Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has been in the news a lot the past year, often criticized alongside Critical Race Theory (CRT). And like CRT, SEL is often misrepresented by those critics in terms of what it actually is. Should SEL become an issue in your school district’s school board elections in the spring, here is a primer to help your PTA dispel myths about SEL and inform families about what it is.

What is SEL?

Social Emotional Learning is the encompassing term for the “soft skills” that children need to learn to be successful in school and in their careers. As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL is “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.” In short, SEL is simply learning who you are and how to work and get along with others.

Illinois has been a leader in teaching Social Emotional Learning and was the first state to create SEL learning standards. These standards have led to the incorporation of SEL instruction throughout the existing curricula, and teachers also use these standards when “teachable moments” happen throughout the day to support SEL. Illinois PTA has supported SEL in schools since our 2009 resolution on Social Emotional Learning.

Why is SEL Important?

One answer is that SEL increases students’ academic performance. SEL supports the skills that boost student success in core subjects while creating relationships and environments that are the best for learning. In fact, 93% of teachers want a greater focus on SEL in school because they know it improves student academic performance, classroom behavior, and attitude toward school and learning. As students have returned to in-person classrooms, SEL has emerged as an important tool to help students get back into the classroom mindset, emphasize the skills needed to get along with others that were missing during remote learning, and get back on track academically.

Dispelling SEL Misinformation

SEL is often criticized as just “teaching about feelings.” While Emotional Intelligence (the ability to be smart about and regulate feelings) is a part of SEL, it is not all of it. CASEL identifies five core competencies that make up SEL:

  1. Self-Awareness: Know your own emotions, strengths, and challenges and how they affect your actions. Have a growth mindset about your skills.
  2. Self-Management: Self-regulate and use executive function skills like planning and organization, impulse control, and setting goals.
  3. Social Awareness: Understand other perspectives, show empathy, respect diversity, and understand social norms.
  4. Relationship Skills: Build and maintain relationships, communicate clearly, cooperate, and resolve conflict.
  5. Responsible Decision-Making: Make positive choices about how to behave and interact with others. Think about how your actions affect yourself and others.

When spelled out like this, most parents realize that these are simply the basic “get along” skills that they have already been teaching their children.

SEL is also not about “controlling” children’s behavior. It is about building on the strengths they already have to develop the skills needed to achieve success. For example, SEL skills can help children overcome the “I’m bad at math” myth.

SEL is not just for kids with behavioral issues, it’s for everyone, including adults. SEL is not just about how we interact with others, it’s also about how we interact with ourselves. How many times do we as adults have that inner voice telling us that we’re a failure at something or that makes us feel like an imposter at work? Developing SEL skills are not just for the kid who gets frustrated with a difficult math problem and crumples up their worksheet; it’s also for the kid who quietly grinds their way through the worksheet but feels like a failure inside.

SEL Resources

Here are some resources on SEL for you and your PTA: