Beyond Soft Skills: 5 Components of Social Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has become a new focus in many public school districts across the country. Once dubbed “soft skills,” school leaders are becoming more aware of the importance of SEL within the framework of both school culture and school curriculum.

As a classroom teacher and administrator, intentional instruction in these soft skills has become a fixture in my daily school lessons and routines. As a teacher of students with behavior and conduct disorders, these skills are essential to helping my students progress academically and socially.

For those that also teach in the PreK-12 setting, there is nothing “soft” about these skills. Teachers in the classroom today state the additional pressure of covering not just the academic skills and standards that are expected but also conflict resolution, self regulation, and executive functioning and other interpersonal skills. These ever-pressing lessons are usually not covered in formal college teacher preparation programs leaving educators to determine not just how but what skills to cover to ensure student success.

For readers who are visual learners, the Committee for Children put together a great video that shows some of the basics of Social Emotional Learning and its importance in schools (Committee for Children). Check out the Youtube video created by CFC for a quick summary.

Elementary and secondary educators can take a lesson from our early childhood teacher colleagues who have understood the importance of laying the foundation for social skills for child development (A.|Simpson). These teachers embed lessons on sharing, taking turns, and following directions into their daily routines. Enrollment in high quality early childhood programs, however, is not attainable for all pre-K aged children. This leaves many children entering kindergarten and 1st grades without the social skills needed for independent work and navigating expected school behavior.

A 2000 study by the National Center for Education Statistics stated, “Nearly half of all entering kindergarten students come from families with one or more risk factors in the areas of parental education, socioeconomic status, and family structure and minority children are more likely to be labeled at risk (Zill, Nicholas|West, Jerry).” These risk factors, beginning in or before kindergarten, elevate the risk that these children will be labeled aggressive and have a more negative outlook on school. Addressing Social Emotional skills is strongly linked to helping with kindergarten readiness, improvement in executive functioning, improvements in behavior and overall academic success (Wenz-Gross et al.).

Ask any teacher about the 2020-2021 school year and you will likely get stories of stressed out and overwhelmed educators, parents, and students. The 2020 Pandemic showed many schools the need to address student mental health needs as students and families navigated an ever changing school environment. This past school year has shown that those “soft skills” that may have been addressed in PreK but left out of formal secondary instruction were just as needed as the academic skills.

As school buildings closed and students moved to online learning platforms some of which had never navigated before they needed to glean on their problem solving, grit, self-management, and executive functioning skills to navigate daily online assignments and Zoom classes. If educators and schools had not considered direct instruction and intervention in Social Emotional Skills then the pandemic may have served as a wake up call.

For educators adding in Social Emotional lessons and activities into school routines and lessons can be guided using The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework. CASEL offers evidence based resources and curriculum around Social Emotional Learning for grades PreK-12. CASEL incorporates a framework for educators, social workers, counselors, families that integrate 5 key competencies for social and emotional well-being. These components cover the basic framework of Social and Emotional Learning that lay the foundation for any program.

Social and Emotional learning foundation - CASEL

✓ Self Awareness

The ability for a child to name their emotion, understand their “triggers,” and understand their own strengths and limitations is powerful. Award winning educator and psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegal frequently quotes, “If you can name it, you can tame it.” This simply put and catchy phrase allows us to remember that we are in control of our own emotions, not the other way around. Many children (and even adults) can lack the awareness and vocabulary to adequately and truthfully express and understand their underlying emotions. A Social Emotional program will include lessons that allow students practice and space to name their emotions and understand how these emotions form and actions to take when they happen.

✓ Self Management

Students and adults of all ages need tools in order to navigate complex emotions. A successful SEL program will incorporate activities and practices that allow students to strengthen their skills self regulation and self management. Like a muscle, managing conflict, stress, and impulsivity are life-long skills that must be practiced to be strengthened. Experienced classroom teachers understand that not all students enter their rooms with the skills needed for successful self-management and independent learning behavior. Executive functioning skills (the cognitive ability to plan, manage, and control oneself) is directly linked to academic success. These students must learn this crucial skill in order to meet their academic, social, and emotional potential. Emotional regulation, the ability to control one’s own emotions, is additionally and directly linked to academic success and classroom productivity (Graziano et al.).

