Over the past decade, social-emotional learning (SEL) and equity in education have become prevalent themes in school districts across the country.

Although they are two separate and unique issues, they are both rooted in the idea of educating the entire child. For educators facing numerous demands on their time and professional skills, coupled with limited resources, it may seem like an additional burden to ask them to use an equity lens when approaching students and to help them develop socially and emotionally, in addition to academically. However, when implemented properly and bolstered by support from administrators, parents, and community members, SEL and equity are critical to improved student outcomes and crafting a more robust, rewarding education system.

This four-part series will explore the benefits of SEL and equity to students and teachers, how parents and communities can be involved, and what digital tools can enhance rather than detract from meaningful student engagement.

Why is SEL Essential for Students?

Social-emotional learning is helpful for students of all ages, but it’s especially critical at the elementary level as many children start navigating how to develop relationships outside their immediate household while also experiencing more academic and behavioral expectations and demands.

Additionally, multiculturalism and multilingualism are growing at schools. In this environment, where students possess various motivation for “engaging in learning, behaving positively, and performing academically,” SEL creates a solid foundation for positive, safe learning that enhances each student’s ability to succeed not only at school, but later in life as well, according to an Edutopia article.

SEL programming can promote student success by helping them develop five essential characteristics:

1. Self-awareness

Self-awareness is a thinking skill that for elementary and middle school students involves a the ability to recognize how feelings, thoughts, and actions are interconnected, as well as an understanding of one’s personal emotions, goals, and values. Self-awareness also encompasses a student’s ability to accurately assess their own performance, behavior, strengths and limitations and to respond to various social situations with a positive mindset and sense of self-efficacy.

2. Self-management

An effective SEL curriculum also teaches young students how to regulate their emotions and behaviors in preparation for real-world scenarios. Some of the individual skills that comprise self-management include the ability to control impulses, delay gratification, cope with stress, and preserve in the face of challenges and setbacks.

3. Social Awareness

Social awareness is not only about understanding social norms and learning the appropriate behaviors for different environments, but also about possessing the ability to empathize with and feel compassion for people with diverse backgrounds and cultures. From there, students gain the ability to identify and respond to the needs of others. Additionally, social awareness includes helping children know what family, school and community resources are available to them when faced with a challenging situation.

4. Relationship Skills

Building off the other skills, SEL also helps students learn how to establish and sustain positive, healthy relationships with peers and adults. That requires teaching children how to listen actively, cooperate, communicate clearly, constructively negotiate conflict, resist unhealthy social pressure, and seek assistance when needed.

5. Responsible Decision-making

Another critical skill for children is the ability to make constructive decisions regarding their social interactions and personal behaviors in diverse settings and scenarios. The first step to responsible decision-making is the ability to consider ethical standards, safety concerns, and the health and well-being of others and to realistically evaluate the consequences of one’s actions. The second step is following through on a decision despite social pressures and potentially negative consequences to one’s self.

How SEL Impacts Student-Teacher Relationships

Young children spend numerous hours at school on a weekly basis, which is why it has become one of the primary places for teaching them important social and emotional skills. SEL is also seen as a critical part of student success, meaning children can’t receive an optimal education without growing in self-awareness, self-regulation, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. The short- and long-term benefits of SEL include improved grades, attendance and test scores; reduced behavioral issues; decreased emotional distress; and more positive attitudes toward oneself and others.

Educators are at the heart of SEL, as they are able to model social-emotional competencies for students and promote student engagement. However, an SEL program is most effective when classroom, schoolwide, family, and community practices are all aligned to bolster positive student-teacher relationships and reinforce constructive SEL skills in each part of a child’s daily life.

Part 2: The Power of Educators’ Attitudes to Influence Student Success

Part 3: What Do Students Bring to the Table?

Part 4: Fostering Positive Student-Teacher Relationships