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How Social Emotional Learning Has Changed School Since We Were Kids

Are you a parent with a child just entering the school system? Unless you’re a teacher, you probably have a lot of questions about what it’s like. The only mental picture we have of their school experience is what school was like for us.

That was not enough for me! After all, I went to grade school 30 years ago! I’m sure it wasn’t quite that long ago for a lot of you parents. But still, the disconnect is real.

I tried to bridge the gap by volunteering in school. I helped out in the school library, one of my favorite places back then and now.

Then, last school year I began to substitute teach. I figured I may as well get paid for the time I spend in school and our district was in need of substitutes.

I guess, subconsciously, part of my reason for doing this was to find out more about how schools have changed since we were little. I wondered, are they better or worse? Are children happier or more miserable? Are they more spoiled and entitled? Are they respectful or rude?

I’ve had some time to observe the atmosphere at my daughter’s elementary school. There’s one important difference that I think you will be happy to know about! I have noticed that children are taught a lot more about dealing with emotions and interacting with each other. In educator speak it’s called Social Emotional Learning, or SEL.

When I first heard this term I had to know more about it.

  • What is it?
  • What is its history?
  • How does it work?
  • And most importantly, how does it help my child?

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social emotional learning is hard to define since it is made up of many different types of skills. In general, they are skills that have to do with emotions and social interactions.

Specifically, children need to learn to be able to control their attention; understand, label, and express emotions in a socially acceptable way; interpret their place and learn to socially interact within the school community and with individuals in it.

Why is Social Emotional Learning Important?

You can imagine why these skills are important. What happens when an adult or even an older child reacts to frustration the way a toddler would? That person would be considered a problem in a classroom or the workplace.

What happens to the easily distracted student when it comes time for algebra or physics?

What happens to the child who feels ignored or left out? How long does it take for these feelings to be expressed by antisocial behavior?

On the other hand, people who have been taught how to make friends, how to resolve conflicts, how to persevere when something doesn’t come easy, and how to control their attention and impulses will have a much easier time in school. But the benefits don’t stop there. The people who learn these skills are much more likely to succeed in life.

So imagine that in school, under the radar, smoothly combined with language arts and history, children are taught things like grit, patience, tolerance.

Much better, right? Why didn’t we think of this before? Well, it turns out we did.

What is the History of Social Emotional Learning?

The modern face of social emotional learning started off in 1968 as a pilot project at the two lowest income and lowest achieving elementary schools in New Haven, CT. Child psychiatrist James P. Comer, MD, MPH and his colleagues at Yale Child Study Center created the Comer School Development Program.

Eventually, the results spoke for themselves. Academic performance rivaled the highest income schools. They had the best attendance record and no serious behavior problems.

In 1995 the concept gained popularity when the book “Emotional Intelligence, Why it Can Matter More Than IQ” by Daniel Goleman came out.

This sparked more collaboration between scientists and educators. Now there are actually many science-based programs available for school districts to choose from.

As research proves it’s value, it is being sought out by more school districts, and receiving more federal funding. For example, in 2016 the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development was formed. The most recent bill introduced to Congress in 2018 is H.R. 6120 Social and Emotional Learning for Families Act.

According to CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), it even makes sense for schools economically. Researchers found an $11 return for every $1 spent on SEL.

The momentum for this type of program to be used nationwide is increasing. And for me, a Johnny-come-lately to this idea, I am so happy that this is where research is driving education.

How Does Social Emotional Learning Work?

Here’s what a typical classroom scene looks and sounds like in a school that has implemented social emotional learning:

There is a prominently placed list of classroom rules or expectations. The list is usually short and made of broad principles. It is made up of positive statements instead of “don’ts”. It might look something like this:

The students know where they are supposed to be. They know where to put things like finished work and where to find supplies. That is because the teacher has explained and marked everything clearly.

During instruction time, the students are often asked to comment or contribute to the conversation. This decreases the chances of minds wandering.

The teacher moves around the room and makes eye contact while teaching. She usually takes a moment to have at least one personal and positive interaction with each student at the beginning of the day.

You will often hear the teacher give specific praise to students. For example, “Annie, I like how you waited patiently until Joe was done talking.” Or, “Great job putting away your supplies everyone, now we can line up for lunch.”

When a correction is needed, the teacher often gives it quietly and privately, and immediately moves on instead of drawing attention to the mistake.

Here’s a fun fact for us parents to consider; teachers are encouraged to use a ratio of five comments praising students to every one corrective comment. I sure could up my ratio of mom-praise!

There are incentives in place for following expectations. Students may be allowed a few extra minutes with an activity they like. There may be a jar of beads or rocks that gets filled when the class is “caught” doing what’s expected. Once the jar is full they earn a pajama day or some game time.

The exact methods vary depending on the program that your child’s school purchases, and the individual personality of the teacher.  But you can see the common thread is respect, fairness, and positivity.

What Are the Benefits of Social Emotional Learning?

