Social Emotional Learning

May 11, 2017

father playing with son

“Mom, Dad, can Samantha come over to play?”
“Do you want to play together at recess?”
“Can I ride bikes with Johnny?”
“We want to go to the movies later, is that okay?”
“I’m meeting my friend for lunch. See you later.”

For many families and within many schools, these are familiar questions and comments heard among people trying to engage in typical social interactions. However, individuals with deficits in social emotional learning (SEL) commonly have significant difficulties with social awareness, understanding social cues, perspective taking, social initiation, social problem-solving, anger management, reciprocal conversation, and play skills.

Such deficits may result in impaired peer relationships, avoidance of interactions, anxiety and depression, and difficulties across multiple settings. Additionally, SEL is critical for successful transitioning to adulthood, independence, and employment. We know that employers often value SEL as much, if not more, than the job skills and such SEL skills are important for job interviews, showing up at work, navigating challenges, and managing daily workplace responsibilities.

What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, SEL is the process through which children and adults:

  • acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions
  • set and achieve positive goals
  • feel and show empathy for others
  • establish and maintain positive relationships
  • and make responsible decisions

SEL = Success

There is substantial research indicating that SEL is critical for positive short- and long-term academic and personal outcomes for students, and higher levels of teaching and work satisfaction for staff. A recent meta-analysis (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011) of 213 school-based, universal SEL programs involving more than 270,000 kindergarten through high school students compared controls to those students who participated in SEL programming. Results indicated that SEL program participants displayed statistically significant improvement in social skills, behavior, emotional regulation, attitudes, and academic performance. In fact, the results reflected an 11% gain in academic achievement.

Specifically, SEL improves students’ positive behavior, school culture and climate, and reduces negative behavior, is associated with significant improvements in academic performance and attitudes toward school, and prepares youth for success in adulthood. Simply, SEL is critical for individuals to be successful students, citizens, family members, and workers.

The long-term impact of SEL is significant. Another recent study, (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015), followed 750 kindergarten students from four diverse United States communities until they were 25 years old. The results yielded statistically significant associations among SEL skills measured when the children were in kindergarten and critical outcomes for success in adulthood. These include mental health, education, employment, criminal activity, and substance use.

Furthermore, there is a financial impact of SEL. Columbia University researchers (Belfield, et al, 2015) found that there are concrete, measurable benefits of SEL that significantly exceed the costs. The results indicated an average benefit-cost ratio of approximately 11 to 1, indicating that on average for every $1 invested in SEL programming, the return on investment is $11. This is yet another compelling reason to commit to SEL interventions.

Every Student Succeeds Act

While there are very few states that have core content standards for SEL from preschool through twelfth grade, there is reason to have some optimism that more states will prioritize SEL following the 2015 passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). This law provides states and local education agencies the chance to review and reconsider the specific mission, goals, and policies they currently have in place for public education. They can incorporate a multitude of areas pertinent to students’ education and overall development, including SEL, which are critical for their lifelong learning.

Planning for Successful SEL Instruction

Fortunately, like reading and math, SEL can be taught through direct instruction. There needs to be a systematic plan at the heart of successful programming, one which includes targeting specific skills, setting aside time, a 3-D approach (discussion, demonstration, doing), fostering generalization, and monitoring progress.

  • Incorporate all day long:  Direct instruction / teaching of SEL can include whole-class or small-group instruction, pull-out social skills groups, lunch bunches, dyad work, morning meetings, etc. It can also be embedded throughout the day, priming students prior to activities / transitions, incidental teaching, within specials areas, supports during lunch and recess, vocational training, and within small or large group activities. The day should begin with SEL components, including greeting students on and off the bus and upon entering the school building and classroom, and ensure that they feel safe, cared for, and comfortable.
  • Reinforcement and role play: Adults needs to notice and reinforce appropriate social skills (praising the behavior: “Great job asking your friends to play!”), fostering a “Positive Peer Culture”, teaching alternative responses and behaviors (what to do instead), helping the child label and communicate feelings, and understanding the impact of one’s behavior on another person. Role play is critical with constructive feedback. Success breeds success, which can help improve one’s self-esteem and confidence.
  • Get everyone involved: It is important to get committed action among all parties involved (school personnel at all levels, parents, students, employers, the community at large). There should be a clear plan to improve SEL, with emphasis placed on education, training, regularly scheduled meetings, and clear support and attendance among those in leadership positions (administrators, employer). When considering individuals within the autism spectrum, it is important to incorporate positive social, emotional, and behavior models and ensure that there are opportunities for success.
  • Monitor results: The SEL plan needs to be monitored, with results analyzed and shared. Everyone involved should share success stories, receive updates, and continue collaborating.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It is important to help people feel better about themselves, engage in meaningful life activities, and feel valued and important. Ultimately, the recipe for successful SEL requires a plan adhering to evidence-based approaches, careful blending of teamwork, and sustained efforts. Together we can make a difference.

About the Author

Michael C. Selbst, Ph.D., BCBA-D is Director of Behavior Therapy Associates, P.A.. He is a Licensed Psychologist and a Certified School Psychologist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Dr. Selbst is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Doctoral Level. He has co-founded and is the Executive Director of HI-STEP® Summer Social Skills Program, and the Executive Director of the Weekend for Improving Social Effectiveness (W.I.S.E.). He has co-authored two books: Behavior Problems Resource Kit: Forms and Procedures for Identification, Measurement and Intervention; and POWER-Solving® Social Skills Curriculum: Stepping Stones to Solving Life’s Everyday Social Problems.

Related Resources

Belfield, C., Bowden, A. B., Klapp, A., Levin, H., Shand, R., & Zander, S. (2015). The Economic Value of Social and Emotional Learning. Journal of Benefit-Cost Analysis, 6(03), 508-544.

Bellini, S., Peters, J.K., Benner, L., & Hopf, A. (2007). A meta-analysis of school-based social skills interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders. Remedial and Special Education, 28 (3) 153-162.

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432

Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 2283-2290.

Wang, P., & Spillane, A. (2009). Evidence-based social skills interventions for children with autism: A meta-analysis. Education and Training in Developmental Disabilities, 44 (3), pp.318-342.

Wong, C., Odom, S. L., Hume, K. Cox, A. W., Fettig, A., Kucharczyk, S., Bric, M. E., Plavnick, J. B., Fleury, V. P., & Schultz, T. R. (2013). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, Autism Evidence-Based Practice Review Group.

For more information on behavioral teaching, please feel free to contact Autism New Jersey at 800.4.AUTISM or