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

social-emotional learning explained

To fully understand Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), it's useful to begin with a clear definition. SEL is the vital framework through which people of all ages acquire skills in working towards their own unique goals, comprehending and managing their emotions, nurturing positive relationships, making informed choices, and feeling and exhibiting empathy. Learning SEL provides students and young people with the abilities required to succeed in life, both within their school and beyond.

Social-Emotional Learning Skills

There are 5 main S.E.L. areas:

  • Self-awareness:

Maintaining a level of self-awareness is a cornerstone of social-emotional learning, allowing students to access a greater understanding of how positive actions lead to an improved self-image.

  • Self-management:

As social-emotional skills grow, children and young adults begin to understand the importance of self-management, especially as it pertains to intrinsic motivation, emotional management, and setting personal goals.

  • Social awareness:

Centering around the golden rule of treating others as you would like to be treated; social-emotional learning encourages social awareness on both an individual level with personal relationships, and on a broader scope with regards to diverse perspectives.

  • Relationship skills:

SEL skills empower students to develop relationships by providing strategies for conflict resolution and teaching that an awareness of the other person's needs is integral to building positive relationships.

  • Responsible decision-making:

Students are taught that making certain decisions can impact them in every facet of their lives (social, emotional, physical, and intellectual), and how to make positive decisions for positive growth and change.

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. As well as explicitly tackling subjects such as diversity, self-image, and responsibility, these skills can be transferred to other SEL lessons and activities by teachers and students alike.

Social and emotional learning also doesn't end in the classroom. Life SEL skills can help students pursue further and higher education, achieving career goals, and developing better relationships with family and friends. By centralizing the happiness and wellbeing of students, social-emotional learning offers an approach to education that values their autonomy and gives students from all backgrounds the opportunity to create positive habits; allowing them to grow into healthy and fulfilled adults.

Why is SEL effective?

Multiple research trials focused on the impact of social-emotional skill building, have shown that not only do these skills help students dramatically improve their mental and physical health and familial relationships, but they also significantly reduce problem behaviors and the subsequent disciplinary actions required to deal with them.

A 2009 study focused on children aged 4 to 14 revealed that introducing social emotional learning resulted in children being able to better regulate their behavior, and therefore have more positive social interactions with other students.

A 2015 study of 705 students in schools described as 'high risk' showed that using social emotional learning early in development is a 'promising approach' to improving academic proficiency in areas like reading, writing and math.

A 2012 study showed that explicitly teaching children skills in social and emotional learning resulted in a notable reduction in problem behaviors.

What are the benefits of SEL and who can benefit from it?

Social and emotional learning is proven to be beneficial in many facets of life, and the social skills taught can be transferred to a wide variety of situations.


When you establish a safe academic, socio emotional space for children at school, you provide them with the opportunity to acquire essential new social skills that will guide them into the future. Social and emotional learning supports students by teaching them about emotional skills and responsible decision making, which in turn creates a more harmonious and productive school environment - research has shown that happy and healthy students perform far better academically and are much less likely to require disciplinary action or intervention.


Children and adults alike benefit from positive familial relationships, which form the core of many people's social and emotional wellbeing. Social and emotional learning specifically tailored towards improving emotional skills in these relationships can help support parents in developing a closer bond with their children, and foster a mutually positive relationship built on social and emotional awareness. SEL can then provide an invaluable and stable foundation for finding success in other areas of life.


Respecting, sharing, and understanding the diverse backgrounds and perspectives of others are essential to social and emotional learning. Instead of dividing communities by difference, Positive Action's SEL approach is centralized around treating others as you would like to be treated, and encourages greater social connections between individuals for a more harmonious and positive community.

Social-emotional learning is clearly successful in supporting students in a traditional school setting, but the benefits can be found beyond school and in social groups of all kinds.

How to teach SEL?

It's widely considered that teaching social and emotional learning skills from as early and age as possible helps children to develop skills that can be carried throughout their childhood and adolescence. This is referred to as 'the feeder effect' - and will lead to teachers being able to recognize which students have been provided access to SEL, and which have not.

The delivery of SEL in school will generally follow a series of steps, including:

  • An explanation of a particular SEL concept by the teacher - often using pictures, video, audio, or written text
  • Students will then gain a deeper understanding of the concept through skill practice, discussion with a peer group or partner, or through individual writing tasks
  • The teacher will revisit and reinforce this concept throughout the week
  • The teacher may decide to support the teaching by sending work home for students to work with alongside their parents or careers
  • The teacher will check for understanding moving forward, re-teaching specific points where required

Implementation: How Positive Action SEL can Help?

As education continues to evolve, it is clear that SEL is an important element in creating an effective environment in which children can develop emotional skills as they learn. By implementing SEL in the classroom with Positive Action, each school and district 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 our lessons can assist educators in creating the supportive environment that every student deserves.

Wonder what social and emotional learning would look like in your school?

📚 Explore our Social-Emotional Learning Program

What are the research outcomes for SEL?

The randomized-controlled trials in Chicago and Hawaii found multiple outcomes with statistical significance well beyond the current 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


What is social emotional learning? Explore the meaning of SEL a little more by looking on a few of most frequently asked questions:

📖 What are the 5 SEL competencies?

The process of learning SEL is broken down into five core competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

📊 How to measure SEL?

The effects of employing our lessons can be measured through evidence-based research that compares certain variables in recipients both before and after the lessons have been taught.

Positive Action has used Randomized-Controlled Trials (RCTs) to ensure that noted differences in behavior were a result of the program, and have reported significant increases in academic achievement, as well as notable reductions in problem behaviors.

Further reading: 3 Tools to Assess and Measure Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

🎓 What is the pedagogical theory of SEL?

Social and emotional learning theory is about improving a wide-ranging set of skills and can, therefore, be taught through a variety of pedagogical methods. Educators now acknowledge that there are a basic set of important personal socio-emotional skills 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 SEL and educators.

Positive Action provides kits to assist in teaching SEL in six units, all centered around the unifying concept that you feel good about yourself when you do positive actions. Teachers are encouraged to create a safe environment for discussion and self-reflection in their classrooms, which can be easily tailored to suit the age and needs of the school group.

Taking the next steps in transforming your learning environment

Positive Action SEL is about celebrating the happiness and growth that can arise from learning SEL and performing positive actions in all spaces. Our lessons have been successfully developed and implemented for over 36 years, by over 16,000 schools, all towards the vision of creating a safe, positive, respectful and civil society for everyone.

For more information, you can reach out to us via chat, email, or call us at (800) 345-2974. You can also join us for a 15-minute webinar.