a pond and asking him what he sees. At first, Nix-It can't see anything clearly, but as the story progresses and they learn about positive actions, Nix-It's self-perception becomes clearer. 

The reflection in the pond symbolizes his growing self-awareness.


We all get overwhelmed by our emotions sometimes. 

Most adults have a variety of “calming techniques,” such as breathing exercises or yoga, that they've learned throughout their lifetime and can employ to regain control of their emotions.

Children often lack self-management skills due to their natural development and limited life experiences.

Teaching children self-management skills is extremely important as it equips them with tools that are essential for regulating their emotions, navigating challenges, achieving goals, and maintaining positive relationships.

Positive Action's Grade 4 Kit

To illustrate, let's take a look at one of the units in our Grade 4 Kit. In this program, you will teach your students about self-management through the story of Shannon, whose spaceship breaks down, leaving her stranded on the planet Foton. 

To repair her spaceship and return to Earth, Shannon must learn to manage various aspects of herself, including emotions such as anger, worry, and fear.

By presenting this story to your students, you'll be introducing them to the concept of self-management and how they can effectively utilize their resources by regulating their emotions.

They'll learn that self-management involves making conscious choices, setting priorities, and taking responsibility for their actions and feelings.

The Thoughts-Actions-Feelings circle can help students understand the concept of self-management better.

The video below offers a brief illustration of how the circle works:

Social Awareness

Social awareness involves understanding and empathizing with the emotions, perspectives, and needs of others. 

By asking your students to walk in someone else's shoes, imagining what it's like to experience their daily challenges, interests, and emotions, they develop a deeper understanding of others and learn to appreciate diverse perspectives

A perfect example of how you can teach your students social awareness is the exercise found in our Grade 2 Kit.

Positive Action's Grade 2 Kit

Simply prompt your students to hang various fruits on the friendship tree poster as they learn to identify and practice positive actions that promote positive relationships. 

Give them a paper magnifying glass and encourage them to look for the good in others, symbolized by an orange fruit, and hang it on the tree.

Each fruit represents a specific positive action, such as showing kindness, listening attentively, or offering help to others.

Through these activities, students develop social awareness by recognizing the impact of their actions on others and understanding the importance of empathy, kindness, and respect in building healthy relationships. 

Moreover, they learn that treating others with care and considering their feelings and needs contributes to positive social interactions and a harmonious community.

Relationship Skills

In life, successful relationships require even more empathy, understanding, and consideration of others' needs and perspectives.

By teaching your students to practice relationship skills, such as effective communication, conflict resolution, and empathy, they learn the importance of dissecting and interpreting a situation from multiple points of view.

As a result, they're able to develop collaborative solutions and build positive and healthy relationships with other people.

Positive Action's Grade 5 Kit

Take our Grade 5 Kit, for example. It introduces your students to Superfriend, a role model for treating people with respect and kindness by following a code of conduct that introduces them to the foundations of positive relationship skills. 

Superfriend's actions and personal behavior can serve as examples for students to emulate, helping them understand that treating others with respect, kindness, and empathy is essential for building and maintaining healthy relationships.

Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making involves understanding the potential consequences of your decisions across various domains, including social, emotional, physical, and intellectual, in order to make thoughtful and informed choices.

By teaching your students how to make responsible decisions, they'll become more confident in their ability to evaluate options, anticipate consequences, and make choices that align with their values and aspirations.

For example, our Grade 6 Kit includes a poster and a story that compares responsible decision-making to programming a computer.

Positive Action's Grade 6 Kit

As you guide your students through this exercise, they'll realize that just like programming a computer, they need to take proper steps and make thoughtful choices to navigate challenging situations effectively.

By comparing the process to programming a computer correctly, students learn that they have control over their thoughts, emotions, and actions. They need to make conscious choices to ensure their inner "computer" functions as it should.

Summary: The five social-emotional learning core competencies are: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Why Is Social-Emotional Learning Important?

Social and emotional learning provides a positive foundation upon which students can learn about themselves and others in a safe, nurturing school environment. Here are four reasons why students need exposure to SEL:

  • Holistic development: Prioritizing SEL in your classroom engages your students in lessons and activities that promote self-reflection and understanding of others.

They learn about diversity, self-image, and responsibility through discussions, role-playing, and projects that foster a positive classroom and school culture, and create an inclusive and supportive environment for all students.

Positive Action's SEL program recognizes that education is not solely about academic achievement but also about the overall well-being and development of students.

By addressing the social and emotional aspects of learning, SEL programs ensure a more comprehensive and holistic approach to education.

The skills developed through an evidence-based SEL program include communication, teamwork, and resilience, which can support students in pursuing further education, achieving career goals, and building fulfilling and supportive relationships afterward.

Students with a strong foundation in SEL are better prepared to handle academic challenges, collaborate with peers, and adapt to new environments, ultimately bettering their chances of success.

  • Student well-being: Centralizing the happiness and well-being of your students is a fundamental aspect of SEL. 

By prioritizing social and emotional development, SEL acknowledges the importance of students' mental health, autonomy, and personal growth. 

Moreover, when SEL is integrated into your classroom's daily practices, your students have opportunities to engage in mindfulness exercises, self-care activities, and reflection of their emotions. 

