Social and Emotional Learning: Beyond Feelings

If you are in the field of Education, there’s no doubt you have heard the term Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). As a social scientist who has always been fascinated with people, cultures and emotions; the fact that this topic is trending in education excites me! But I also find myself imagining what my grandpa might have said if I tried to explain the importance of SEL to him. It would probably be something like, “Why do kids need to learn all that touchy feely stuff in school, what about math and science?”

After a chuckle or two, I would try to explain that SEL goes far beyond just “the touchy feely stuff” that most people would call emotions. Though learning about emotions -- including how to identify, handle and communicate your feelings to others -- is a very important part of SEL, the benefits far exceed emotional intelligence.

According to, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, there are 5 key competencies of SEL. Below each is discussed, along with how it helps increase success in school and life.


That piece of SEL that includes what I referred to earlier as “that touchy feely stuff.” Being self-aware allows you to recognize your emotions, what is triggering them, how to interpret the way they affect others and ultimately how to handle them. This ability to recognize how you are feeling and how to deal with emotions in a positive healthy way is critical for success at school, work and in interpersonal relationships. Imagine the relationships you are a part of. Now imagine the success – or lack thereof – of each of those relationships if every time you didn’t get your way you threw a tantrum like a two-year old. (Yes, most of us run into the occasional situation where we feel like throwing a tantrum; but we are generally self-aware enough to choose an alternative behavior for dealing with our emotions.) In addition to helping us deal with our emotions, self-awareness is an important part of establishing your identity. Through self-awareness we are able to identify what we like, what we don’t like and whether we are good at something. When we have the ability to establish our identities we can develop our own values, strengths and self-esteem.


Our internal control center. When we have self-management skills we are able to set goals, make a plan to accomplish those goals and monitor our own progress in hopes of meeting those goals. Goal setting and perseverance can be a hard skill for kids to learn. As adults, when we see our students struggling with a task it is sometimes easier to just jump in and help.

This piece of SEL addresses abilities students will need to succeed in school, as well as skills for further success once students are in the real world. Focusing on self-management skills helps schools improve academic success and graduation rates while preparing students to leave high school with career goals and the ability to meet those goals. 

To help teach your students these important self-management skills use the activities in the Grit & Bear It Activity Guide from Boys Town Press.

Social Awareness 

Though technology seems to be taking over our lives there are still many situations where being able to interact socially is important. These skills help us be successful in social situations and contribute to our personal happiness -- if we struggle in social situations, other important parts of our social and emotional health will suffer. For example, if a person cannot maintain eye contact with someone and does not know how to appropriately respond to a stranger, his or her self-esteem may suffer, creating social anxiety. The skills taught here also include showing respect for others and appreciating diversity. Beyond school years, social awareness is critical for career and life success. 

To help your students develop these skills Boys Town Training offers a number of  free social skill lesson plans.

Relationship Skills

Allow students to form and keep relationships. We all know the value of a close friendship through our difficult school years. But these skills go beyond just being able to maintain a friendship. This group of SEL skills is important for success in school and throughout life, especially as young adults enter the workforce. Without skills like working in groups, respecting others’ opinions and communicating effectively, maintaining a job and obtaining career success is nearly impossible. 

Start teaching these skills to your students early with our storybooks.

Responsible Decision-Making 

Of the five social and emotional competencies, this one is mentioned last for a specific reason. The skills students learn within the other four competencies build the foundation for responsible decision making. With self-awareness students are able to manage their feelings and hopefully be less likely to make irrational emotional decisions; they also have the skills to develop their own values allowing them to make ethical decisions. With their self-management skills they are able to make decisions based on the bigger pictures with the ultimate goal in site, not just the now. Social awareness and relationship skills give us the ability to make decisions that will respect the feelings and needs of others -- in other words, decisions that aren’t “all about me.”

CASEL presents these five competencies in a wheel because they are interconnected. They rely on each other and they contribute to success in different areas. Teaching students these skills will increase students’ success in school and beyond. What’s more, social skill lessons can be built into your regular academic curriculum to save time and increase generalizability.

So, thinking back to my imaginary conversation with my grandpa, I guess I would let him know that we can teach this “touchy feely stuff” right along math and science. And students will be better-off in the long run as a result!

Mar 5th 2020 Erin Green, Director, Boys Town Press

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