SEL is, and should be, defined in a variety of ways and is deeply developmental
Broadly speaking, social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to the processes through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, and related skills, attitudes, behaviors, and values that help direct their thoughts, feelings, and actions in ways that enable them to succeed in school, work, and life(1). However, SEL has been defined in a variety of ways in the frameworks that shape the field (3) (4), and the term has served as an umbrella for many sub-fields, each with a particular focus (e.g., emotion regulation, prosocial skills, aggressive behavior problems) and many types of educational interventions (e.g., bullying prevention, character education, conflict resolution, social skills training). The scope and focus of SEL interventions also vary: some focus on one set of skills (e.g., recognizing and expressing emotions), while others are broader. This extensive variety and diversity are valuable, as the variations reflect the values and ideas of those building and engaging in SEL efforts in diverse contexts around the world.
Though many widely adopted SEL frameworks do not necessarily differentiate skills by developmental stage (5) (6), it is important to remember that social and emotional competencies are not only multifaceted, they are developmental. Not only do skills grow and change over time, but the ways in which skills evolve are also not necessarily linear. Furthermore, what’s important and salient at various developmental stages changes. For example, in kindergarten, focusing on executive functions like inhibitory control, attention, and working memory is important as children adjust to learning in group contexts and following classroom norms and routines (7). Whereas for fifth graders, relationship building with peers, supportive adults, and the community are particularly salient as children begin the transition to early adolescence (8). As such, approaches to intervention, prevention, and promotion should be similarly developmental, targeting those skills most important to the relevant developmental stage and context.
There are common elements to effective SEL practice
Social and emotional skills and competencies are malleable. There are effective SEL strategies, practices, and programs that make a difference, and there are examples of these all over the world. There are two key things about the practice that we have learned by analyzing leading SEL programs (9).
First, when looking across the most studied and most implemented programs, there are a small number of common strategies. The first is modeling: adults enact the behaviors and values they hope to see in children. The second is teaching: social and emotional skills are taught directly and explicitly, just like any other subject matter. The third is practicing: which involves providing lots of opportunities to practice – SEL is practiced everywhere and every day, not just during one particular lesson, one time of day, or with one type of teacher. The final strategy is discussing: building a language of SEL everywhere and noticing it in all interactions. We posit that these four simple teaching moves found across leading SEL programs are the important active ingredients to boosting social and emotional learning in and out of the classroom.
The second key takeaway we have learned through our analysis of effective SEL programs is that SEL practices are particularly effective in interrupting the stress-response-system and in supporting children and adults to manage and bounce back from traumatic, chaotic, and disruptive experiences (10) (11). Whether through community-building activities, expressing feelings in a safe space, or playing games that build social and emotional skills, simplified SEL strategies are often widely accessible despite resource constraints and can be done with an entire class or in small groups as routines or as needed to promote resilience. Whether in refugee camp settings, high poverty schools, or during remote learning, SEL can be a dynamic and accessible path to supporting student and teacher wellbeing.
The global pandemic shines a spotlight on the importance of SEL
As we consider the worldwide experience of COVID and its impact on children and families, and especially as we look to a return to school in many parts of the world, we know children’s academic learning, social-emotional and behavioral skills, and their mental health have been significantly challenged, with many studies documenting this across the developmental continuum and around the globe(12) (13) (14) (15) (16). What may not be as clear (nor as loud) yet, is that SEL strategies are an essential response. Though we hear a great deal of legitimate worry about learning loss (17) (18), if we jump to only focus on academics without addressing children’s (and adults’) social-emotional needs, we may only exacerbate those needs. If, on the other hand, we start by addressing children’s social-emotional needs, we may accelerate gains (re-gains) in learning. It is important to remember that academic and social and emotional learning are deeply intertwined; they are complements to each other, not in competition with each other, and now more than ever, we should take advantage of that complementarity.
Make SEL global by localizing and simplifying for scale
As we look to sharing and scaling effective strategies, ideas, and innovations across contexts and settings around the globe, we should think about simplifying and localizing. This means we need to identify the essential elements of any program or practice, and then consider what that is and means in a local context. The SEL Kernels approach (19) adapted to Northeast Nigeria is one example of simplifying and localizing evidence-based SEL strategies by reflecting active ingredients in local values, practices, and terminology (20). The INEE PSS-SEL Toolbox (under development) also offers the field localizing tools and guided processes to ensure that local values, assets, needs, and practices are included in SEL efforts in emergency (and non-emergency) settings around the world (21). When SEL efforts across contexts are simplified and localized, then scaling is not necessarily focused on a product, but rather a process that preserves the essential – the active – ingredients, while making what is scaled resonant and relevant locally.