What is Social Emotional Learning?

What exactly is social and emotional learning (SEL)? Why does SEL matter and what does it look like? Here’s what you need to know about the byword.

If you’re an educator, parent, or mental health professional, you may have heard the terms “social and emotional learning” or “SEL.” Perhaps you’ve heard of SEL being prioritized in professional development, parenting practices. 

But, what exactly is social and emotional learning (SEL)? Why does SEL matter and what does it look like? Here’s what you need to know about the byword. 

What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a critical and fundamental component of human development. At a glance, SEL helps kids express and manage their emotions, make responsible decisions, resist negative social pressure, and examine their biases. SEL also cultivates integral interpersonal skills, such as constructive conflict resolution, cultural competency, and collaborative problem-solving. 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning 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 supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”   

Prioritizing SEL in education is sometimes called caring for the “whole child.” This is because SEL acknowledges that in order for kids to excel academically, their non-academic needs must also be met. These include emotional and social needs.

Implementing SEL in schools creates a safe, inclusive, and positive environment while strengthening students’ academic, social, and emotional growth. Furthermore, research has shown that SEL programming yields significant benefits. These include decreases in anxiety, depression, and bullying and increases in academic performance and prosocial behaviors (such as kindness, empathy, sharing). 

Social and Emotional Learning Skills & Settings

The social and emotional learning framework established by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies five key skills (core competencies) and four key settings. CASEL, a trusted source for knowledge about evidence-based social and emotional learning, is often considered the leading authority in progressing SEL in education. Rhithm is committed to providing educators high-quality tools that align with the SEL framework defined by CASEL.

Those five key skills are:

  • Self-Awareness
  • Self-Management 
  • Social Awareness
  • Relationship Skills
  • Responsible Decision-Making

Furthermore, CASEL’s systemic approach emphasizes that effective SEL programming should be practiced in the following four key settings: 

  • Classrooms
  • Schools
  • Families & Caregivers
  • Communities

Social and Emotional Learning Key Skills

Now, let’s take a deeper dive into social and emotional learning’s five key skills as defined by CASEL.  


Self-awareness involves the ability to understand one’s own emotions, values, thoughts, and how they influence behavior. This also includes accurately recognizing one’s own strengths and limitations, integrating personal and social identities, examining prejudices and biases, and identifying personal and cultural assets. Through well-honed self-awareness, children develop a strong sense of purpose, confidence, honesty, integrity, and a growth mindset.


Self-management develops the attitudes and skills needed to effectively manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This includes controlling impulses, identifying and using stress management strategies, handling delayed gratification, setting goals, and exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation. The skills and mindset developed through self-management are critical in helping children and adults cope with emotions and achieve personal, educational, and professional goals. 

Social Awareness

Social awareness fosters one’s abilities to understand the perspectives of others, appreciate diversity, and empathize with those from different cultures and backgrounds. This also includes appreciating the strengths in others, showing concern for others’ feelings, expressing gratitude, recognizing social norms in different settings (including unjust ones), and understanding how organizations and systems influence behavior. Children with well-developed self awareness feel and demonstrate empathy and compassion for others, even those dissimilar from themselves. 

Relationship Skills

Relationship skills help one cultivate and maintain healthy and supportive relationships. These skills promote constructive conflict resolution, active listening, clear communication, cultural competency, leadership, and collaborative problem-solving. Relationship skills also empower students to resist negative social pressure, seek or offer support, and stand up for others. Well-developed relationship skills are vital for students to communicate effectively, work collaboratively, and navigate diverse settings throughout the course of their lives.

Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making fosters the ability to make constructive and caring choices across different contexts. This involves demonstrating open-mindedness, considering ethical and safety concerns, using critical thinking, and integrating data and facts to make informed decisions.  Through responsible decision-making, students are equipped to assess the personal, social, and collective consequences of their actions. 


Now you know! The next time you hear that term SEL, you’ll be well equipped to understand what it means and how you can support the work being done in other settings. Contact us to learn more about how Rhithm can support your SEL initiatives or visit our Activities page to start bringing CASEL-Aligned SEL practices into your home, classroom, or practice today!

Written by:

Casey Estorque, MA, EdMA

Rhithm Blog Contributor

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