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V.9 #1 Social-Emotional Development - Embedding Social Emotional Learning in the Schools

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.

Research over the last 20 years about what and how children learn has consistently recognized the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL is defined as “…the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” ( SEL has been acknowledged as an essential component in the healthy development and well being of all children. One leader in the cause to advance the implementation of SEL policies and programs is the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL is an organization whose mission includes integrating evidence-based practices into school settings that advance “… the development of academic, social and emotional competence for all students” ( The Connection Between SEL and PBIS

Educators integrate research and theory from many different fields, e.g. positive psychology, public health, character education, etc., in the effort to determine effective evidence-based programs to implement in school settings. The call for SEL implementation in schools originally stems from the United States Congress’ recognition of the need to promote positive behavior supports for students with special needs; the reauthorized Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), first in the 1997 reauthorization and then again in 2004, functional assessment was emphasized to address Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS). Although PBIS is specifically supported through special education legislation, the theoretical framework fashioned on the three-tiered model approach of Response to Intervention (RtI), calls for programs to provide Primary Prevention approaches to all students in a school in the desire to prevent problematic behavior. “PBIS is based on a problem-solving model and aims to prevent inappropriate behavior through teaching and reinforcing appropriate behaviors” (OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, 2007). In this way, PBIS is similar in mission to CASEL as they both strive to promote optimal academic, social and emotional development for students. As schools scramble to implement effective evidenced-based curriculums into their settings, organizations like Casel ( and the Positive Behavioral Intervention Supports Office of the Special Education Technical Assistance Center ( are positioned to provide guidance and support on SEL programs to teachers, administrators and parents alike.

SEL Empowers Children

The missions of CASEL and PBIS are built on the premise that all children can learn appropriate behavior and that by systematically teaching SEL skills in the classroom, childrens’ academic and behavioral performance in and out of school is enhanced. The release of a national survey of 600 teachers confirms that teachers’ across America agree with the need for SEL in the classroom and recognize that many teachers have been engaging in some form of this practice, with or without the support and guidance from school administration (Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, 2013). The results of the survey were categorized around three themes: (1) Teachers Understand, Value, and Endorse Social and Emotional Learning for All Students; (2) Teachers Believe Social and Emotional Learning Helps Students Achieve in School and Life; and (3) Teachers Identify Key Accelerators for Social and Emotional Learning.

Teachers understand, value, and endorse social and emotional learning for all students. Teachers identified their own practices of cooperative learning as one example of promoting SEL in the classroom. In addition, teachers believe that the promotion of “getting along with others” is important across all ages, grade levels, socio-economic status and cultural conditions. Although 88% of teachers indicated that SEL skills are incorporated into their schools in some way, only 44% identified that it was at a school-wide level.

Teachers believe social and emotional learning helps students achieve in school and life. Seventy-five percent of teachers surveyed felt that SEL skills would help students attain academic success, and research supports these teachers’ perceptions. A meta-analysis conducted in 2011 demonstrated that students enrolled in SEL enhanced curriculums performed better that those not engaged in SEL programs (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, & Schellinger, 2011). Additionally, of teachers who list student behavior as a concern in their schools, 79% believe that SEL instruction will improve student behavior. Furthermore, 80% of teachers feel that SEL is an answer to negative school climate, and 87% believe that SEL instruction will help students to develop into better citizens.

Teachers identify key accelerators for social and emotional learning. A majority of teachers support SEL embedded in state learning standards indicating their belief that it will increase the likelihood that students will receive better instruction in SEL if it is explicitly stated in standards. With SEL mandated in state standards, teachers would be more likely to receive professional development and training in the implementation of SEL and 82% of teachers indicated an interest in receiving further training in this area. One of the areas of biggest challenge noted by teachers, 8 of 10 teachers reporting this challenge, is in the lack of reinforcement of SEL skills in the home.

Moving Forward with SEL

Researchers and educators agree that SEL has made gains in the last 20 years, e.g. IDEA 2004 and the introduction in the House of Representatives of a bill entitled the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act of 2013. The fact that the Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning Act was not passed in 2013, nor in it’s reintroduction in Congress in 2015, highlights that SEL has not been a priority in education. In addition, many individuals throughout the country are unaware of what SEL is, how it is implemented, and why it might be important to prioritize in school settings. Public perception and financial considerations are big hurdles to overcome in the effort to integrate SEL into schools, but these issues must be addressed in order to make the instruction of SEL curriculum as natural as ELA and mathematics.

What can teachers do? Teachers can and will do what they are trained to do and do best, teach students. Social and emotional skills can be incorporated into topics and curriculum that teachers are already engaged in teaching. CASEL has identified five sets of competencies that teachers, administrators and parents can be encouraged to reinforce in daily practices (See Figure 1.) CASEL competencies focus on 1) self-awareness, 2) self-management, 3) social-awareness, 4) relationship skills, and 5) responsible decision making. When using SEL competency language and embedding competencies into daily instruction, teachers reinforce that SEL is as important as other academic learning and they provide examples and reinforcement for these skills. Teachers can also communicate clearly with parents; letting parents know what they are working on in class, using and teaching parents the language of SEL competencies, and asking for support and help in the reinforcement of these competencies in the home setting. Within the school setting, teachers can request professional development opportunities from their administration in how to embed SEL competencies into their daily curriculums; this lets administration know that teachers believe this is an important area to cultivate. Administrators can also be encouraged by teachers to infuse SEL into school and district-wide goals, further cementing the importance of this area of learning. To learn more about SEL competencies and PBIS strategies, visit and

Figure 1. CASEL Competencies. (figure taken from


Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, (2013). The missing piece: A national teacher survey on how social and emotional learning can empower children and transform schools. Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Chicago: Author.

Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2015, September). Retrieved from website

Durlak, J., Weissberg, R., Dymnicki, A., & Schellinger, K. (2011, January/February). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1).

OSEP Technical Assistance Center on Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports. (2007). Retrieved from

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Special Education at Manhattanville College located in Purchase, New York. Dr. Malow teaches courses in Foundations of Special Education, Child Development and Research in Special Education. She has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on mindfulness in educational settings, risk taking behavior, and students with disabilities. She has co-authored a book with Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk. Dr. Malow can be reached at

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