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How Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Can Transform Classrooms, Teachers, and Communities Alike

Karolina Koppany is an award-winning SEL educator and recipient of the California East Bay Teacher of the Year Award in 2015. In 2017, Karolina founded NWYE, Hungary’s first K-12 SEL curriculum. Currently, Karolina is the Associate Director of Employer Relations for The Kogod School of Business and an ICF-accredited mindset coach who champions well-being, mental health, and self-care. In her free time, she loves to travel the globe, spend time with family & friends, or geek out at the gym. (Yoga, boxing & squash have unique places in her heart).

Brain with SEL words

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Introduction

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has emerged as an indispensable component of contemporary education. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, educators and researchers began developing frameworks and programs explicitly focused on promoting social-emotional skills in schools. 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (Casel), founded in 1994, significantly advanced the field by developing comprehensive SEL frameworks and promoting evidence-based practices. SEL offers a holistic approach to personal development beyond traditional academic domains. At its core, SEL encompasses a range of competencies that enable individuals to understand and manage emotions, develop empathy, build relationships, and make responsible decisions. 

As we delve into the discourse surrounding SEL, it is imperative to acknowledge its undeniable impact on students' holistic development. Research demonstrates that integrating SEL into the classroom positively benefits students and adults who work with them. But there’s a story that the research hasn’t captured - the one of powerful transformation that can result from the practice of SEL. Drawing from a plethora of research, my focus elucidates how SEL interventions bolster teachers' emotional resilience and well-being and amplify their professional efficacy. By spotlighting the transformative potential of SEL within the realm of educators, I hope to catalyze a dialogue that emphasizes the reciprocal relationship between educator well-being and student success, thereby fostering resilient and thriving educational communities.

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): In Action

During my tenure at Keys School in Palo Alto, CA, I witnessed this firsthand. The school's mission was steadfastly committed to prioritizing well-being and fostering emotional regulation through comprehensive programs and supportive environments. In addition to prioritizing student well-being, the school implemented robust support systems and wellness programs for teachers to mitigate burnout and foster sustainable professional fulfillment. When educators begin using SEL in the classroom, sometimes the most surprising outcome is how they personally change. Unless a teacher is an automaton, teaching students emotional and relationship skills compels a teacher to reflect on their own social-emotional competencies - sometimes both in and out of the classroom.

Middle school educator Megan White found that using SEL in her classroom had significantly changed her. “I’m calmer, more patient, kinder, and far less controlling,” she described. “I’m more focused and able to let little things go that before would’ve made me crazy. I’m also more willing to look for why things happen. And I’ve become more optimistic, so when anything terrible happens, I try to see what good might come from it.”

Kindergarten and music teacher Lora Knight discovered that SEL rounded out her personality. “I’ve become a much broader, more grounded person by becoming the person my students need me to be,” said Lora. “At the beginning of my career, I identified as a sweet, nice, kind person, so it rubbed up against my self-concept when I had students who needed an assertive and firm teacher. I had to learn how to be firm and assertive while still being kind and true to myself. I quickly discovered how much I needed that firmness in every area of my life!”

Key Takeaways

Cultivating social-emotional skills within themselves helps teachers model these skills for students - a critical factor for the successful implementation of SEL. For example, one study found that teachers who were required to teach an SEL program but did not buy into what they were teaching worsened their students’ social-emotional skills. Research from Yale School of Medicine Ruler shows that teachers who develop these skills reap the rewards of greater mental health and more effective teaching, both of which have a significant impact on students’ success in school. 

Scrabble pieces live love learn

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Implications for Well-being

Well-being is one of the major outcomes for educators who cultivate their own social-emotional skills. With the high attrition rate of teachers—a whopping 50 percent in the first five years of their career - teacher self-care is crucial, if not imperative, for the profession.

