News   |   Sign Up   |   A LEVER FOR SCALE

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL), also called “Social Emotional Development,” is an integral part of child development and education that starts at birth to foster the development of “life skills” — important skills like setting and pursuing goals, self-control, building self-confidence and self-reliance, and dealing with setbacks and conflicts. SEL is critical in early care and education, where children are developing the life skills and habits that will be with them for a lifetime.

For centuries, educators—especially those in early-childhood settings—have known that teaching real‐world skills helps young children become better prepared for school, the workforce, and life. And state education leaders continue to emphasize that helping children develop social emotional skills is not an “add-on,” but is essential to a high-quality education curriculum. The social and emotional learning standards that the early learning system, state education agencies, and state education boards across the country have put into place help teachers build children’s personal and interpersonal strength for life success.

At the pre-school level, for example, early educators can help children develop their ability to focus on a task, become confident and curious students, make friends, and resolve conflicts. Self-regulation is also a crucial component of social-emotional development in early childhood—young children’s success is closely related to their ability to be patient, manage strong emotions, and take turns.

Does SEL Make a Difference?

Over the past decades, there have been numerous studies to measure the impact of social emotional learning in education. A “meta-analysis” that looked across 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students found that SEL instruction increased students’ academic performance by as much as 11 percentile points compared to students who did not receive the instruction. And students with access to SEL instruction showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school. There is also evidence that integrated efforts to develop students’ social and emotional skills can help prevent risky behaviors such as drug use, violence, bullying, and dropping out.

There’s a long-term benefit, as well. Numerous studies (such as this one and this one) have shown benefits down the road for children with well-developed social emotional abilities, including increased likelihood of high school graduation, career success, positive family and work relationships, reduced criminal behavior, and engaged citizenship. 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation has even weighed in, recognizing the importance of developing these skills in the earliest years to ensure children grow into successful adults. In a workforce development report, the organization insists “a broad set of socially and economically valuable skills start developing in children’s very first months, build over time, and are critical determinants of academic and economic success. Although a sturdy base of early skill and ability is not alone sufficient for children’s long-term success, without it, the effectiveness of later investments in education and training are substantially reduced.”

How Are States Making Sure Young Children Are Learning These Life Skills?

There are several key ways states can support and expand SEL, such as:

Dedicate Resources to Implement Social Emotional Standards in Early Childhood and K-12 Education. Success in the classroom is more likely when state policy clearly supports the conditions for high-quality, systemic SEL in every school. Currently, all 50 states have adopted pre-k SEL competencies, yet implementation is frequently not supported sufficiently.

Promote SEL training and professional development for early educators. States should offer professional development that equips educators with the skills they need to support children’s well-being and invest in a range of supports from system-wide training to more intensive coaching. Many states incorporate SEL training into the standards for their child-care quality rating systems.

Examine discipline policies. When early educators don’t have the training to address disruptive behaviors in young children, they may turn to suspension and expulsion, which further deprives children of the social development they need to succeed.  States should implement strategies to decrease the use of exclusionary discipline and provide guidance and funding for early childhood care and education programs, schools, and districts to adopt positive discipline policies and practices.

However states choose to implement life-skills development, though, there continues to be widespread interest from educators, administrators, policymakers, community leaders, and —most importantly—parents in ensuring students develop the skills that are crucial to becoming strong and successful.


Stay In Touch!

Sign up to hear about the latest early childhood policy news, resources, webinars and more!