This focus on well-being fosters a positive school climate and allows students from diverse backgrounds to thrive and flourish.

Why Is SEL Effective and What Are the Research Outcomes?

Multiple research trials focused on the impact of social-emotional skill-building have shown that it helps dramatically improve familial relationshipsacademic performance, and mental health

For example, according to a research study on children aged 4 to 14, social-emotional learning programs were shown to be effective in promoting positive outcomes for students. This included improved social skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance. 

Moreover, the study highlights the importance of implementing SEL in schools to enhance student well-being and overall educational outcomes.

Another study conducted by the American Psychological Association evaluated the effectiveness of social and emotional learning in a high-risk school district. 

It found that schools that implemented SEL programs showed higher levels of basic proficiency in reading, writing, and math compared to the control group.

These improvements were observed across several demographic groups, including ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic status, proving that SEL programs have the potential to enhance academic proficiency, particularly in high-risk school settings.

Many more of these randomized-controlled trials have been conducted and found to have multiple outcomes with statistical significance well beyond the currently accepted standards. Below are a few of the published outcomes:

Improvement in reading
Improvement in affiliation with good friends
Reduction in disciplinary referrals
Reduction in violence
Reduction in bullying
Improvement in honesty

📃 See All Outcomes

Learn More: Here are two other methods, besides Randomized-Controlled Trials (RCT), that can be used to measure social-emotional learning.

What Are the Benefits of SEL?

It goes without saying that happy and healthy students perform far better academically and are much less likely to require disciplinary action or intervention.

Let's take a look at the benefits of implementing Positive Action's SEL in schools, families, and the community. 


Social-emotional learning provides students with resources and materials that support the development of good decision-making skills, which they can apply in various real-life scenarios. 

Our Secondary Climate Development Kit, for example, includes a manual and various activity prompts, such as rallies and posters, that help coordinate school-wide activities aimed at promoting a positive school climate and helping students navigate tedious real-life scenarios.

Positive Action's Secondary Climate Kit

To illustrate, imagine a situation where two of your students are involved in a disagreement or misunderstanding. 

When they approach you to try to diffuse the situation, you can remind them of the conflict resolution strategies they learned in class. 

They'll then utilize the SEL skills they learned to communicate effectively, understand and manage one's emotions and another's perspectives, and find mutually beneficial solutions.


Children and adults alike benefit from positive familial relationships, which form the core of many people's social and emotional well-being.

Social and emotional learning specifically tailored towards improving emotional skills in these relationships can help support parents in developinga closer bond with their children, and foster a mutually positive relationship built on social and emotional awareness. 

For instance, our Family Classes Kit brings the whole family into the conversation to discuss social-emotional skills that can help them develop strong and positive feelings toward their family members, creating a sense of belonging, support, and love.

Positive Action's Family Classes Kit

This program is so effective that it's recommended for use in court-mandated situations for high-need at-risk families and is often used to train families in essential SEL skills, such as communicationempathy, and conflict resolution.


The beauty of a diverse and inclusive community lies in the richness and vibrancy it brings to people's lives.

Respecting, sharing, and understanding the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of others is essential to social and emotional learning. 

Instead of dividing communities by difference, Positive Action's SEL approach is centered around treating othersas you would like to be treated and bringing together people with different skills, talents, and expertise

We recommend finding innovative ways to help create an inclusive community that practices social-emotional skills. For example, your child's school could organize a community workshop.

The theme of the workshops and discussions can focus on exploring various cultural traditions, customs, and beliefs of the community members. 

Attendees will develop an appreciation for the uniqueness of different cultures, recognizing the value that diversity brings to the community. This cultivates a culture of respect, where individuals honor and embrace their differences.

Did You Know? A significant reduction in problem behaviors was noted as a result of explicitly teaching children skills in social and emotional learning. This conclusion was a result of a study of 99 students attending a Catholic school in Melbourne, Australia.

Taking the Next Steps in Transforming Your Learning Environment

Social-emotional learning stands apart from other educational programs because of its unique focus on developing essential life skills that go beyond academic knowledge.

It recognizes that education is not solely about academic achievement but also about nurturing the overall well-being of individuals by teaching them essential skills, such as self-awareness, responsible decision-making, and social awareness.

Positive Action's SEL curriculums and programs are about celebrating the happiness and growth that can arise from SEL and performing positive actions in all spaces. 

Our lessons have been successfully developed and implemented for over 36 years by more than 16,000 schools, all with the vision of creating a safe, positive, respectful, and civil society for everyone.

The curriculum, for example, has strengthened the relationships between staff and youth at the Boys and Girls Club of Southwest Missouri: 

Members have worked hard to bring a positive environment to the club as a whole. One member has struggled with her self-image and battled suicidal thoughts. Being actively engaged in the Positive Action programming helped to build a relationship with that staff and help her feel comfortable enough to talk to the staff and ask for help.

For more information, reach out to us via chat, call us at (800) 345-2974, or email us at info@positiveaction.net to schedule a quick 30-minute overview webinar where we can discuss social-emotional learning kits, research, content, or anything else you have in mind.

Take a look at some of our middle school kits featured below: