A Look at Social and Emotional Learning

Conversations around the topic of social and emotional learning (SEL) have continued to rise, especially at the onset of the global pandemic. SEL has found a fertile field during the time of the Covid 19 pandemic, when what we know about education and learning has been turned upside down, digitized, disrupted and challenged (Billy & Garriguez, 2021). The pandemic has left teachers questioning their own passions and devotion to education, students questioning their skills, abilities and heightening their insecurities, and parents questioning their ability to provide and protect their children. In other words, the Covid 19 pandemic has rocked our world. Consequently, it has brought social and emotional learning to the forefront of education.

The question I am exploring in this module is: How does a focus on social and emotional learning (SEL) promote cultural responsiveness? In the past several years, many schools and school districts have prioritized social and emotional learning in their school systems, seeing it as a key ingredient in helping students thrive (Seider & Graves, 2020). Even before the pandemic happened, there has been a greater push to bring in social and emotional learning as a necessary part of a rigorous curriculum.

Definition of SEL

Social and emotional learning can be defined as “the process through which individuals develop the necessary skills, attitudes, and values to acquire social-emotional competence” (Dresser, 2013, as cited in Billy & Garriguez, 2021). The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning or CASEL, defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” (CASEL, 2021). Social and emotional learning promotes soft skills, such as empathy, self-regulation, collaboration and perspective-taking.

The development of social and emotional skills of a child begins at home (Building Social-Emotional Skills with Technology: How to Use SEL to Cultivate Digital Wellness, 2021).  When adults model the skills that are taught in schools to promote SEL, students have a greater success rate to learn these skills and apply them in real-life situations.

“Teachers are the engine that drives social and emotional learning (SEL) programs and practices in schools and classrooms, and their own social-emotional competence and wellbeing strongly influence their students” (Schonert-Reichl, 2017, p. 137). In this article, Schonert-Reichl (2017) further investigates how teachers’ social and emotional well-being influences their teaching beliefs, pedagogical practices and the fidelity by which they promote and teach SEL skills. Teachers are considered at risk for poor emotional health as teaching is considered one of the most stressful occupations. 

Many of the frameworks that are used to teach SEL share three common dimensions (Schonert-Reichl, 2017): the learning context, students’ SEL, and teachers’ SEL. These three are interconnected and each dimension influences and is influenced by the other two.

  1. The Learning Context – this should be a safe and caring environment that is supportive of students’ development of SEL skills. 
  2. Students’ SEL skills – these skills include understanding and managing their own emotions, showing empathy towards others, achieve positive goals, maintain healthy relationships and to make responsible decisions. 
  3. Teachers’ SEL skills – teachers’ wellbeing influence the learning environment and the teaching of SEL skills. Classrooms that reflect strong teacher-student relationships are conducive for deep learning. Students who feel secure in their learning environment are more likely to develop resilience and the willingness to take on challenges. 

SEL Competencies

How do you teach social and emotional learning skills to students? Take a look at the CASEL wheel (CASEL, 2021), where it offers five social and emotional core areas that can be used for instruction of social and emotional learning in the classroom:

Figure 1: CASEL Framework (CASEL, 2021)

Authors Billy & Garríguez (2021) suggests activities for each of the competencies:

● Self-Awareness: Check-in with students daily enhances communication and builds trust

● Self-Management: Help students engage with a variety of activities that offer choice

● Social Awareness: Give students time for self-reflection to help them identify strengths and weaknesses

● Relationship Skills: Provide many opportunities for collaboration and teamwork as building relationships take time and effort

● Responsible Decision -Making: Allow students to make decisions about their learning to help them refine their decision-making skills

How does SEL promote culturally responsive teaching?

 “Social-emotional competencies are critical to authentic, culturally relevant and responsive teaching and learning in schools” (Donahue-Keegan et al., 2019).

Teachers are at the core of supportive learning environments, where students feel safe and willing to take on challenges and make mistakes. In Massachusetts, USA, a group of teacher educators advocates for the use of a framework that integrates social and emotional learning into culturally responsive teaching practices to be used in teacher education programs (Donahue-Keegan et al., 2019). The case to integrate social and emotional learning (SEL) and culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is based on several important statements (Donahue-Keegan et al., 2019):

  1. Both preservice and beginning teachers need time to grow their emotional resilience to meet the demands of a very stressful profession.
  2. Teacher SEL skills need to be well-developed in order for them to effectively model and teach SEL skills to their students. Teachers need to establish a classroom community that inspires growth and supports risk-taking endeavors. This is the kind of learning environment wherein they can explicitly model and teach SEL skills effectively.
  3. “Socially, emotionally, and culturally competent teachers are better equipped to reach and equitably teach students with a broad range of backgrounds” (Donahue-Keegan et al., 2019, p. 154).


Culturally responsive teaching is more than just a strategy (Aguilar, 2015). It is a process of developing the right attitudes, skills and mindset, while using the appropriate tools to engage students by tapping into their cultural backgrounds, unique skills and diverse experiences. “To reach and teach a student body that is culturally and linguistically diverse, SEL must be implemented in a culturally responsive and equitable way” (Cressey, 2019, p. 64).


Aguilar, E. (2015, February 25). Making Connections: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. Edutopia; George Lucas Educational Foundation. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/making-connections-culturally-responsive-teaching-and-brain-elena-aguilar

Billy, R. J. F., & Garríguez, C. M. (2021). Why Not Social and Emotional Learning? English Language Teaching, 14(4), 9. https://doi.org/10.5539/elt.v14n4p9

Building Social-Emotional Skills With Technology: How to Use SEL to Cultivate Digital Wellness. (2021, November 8). The Digital Wellness Lab. https://digitalwellnesslab.org/articles/building-social-emotional-skills-with-technology-how-to-use-sel-to-cultivate-digital-wellness/

CASEL. (2021). Fundamentals of SEL. Casel. https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel/

Cressey, J. (2019). Developing culturally responsive social, emotional, and behavioral supports. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching & Learning, 12(1), 53–67. https://doi.org/10.1108/jrit-01-2019-0015

Donahue-Keegan, D., Villegas-Reimers, E., & Cressey, J. M. (2019). Integrating Social-Emotional Learning and Culturally Responsive Teaching in Teacher Education Preparation Programs: The Massachusetts Experience So Far. Teacher Education Quarterly, 46(4), 150–168. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26841580

Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2017). Social and Emotional Learning and Teachers. The Future of Children, 27(1), 137–155. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44219025

Seider, S., & Graves, D. (2020, January 9). Making SEL Culturally Competent. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/making-sel-culturally-competent

What Is the CASEL Framework? (n.d.). CASEL. https://casel.org/fundamentals-of-sel/what-is-the-casel-framework/#the-casel-5

Woolf, N. (2021, November 8). Building Social-Emotional Skills With Technology: How to Use SEL to Cultivate Digital Wellness. The Digital Wellness Lab. https://digitalwellnesslab.org/articles/building-social-emotional-skills-with-technology-how-to-use-sel-to-cultivate-digital-wellness/

Join the Conversation


  1. Thanks for sharing an insightful post, Chelly. Digging out further into students’ perspectives, we know that SEL and CRT support one another. I agree that incorporating SEL and CRT will help educators cater to students with conducive learning vibes. This way, students can cultivate their best potential to achieve their learning goals.

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