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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Hinton

Social and Emotional Learning: What Every Teacher Needs to Know

An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) for an effective 21st-century education.

The COVID-19 pandemic and quarantine during the 2020-2021 school year resulted in a year and a half of distance learning for most students in the public school system. Teachers and students had to learn quickly how to negotiate the digital technologies required to conduct school in a virtual environment. And while there was a steep learning curve for many, most would agree that utilizing these technologies overall was good. After all, virtual teaching and learning increased students’ and teachers’ proficiencies in using learning management systems and Google Workspace for Education Fundamentals such as Google Docs, Slides, Sheets, Drive, Forms, and Jamboard. Many teachers will continue to use these technologies as they return to in-person teaching, which will hopefully contribute to transforming “traditional” classroom spaces into hybrid learning environments. Despite these advancements, however, there have been significant challenges to learning online. As a result of the quarantine, students spent hours in front of a computer screen with few opportunities for social interaction and physical exercise, which according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, negatively impacted their emotional and mental well-being. This trauma was caused by abrupt changes to their routines, breaks in the continuity of their learning, disrupted healthcare, missed significant life events, and lost security and safety. In addition, students suffered from virtual learning fatigue, resulting from a lack of seeing other students’ facial expressions, eye contact, and body language. Further, students had to contend with other stress-inducing factors such as family members' loss of employment, health emergencies, and various forms of abuse and neglect associated with the added stress of being in isolation, and in some cases, the death of a loved one. In other words, the quarantine and distance learning has refocused the need for educators to practice social and emotional learning (SEL).

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). SEL is defined as Skills CASEL lists five interrelated core competencies as part of the SEL framework. These competencies can be taught to students of all ages from early childhood to adulthood in any subject area. SEL can be folded into already existing lessons with only slight modifications. In one of the most well-known large-scale studies of SEL, researcher Joseph Durlak and his associates conducted a meta-analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs in grades K-12 involving over 270,000 students. Research indicates that Social Emotional Learning increases social and emotional skills, boosts positive behavior, and improves academic achievement while lowering emotional distress levels and decreasing student conduct and behavioral problems (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). Research also indicates that SEL education has long-term benefits. In a 2012 metanalysis of 75 previous studies, SEL and behavior programs have been shown to improve students’ social, emotional well-being and attitudes up to seven months after receiving SEL instruction (Sklad, Diekstra, De Ritter, Ben, & Gravesteijn, 2012). Looking beyond formal SEL programs, a recent study of over 570,000 students demonstrated that individual teachers who introduce SEL approaches in their classrooms see an increase in positive student outcomes and behaviors and decreases in negative ones such as absences, suspensions, and dropouts (Jackson, 2018).

What I’ve Learned: Early on during the quarantine, I noticed that my students were beginning to disengage from their studies. Wanting to bring them a little joy, I started telling my students a joke of the day at the beginning of class. Because most of my students had their cameras off, it was difficult to tell their reactions to the jokes except for the occasional laughing emoji, or ha, ha, ha in the comments section. I had never told my students jokes before and honestly, felt corny doing it. One day I was pressed for time and did not prepare a joke. I thought my students wouldn’t miss it. After all, they probably thought the jokers were stupid anyway. Boy, was I wrong. My students almost instantly began bombarding me with refrains of “aren’t you going to tell us a joke today?” So insistent they had become that I had no choice but to do a quick Google search and find them a few new jokes. At the end of the semester, I have my students complete a teacher evaluation, and the number one thing my students enjoyed about my class was the jokes! Many told me that the jokes brightened their day, giving them something to look forward to. What I’ve learned is that students appreciate the small things we do, even if they don’t immediately show it. Every effort to make the class more interesting and enjoyable goes a long way to building positive relationships, especially if it requires you to move outside of your comfort zone.


Self-aware students know who they are. They have forged an identity by understanding their strengths and weaknesses and areas of academic and personal interest. They have a sense of confidence and purpose because they know their emotions, thoughts, and values and can utilize them to achieve their goals. They have a growth mindset and experience a high degree of self-efficacy due to positive self-images and perceptions. Self-aware students display honesty and integrity and actively monitor their biases and prejudices, which is essential for workers who will find themselves in increasingly diverse workspaces in the interconnected and global economy.