✓ Social Awareness

As a child develops they begin to develop social awareness such as empathizing with others, reading the emotions of others, meeting and sensing the needs of others, and understanding and valuing diversity. Children continue developing this skill throughout their lifetimes. A SEL program will develop social awareness and drive questions such as:

  • How do my actions impact others?
  • How is this person feeling and why?
  • How did my actions help or hurt those around me?
  • What can I do to help?
  • What can I do to better this situation for others?

A glance at the comments section on any social media new story will show the importance in the further development of this skill for many.

✓ Relationship Skills

Conflict management, cultivating friendships and relationships, demonstrating teamwork and leadership, and effective communication skills fall into this category. These skills are not innate but developed through a child’s experiences with others. A child’s ability to build healthy relationships with adults and peers in their lives will set them up for success long term. In addition, the development of positive and caring relationships has a direct impact on preventing substance abuse and other harmful behaviors in at risk youth (Laursen and Birmingham).

✓ Responsible Decision Making

A child’s brain in adolescence is not created for making responsible decisions. The human brain’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully formed for children to fully understand the impact of their decisions without additional support (Blakemore and Robbins). Research suggests that it can take up to 25 years to develop this area, the last fully formed area of our human brain (Sharma et al.). This means that the child-adolescent brain is highly vulnerable to outside influences and social pressures. Teaching responsible decision making as well as showing students the impact of their decisions on others and their future plans is an additional and important part of SEL programs. These lessons allow students to practice decision making skills in a safe space.

All successful programs within schools require adequate and comprehensive training for the staff implementing SEL. Although SEL is becoming more prominent in school settings, there are many teachers who will approach SEL instruction without the tools needed for success. Future blog posts will dive into each of the 5 CASEL core competencies and discuss ways to incorporate activities and lessons for classroom teachers.

References: 

  1. A.|Simpson, Sharon. “Social Skills: Laying the Foundation for Success.” Dimensions of Early Childhood, vol. 38, no. 2, 2021, pp. 3–12, eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ945679. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  2. Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne, and Trevor W Robbins. “Decision-Making in the Adolescent Brain.” Nature Neuroscience, vol. 15, no. 9, 28 Aug. 2012, pp. 1184–1191, www.nature.com/articles/nn.3177, 10.1038/nn.3177. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  3. “CASEL – CASEL.” Casel.org, 2021, casel.org. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  4. CASEL’s 5 Social Emotional Learning Competencies and Wisdom — Better Kids. “Better Kids.” Better Kids, 8 Apr. 2020, betterkids.education/blog/wisdom-and-casel-5-sel-competencies. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  5. Committee for Children. “Social-Emotional Learning: What Is SEL and Why SEL Matters.” YouTube, 1 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikehX9o1JbI. Accessed 19 Apr. 2021.
  6. Graziano, Paulo A., et al. “The Role of Emotion Regulation in Children’s Early Academic Success.” Journal of School Psychology, vol. 45, no. 1, Feb. 2007, pp. 3–19, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022440506000859, 10.1016/j.jsp.2006.09.002. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  7. Laursen, Erik K., and Scott M. Birmingham. “Caring Relationships as a Protective Factor for At-Risk Youth: An Ethnographic Study.” Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, vol. 84, no. 2, Apr. 2003, pp. 240–246, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1606/1044-3894.101, 10.1606/1044-3894.101. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  8. Sharma, Sushil, et al. “Maturation of the Adolescent Brain.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, Apr. 2013, p. 449, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/, 10.2147/ndt.s39776. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  9. Siegel, Dan. “Keeping in Touch.” Keeping in Touch, 11 July 2016, www.keepingintouchbc.com/blog/2016/07/11/dr-dan-siegel-can-name-can-tame. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
  10. Wenz-Gross, Melodie, et al. “Pathways to Kindergarten Readiness: The Roles of Second Step Early Learning Curriculum and Social Emotional, Executive Functioning, Preschool Academic and Task Behavior Skills.” Frontiers in Psychology, vol. 9, 4 Oct. 2018, www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01886/full, 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01886.
  11. Zill, Nicholas | West, Jerry. “Entering Kindergarten: A Portrait of American Children When They Begin School. Findings from the Condition of Education, 2000.” Ed.gov, ED Pubs, P.O. Box 1398, Jessup, MD 20794-1398; Tel: 877-433-7827 (Toll Free); Web site: (Home page) http://www.nces.ed.gov; Web site: (Electronic Catalog) http://www.nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/indes.asp, 2021, eric.ed.gov/?id=ED448899. Accessed 17 Apr. 2021.
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