FuelEd’s Guide to Social Emotional Learning (SEL)

Throughout the years, the term, “Social Emotional Learning” or SEL has gained significant traction. Whether you’re a teacher trying to figure out how to implement it in your classroom, a school leader working to improve school climate, or a district leader looking into how you can reduce student discipline—lots of folks in education are talking about SEL. But what exactly is it?

Throughout the years, the term, “Social Emotional Learning” or SEL has gained significant traction. Whether you’re a teacher trying to figure out how to implement it in your classroom, a school leader working to improve school climate, or a district leader looking into how you can reduce student discipline—lots of folks in education are talking about SEL. But what exactly is it?

Throughout this blog, we will define what SEL is, discuss the benefits of SEL, and provide tips on how to implement it. Let’s get started!

What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)? The Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning has identified five competencies that humans need in order to thrive in their social and emotional lives: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

In short, SEL is traditionally thought of as the pathway by which students gain competence in these five areas. The hope is that through experiences at school and home that promote these skills, young people will become adults who know themselves, regulate themselves, can understand and provide empathy to others, and make healthy life decisions. The benefits of such skills include improved mental and physical health, increased relationship satisfaction, and decreased substance use in the long term. From this perspective, SEL is not a hard sell; pretty much every adult wants to see the children in their lives develop these social and emotional competencies.

But how exactly are these competencies developed in students and what part do teachers play in promoting them? One way to answer this question is by using neuroscience. Before a child is born, their brain is comparatively underdeveloped, but after they are born, it is the bond between a child and an adult that shapes all brain development and sets the stage for all future learning.

In fact, each and every one of these five social and emotional competencies emerge for children in the context of consistent experiences with secure relationships with a healthy caregiver, where nurture, structure, and challenges are present.

"This is why FuelEd’s mission is to re-focus SEL as an important precursor for developing social and emotional competencies in students: safe and secure adults."

This approach is founded on two core concepts:

  1. The best learning happens inside secure relationships, or relationships where students feel safe, seen, and soothed. Research shows that just one secure relationship is a key factor in establishing a positive long-term developmental trajectory. For many, that secure relationship is with a teacher.
  2. Often, because of their own childhood experiences, and/or because of the overwhelming stress of the job, teachers and other adults charged with leading student SEL have not yet developed “the CASEL 5.” As one student shared, “We go to SEL once a week, but the teacher just seems frustrated to have to teach us this stuff.” In this case, students are being explicitly taught the behavior of self-management (what it is, why it’s important, and strategies for practicing it), while experiencing an adult who is struggling to self-regulate or even use the strategies being taught. Teachers aren’t to blame—the truth is, pre-service teacher training and most professional development programs don’t focus on SEL for teachers, and the current system (e.g. understaffing, stressed student populations, poor compensation, mistrust) would challenge any adult in areas of self-regulation and self-management.

    Humans are a highly social species and we tend to look to one another for safety and identity, as well as how to treat one another. In other words: what is experienced in our relationships is the most powerful education we receive. When adults (i.e. educators) feel seen, empowered, and supported to grow their own self-awareness and well-being, this will have a cascading impact on students. For these reasons, we believe that SEL begins with adults.

    Reflection: Take a moment and think back to when you were in school. Who was the teacher that impacted you the most? What was it about this teacher? How did their mastery of key social and emotional competencies impact you?

    • Wise
    • Structured
    • Predictable
    • Warm
    • Kind
    • Supportive
    • Challenging
    • Self-regulated
    • Empathic
    • Engaged
    • Other

    When it comes to infusing social and emotional learning throughout your classroom, school, or district, it starts with you, and eventually, all of the other adults—teachers, instructional coaches, assistant principals, district leaders, etc. At FuelEd, we provide resources and support to empower teachers so you can get back to what you do best.

    Here’s our take on the CASEL 5 and what we would add when applying this framework to adults/educators:

    • Self-awareness (for educators): CASEL defines this as “the capacity to understand and name one’s emotions, thoughts, values and strengths.” When it comes to educators, we think this should be expanded to include the ability to name your story and how it impacts your current relationships, behaviors, and decision-making (after all, this is an indicator of emotional health in adults).
    • Self-management (for educators): CASEL defines this as “the ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations.” When considering self-management for educators, we think this should include educators' capacity for self-regulation, stress tolerance, and ability to maintain healthy autonomy and agency.
    • Social awareness (for educators): CASEL defines this as “the ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others.” We would also emphasize that this is one of the most powerful tools an educator has for developing SEL in students. And we’d expand the definition to include that an educator’s ability to understand another person’s experiences with trauma—and adjust their behavior accordingly—is essential. After all, this is at the heart of what it means to be trauma-informed, and from our perspective, it happens to be one of the greatest factors in an educator’s ability to build secure relationships.
    • Relationship skills (for educators): CASEL defines this as “the ability to establish and maintain healthy, supportive relationships.” But what does this look like for adult educators? The most powerful and potent skills educators need to build safe and secure relationships boils down to two communication skills that can be both taught and learned. Simply, an educator should: know how to share themselves honestly and know how to make others feel understood.
    • Responsible decision-making (for educators): CASEL defines this as “the capacity to make caring and constructive choices, especially when others are impacted.” When an educator needs to make a responsible decision, we believe that this should include balancing compassion with boundaries and staying out of judgment in tough situations.

    So, how are the educators in your community doing? Where are they strong and where is there room for growth?

    How to grow adult SEL competencies?

    Here’s the thing—like students, adults learn through secure relationships and need learning experiences that are safe and scaffolded. So helping educators grow depends on educators’ access to safe relationships. Do your educators have a safe relationship or person on campus to talk to? If they don't, they won’t as readily be able to grow their own social and emotional competencies.

    That’s why we believe so strongly in investing in adult-to-adult school culture practices as a way to center secure relationships. It is one of the best ways to create actual experiences where teachers can practice and develop their own SEL. For example, we have our Empathy Circles, where groups of educators join together to share emotions, needs, challenges, and frustrations in a space where they receive reliable validation, care, and support. This experience of both witnessing and receiving secure care is a powerful way to learn new relationship skills. Another example of investing in adult-to-adult school culture is using FuelEd’s stewardship model, a peer support practice whereby educators are paired with another educator in a weekly practice of secure relationship-building.

    Additionally, these practices, when completed together, have the potential to create a virtuous cycle, where a stronger school climate will improve each educator, and educators with stronger social and emotional competencies will enhance school culture.

    When relationship-driven school culture practices are combined with educators that master evidence-based relationship skills, educators have the tools and support that they need to implement student-facing SEL with consistency and integrity. Perhaps more importantly, when we begin training with all of the adults in the building, they have the opportunity to resolve trauma and grow emotionally. As a result, educators are able to build positive and empathic relationships with every student.

    Think of it this way. You’re playing “Would you rather?” with your students, and you ask:

    • Would you rather have weekly SEL lessons or have a teacher that helps you feel safe?
    • Would you rather have a 5-minute mindfulness practice or a teacher who understands you and your environment?

    We think most students would easily choose to be supported by a safe and secure educator. Fortunately, we don’t have to choose between a false dichotomy of student and adult SEL because they aren’t really all that separate. We can best support student SEL by first, supporting educator SEL. Secondly, we can make sure that any and all student SEL interventions are paired with the support and development of teacher SEL.

    At FuelEd, we are the resource hub for educators and education leaders building relationship-driven schools. Let us help you in developing your educator SEL toolbox so you can start providing the support and structure to your students and fellow educators when they need it.

    Preview our video guide to social emotional learning.


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