Improving Academic Performance

Improving Performance in School through Social-Emotional Learning: An Introduction

Posted by Morgan Bissett-Tessier on Tue, Apr 18, 2017 @ 05:21 PM


In the world of education, new fads can sometimes garner swift support but fall fast. As parents, we sometimes look for quick fixes to our children’s learning struggles; but that approach can lead to wasted time spent on strategies that aren’t effective in the long term. Thankfully, some trends do seem to make a lasting, positive impact. SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) is steadily proving itself to be an effective force in a growing number of school districts.



As quoted from an article entitled “The Psychological Approach to Educating Kids” in The Atlantic:

SEL—also called whole-child education—is a systematic, evidence-based approach to teaching kids how to achieve goals, understand and manage emotions, build empathy, forge relationships, and make responsible decisions.” –See the full article here.

SEL puts emphasis on a human trait, the ability to “be social”, that is often ignored or undervalued in an academic setting: Socialization is necessary to building relationships, managing interactions with others, and learning how to empathize – all things that almost certainly aid in the creation of an organized, effective, happy and well-adjusted student and young adult.

The main force behind this movement is CASEL, The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. It’s an organization dedicated to ‘the practice of promoting integrated academic, social, and emotional learning for all children in preschool through high school’ ( CASEL takes the lead on research, practicing SEL in classrooms, homes, and the community, and promoting policy that encourages placing importance on emotional and social health throughout a person’s childhood.



Too often we hear the story of the very intelligent young adult who ‘can’t connect with peers’, or ‘just can’t seem to set goals and stick to them’. One may argue that it’s due to a general tendency to focus first on academics and test scores without consideration for the context / home environment in which the student is operating. Social-Emotional Learning emphasizes the importance of self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making through organized classroom activities and lessons such as learning the proper way to handshake. This leads to an ability to understand others’ perspectives and lower depression rates in students, based on prior studies represented in an Edutopia article entitled, “Why Social and Emotional Learning is Essential for Students”.

In a world where human-human interaction is diminishing, SEL argues that it is important that we teach children to set goals, persevere, and how to appropriately connect in real time with real people. In 2011, a meta-analysis published in the journal Child Development showed an 11 percentile gain in academic achievement for students who participated in a well-implemented SEL program versus students who didn’t. The positive effects are seen even in students who have anxiety, depression, or mental disorders – they learn goal setting, stress management, and organization techniques.



Implementing SEL can be a whole school effort. Findings from a research project called SECURe (Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Understanding and Regulation in education), show that it takes every adult throughout every part of the school day and in every section of the building trained to employ a set of language and practices that they can use when emotions come up to maintain a successful SEL initiative (

The difference between SEL programs and its counterparts and predecessors is that the whole school takes part in an effort to increase emotional health in all students. When a school district takes on the task of prioritizing SEL, the entire staff is trained, so that things like perseverance and goal setting are incorporated everywhere. Yes, even in Biology or Phys. Ed. The most successful programs even branch out into the community, educating parents on how to emphasize socialization, respect, and self-awareness in their children. Basically, unlike other programs that primarily focus on certain aspects of a child’s well-being, SEL attempts to create a ‘whole child education’ (social, emotional, physical, and academic) philosophy.



SEL, as you might expect, can be implemented outside of the classroom as well.

Green Ivy is a consulting, test prep, and college coaching firm. They incorporate SEL into everything they do, including weekly tutoring sessions. Green Ivy supports self-awareness and self-management, working with students on lists of personal values and limiting the amount of technology time. The instructors try to help students discover their unique strengths and interests. The results they’ve seen from allowing children the time and space to reflect and find their own niche is increased self-confidence, higher academic achievement, and a sense of independence.

Beloit College in Wisconsin, seeing the value of SEL, now trains all of their peer tutors in the approach and expects them to implement the concepts as often as possible.

The Atlantic’s article “The Psychological Approach to Educating Kids” tells the story of Daniel, a high school senior in Texas, a student who has had issues with OCD and anxiety for many years. At first, he was skeptical of SEL, but once he grew accustomed to it, he learned how to stay organized, better study skills, and how to manage his time. SEL also helped to reduce his academic stress and anxiety with techniques he now uses daily. Daniel currently teaches SEL himself (through a student-led instruction program), is valedictorian of his class, and will be attending Harvard as a student athlete in the fall.



SEL has many critics, but there’s no doubt that an overwhelming amount of positive research has been done and conclusions have been drawn that SEL works. School districts, charter schools, and universities across the country have implemented the program into their daily routines. We must recognize that if a child isn’t emotionally and socially healthy, he or she is not going to be able to reach his/her potential academically, and SEL principles offer a potential intervention to improve outcomes for at-risk students.