Self-Management means that students can regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and delay gratification to pursue short, medium, and long-term goals. They have developed techniques that help them manage stress and understand the importance of emotional and physical self-care. In addition, good self-managers take the initiative and assume leadership roles when necessary to fulfill personal and collective objectives.

Social Awareness

Socially aware students try to understand the perspectives of all people and continuously strive to empathize with people different from themselves (see more about social awareness in Chapter 1). They seek to identify and dismantle institutional racism and are actively engaged in antiracist thinking. Those students who benefit from their privilege regarding race, gender, and socio-economic backgrounds use their power to ally themselves with diverse actors in the fight for social and economic justice—understanding that their role is to support, not supplant, marginalized voices in the pursuit of equity.

Relationship Skills

The ability to form healthy and supporting relationships with people of diverse backgrounds may be one of the most critical skills that students will need to succeed in the 21st-Century economy. As workspaces become more diverse, students will need to communicate and collaborate across diverse cultures effectively. In addition, they must be skilled in constructive conflict resolution by having a high degree of cultural competency and empathy to avoid cultural misunderstandings.

Responsible Decision-Making

Life is about choices, and students need to make good decisions based upon sound judgment and ethical standards. They need to analyze problems, including all available data and information, entertain a wide variety of solutions from various points of view, and understand how their decisions will affect others. Additionally, they must take responsibility and ownership of their choices and reflect on the consequences of their actions.

While social and emotional learning is a non-academic subject, schools need to teach these skills to prepare their students to work effectively in the modern knowledge economy. In a recent Forbes magazine article, Byron Sanders points out, “An emerging benefit of explicit SEL instruction is that it builds the emotional intelligence and agility that business and industry is starting to name among the most desired workforce skills. For both their well-being and their future economic opportunities, SEL is power” (Sanders, 2020). In other words, if students are to be successful in the 21st-century economy, it is vital that they possess the skills and dispositions that will help them become more effective at regulating their emotions, better communicators, collaborators, and conflict resolvers. In addition, workers in the 21st century will need to possess the cultural competency to negotiate the challenges of working cross-culturally in an increasingly shrinking world.

Teaching Strategy: Many teachers may be thinking great “one more thing” to do in an already dense curriculum with too little time. How in the world am I going to be able to implement social emotional learning? The answer is that with a little intentionality and forethought, you can seamlessly add social and emotional learning into your daily lessons. An effective way to do this is by verbalizing what social, emotional core competency you want students to incorporate. Display a poster in your classroom that outlines the five core competencies for easy reference. Teachers can help students become more self-aware by having students pair up at the beginning of class and do a “check-in” so that you can gauge their emotional well-being and the “temperature of the room.” Tell students, “Before we begin today’s lesson, I want to get a sense of where we are emotionally” Pear Deck has some tremendous free starter screens for you to use with your students. You can help your students practice self-management by explicitly asking them, “what have you done today or are planning to do, that will help you achieve your short, medium, and long-range goals?” You could do this as part of a warm-up activity or as an exit ticket. Help your students practice Social Awareness by intentionally examining various points of view of a topic under study. For example, in a history class studying the Great Depression, the teacher could ask, “how did the Great Depression impact people of color, the poor, or women?” Many teachers are already helping students build their Relationship skills when they engage their students in collaborative learning strategies such as think-pair-share, the jigsaw method, or other team-building exercises. Be intentional, tell students, “for this exercise, I want you to concentrate on your communication skills, express yourself succinctly and clearly, make sure that your audience understands the point of your message.” Teach students responsible decision-making by providing them with the seven-step decision-making model. You could practice by having students think about what college they want to go to. Say to students, “today, you are going to decide on what college you want to attend based on the following decision-making steps.” Step 1: Identify the problem, Step 2: Gather relevant information, Step 3: Identify the alternatives, Step 4: Weigh the evidence, Step 5: Choose the best solution among other options, Step 6: Take action, Step 7: Review the decision and its consequences (good & bad).

Watch my video blog

Online Resources

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL):

Google Workspace for Education Fundamental:

Harvard Graduate School of Education Online Workshop-Teaching Students to

Ask Their Own Questions: Best Practices in the Question Formulation Technique:

Pear Deck Social-Emotional Learning Template:

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