The efforts of the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) to make SEL and teacher care a priority before implementing SEL in the classroom shows an extraordinary understanding of “we can’t teach what we don’t know.” In other words, PAUSD has realized that teachers who do not take care of themselves by developing their own social-emotional skills will have a harder time helping students to do so.

Superintendent Don Wilson articulated this understanding along with his role as a leader in promoting teacher self-care throughout the district: “I’ve been given permission by the district to prioritize my own well-being and my understanding of being in a relationship with people. The direction given by the district is that these things matter and will actually make you more effective in doing what you care about. But we constantly need reminders when the work becomes urgent to take care of ourselves—so that we come to work ready to do good work as opposed to fatigued and exhausted. To have the district institutionally name that this is important makes a huge difference, which is why I took my role as an ambassador of SEL throughout the district very, very seriously. If this is to permeate the district, then leaders have to take it seriously and lead in a certain way. Knowing this was my expectation, I could not be hypocritical and talk about work-life balance and improving interpersonal skills without focusing on improving these things for myself.”

Key Takeaways

An essential takeaway regarding the significance of SEL lies in its profound impact on overall well-being. Through SEL practices, individuals cultivate a deeper understanding of their emotions, fostering greater resilience and emotional intelligence. This heightened self-awareness empowers individuals to navigate life's challenges more effectively and cultivates a profound sense of interconnectedness and empathy within communities. 

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Transforming Perspectives

SEL has the power to transform the perspectives of adults by cultivating heightened self-awareness, empathy, and effective communication skills. This transformative process results in a more empathetic, resilient, and interconnected community of adults capable of fostering positive change in various aspects of their lives that can lead to powerful breakthroughs. 

Middle school teacher Dianna Wilson found SEL to be career-changing. “Last year, I resolved not to raise my voice at my students no matter how chaotic things got,” she said, “and it turned out to be the best year I’ve had as a teacher, with the best relationships I’ve ever had with my students. SEL completely changed how I taught, making me more excited to go back this year.”

Diana Winston is a mindfulness practitioner who shares her experience of how she found her way back to her love of teaching. “I was so stressed and tired most of the time that I lost contact with my original intention of becoming a teacher. SEL has rekindled that light inside of me. It’s the light of why I became an educator in the first place—to help students connect with their dreams and aspirations and become better people who positively contribute to the world.” That is the power of the SEL lens; it fosters purpose, meaning, and deep connection.

Key Takeaways

SEL also provides teachers with a lens through which to view the most challenging students and teaches them to respond to them with compassion and understanding rather than shame and punishment. For educators of young children, this is particularly important, as research has shown that a student’s relationship with their Kindergarten teacher affects their long-term academic outcomes—all the way up to 8th grade! 

Happy music teacher with happy students

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): Implications and Relevance for the Future

SEL is very personal. I saw this firsthand while building New Way in Budapest, Hungary. Not only was it the first SEL curriculum in the country, but it was also the first in the European region. Students and adults alike come to the SEL table with different social and emotional capacities. As a result, only some see the value of SEL. For an educator who passionately believes in SEL but is surrounded by nay-saying colleagues, this can be a lonely and challenging journey.

The power of these stories shows what is possible when education begins to focus on the development of the whole person. Rather than denying the social and emotional lives of teachers and students, SEL embraces our humanity, both individually and in relationships.

Final Thought

Adopting SEL within school districts represents a pivotal opportunity for transformative change. In an era marked by unprecedented levels of mental health challenges among students - where studies indicate that approximately one in five children and adolescents have a diagnosable mental health disorder - embracing SEL is not just prudent, it is imperative. As we navigate these complexities, integrating SEL into education is not just the "smart" approach; it's humane. 

The goal should be united: equipping our students with the essential tools to navigate the intricacies of their emotional landscapes. By fostering SEL practices, we create learning environments that enrich academically and nurture emotionally, making schools the place where students, teachers, and communities alike can thrive. It is time to recognize that understanding and managing our emotions is essential and empowering, and SEL provides the perfect framework to achieve just that.


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