From a teacher’s perspective:

Here are two improvements from a teacher’s perspective over the way things used to be. Remember the principal in the movie “Ferris Beuler’s Day Off”? He’s the caricature of the authority figure in my childhood. The type that demanded respect and compliance based only on his title.

Now, educators are taught how to earn respect by being consistent and fair. Children are helped to willingly follow classroom expectations without threats, nagging, or other negative attention. This makes the classroom environment stay positive.

When I am teaching, I don’t want to yell at the kids, distrust them, or assume they are out to make my life difficult. I really don’t want to have to punish them.

I love the days when everyone tries hard, cooperates, and has fun. Social emotional learning gives the teachers the skills they need to make days like these happen more often.

Of course, every day can’t be perfect. Some days the students are tired or distracted. Instead of students’ getting into trouble for that, teachers try to adjust as much as possible.

I’ve seen how students that at first meeting seem to be the “difficult” ones have excelled with consistent and kind treatment.

The other big improvement is that there seems to be an unspoken rule amongst teachers never to label students as troublemakers or unteachable. Educators now try their hardest to allow every child to succeed.

From the perspective of a parent:

SEL helps my child feel safer in school. People who feel a sense of belonging are less likely to wish or inflict harm on anyone in that community. This means the chances of my child coming into contact with a bully (or worse) are much smaller!

Students who feel safe have the mental and emotional energy to concentrate on learning. If you feel anxious or threatened, how easy is it to learn something new?

When a subject doesn’t come easy, students are taught to not give up. One of my favorite sayings on a teacher’s wall in our school is, “Mistakes are proof that you are trying.” So SEL teaches my child to persevere.

When there is a conflict among students, SEL training helps them navigate the conflict in positive ways. They don’t assume the other child is a bad person. They learn to understand each other, look for solutions, and stay respectful and kind.

Last Week In School

Last week in school I had the opportunity to substitute, and I was so excited. I have been researching this topic, reading about best practices, learning about the great results. I’m definitely becoming a believer.

We just got a flyer sent home explaining the new program being used in our school. It’s described as a team-based approach to creating a safe, productive learning environment called Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports, or PBIS.

So not only had I done all sorts of research for this article, but I also had read up on this program.

I went into the day feeling really confident that the class and I would have a good day. I was rosy cheeked and full of optimism.

I felt that way despite knowing that there were a few challenging personalities in the group. In fact, I was excited to see what would happen. Would I really be able to get through the day with more praise than correction? Would they behave as well as I see them do with the classroom teacher?

I wouldn’t call the day a complete failure, but it was definitely a reality check.

The students all worked hard, and we didn’t fall behind on any of the schoolwork the teacher had for the day. But they self-reported at the end of the day that they did not behave well enough to earn the promised game. 

When it was time to transition from one activity to another, brief chaos ensued. There was a lot of wandering the room and speaking out when someone else was supposed to be talking.

I chalk this up to the disruption of having a different person teaching them. It’s a process combining all of the personalities in the classroom, and then unexpectedly, in comes a substitute. I get it. I’m the wild card.

But I had still hoped for things to be better. By the end of the day I had pretty much given up making them do what I wanted. Their work was done, and I wanted to read aloud to them, but half the class wouldn’t stop talking and start listening. The last 15 minutes of the day were basically wasted.

What Went Wrong?

Two days later, it came to me, the way things often do when my brain has been ruminating. I figured out my mistakes.

I should have started the day with a friendly chat explaining EXACTLY what MY expectations were for the day. It wasn’t enough to just say, “I have the same expectations as your teacher”.

I should have said specific things, like “When I need your attention I will ring the bell. I expect everyone to pause their conversations and wait quietly for my direction.”

I should have requested a volunteer to read the rules that were posted and give me some examples of what they would mean in action.

At the end of the day, when they would have been playing 4 corners if they had earned it, I should have allowed the ones who DID earn it to play while making the others sit out.

Lessons Learned

I guess I learned that practice makes perfect. Being a good teacher, parent, any kind of leader really, takes time, effort and thought.

When in doubt about what to do, we often fall back on old habits. But that’s ok. Tomorrow is another day.

At the end of the day, if we have the opportunity to show we care enough to be there and try our best, that’s already a lot.

Even though my day wasn’t as picture perfect as I imagined, I still believe in using the principles of SEL. I will keep trying to get better at it. And I hope to see some real life examples of it working for me.

When I do, I’ll be sure to share them with you.

Photo credit for cover photo Arta Joma


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, my friend. funny how you are at the beginning of the school years with your little ones and I am almost at the end with my guy (he really was little, way back when). yet, it seems our schools are making use of a lot of the same programs. my son’s career-technical high school just offered a parent workshop on SEL. they also use PBIS. last year our family took advantage of a workshop they held with the Mega Skills program. there really is so much more to education than meets the eye. we never stop learning no matter what grade or age. thankful for programs like these and teachers like you.

    1. Thanks for letting me know you enjoyed it! I’m glad to hear about high schools using these same methods because it really is the better way. You’re such a great mom to attend that workshop. Maybe our school will offer that sometime soon.

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