What is Social Emotional Learning?

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social emotional learning is a term used to describe a learning style that promotes children’s understanding and management of their emotions. The term first appeared in 1994 when the Fetzer Institute in Kalamazoo hosted a meeting to promote positive child development. Educators, researchers, and advocates worked together to address concerns about a lack of programming and coordination at the school level. From this meeting, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and the term “social and emotional learning” (SEL) was created and has since been used by progressive educators around the country to educate the whole child.

At its core, SEL is about providing children a process through which they learn 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,” according to CASEL.

The 5 Core Competencies of SEL


“The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior. The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a “growth mindset.”


“The ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations — effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself. The ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals.”

Social Awareness

“The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.”

Relationship Skills

“The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.”

Responsible Decision-Making 

“The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms. The realistic evaluation of the consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.”

At The New School, our faculty and staff work with students on each competency from early childhood all the way through graduation. 

Why should teachers promote Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Childhood and adolescence can be tough. We all can look back at times when we were frustrated, confused, angry, or scared without an understanding of how to process these strong emotions. Young people’s bodies and brains are changing at such a rapid rate, and they are regularly being bombarded with new ideas and influences. As parents, we do our best to help our children navigate through these rough waters, but with new technology and changing ideologies, we don’t always know what’s best to say and do. Being a child looks different today than when we were young. What hasn’t changed however, is that children who are taught to process, understand and manage their emotions are more equipped to become emotionally intelligent adults. 

Research tells us that children today are increasingly distracted, under pressure, and anxious both in and out of the classroom. Fortunately, research has also shown that when schools focus on SEL, students show an increase in positive attitudes and behaviors, a sense of purpose, confidence, and empathy. Their relationships with their parents and peers improve, as well as their academic performance. Most importantly, children have a decrease in emotional distress. 

Quite simply, children who engage regularly with social and emotional learning are more likely to understand what they are feeling, why they feel that way, and how to work through their feelings.

How does The New School provide SEL?

From our humble beginnings as a preschool in 1971, The New School has always cared for and looked after the social and emotional growth of our students as well as their academic success. 

SEL in Early Childhood (Ages 1 through Pre-Kindergarten)

In early childhood, our youngest learners begin to recognize their own emotions and the emotions of their friends through daily lessons, songs, and activities. Our teachers are trained to use Conscious Discipline throughout the classroom. Conscious Discipline aims to help children express their feelings, regulate emotions, problem-solve through an issue, and create strong connections with others. In this way, a child can learn appropriate behaviors based on their relationships and understand what is expected of them. Breathing techniques, using closed-end choices, offering a safe place, and setting rules beforehand to avoid difficult situations are just a few strategies our teachers use to integrate SEL with young learners. At this early age, social and emotional learning starts with adults. When an adult can stay calm and see the situation from the child’s perspective it can help the child to respond appropriately and teach them to recognize and manage their own emotions.

SEL in Lower School (Kindergarten through Grade 4)

In the lower school, social and emotional learning is integrated into the curriculum as well as presented to students regularly as a separate enrichment class. In this class, lessons teach emotional regulation and character-building skills. In kindergarten through second grade, students engage in fun songs and stories to help them build emotional memory. This helps them to see that emotions are a universal trait and they are not alone in their feelings. The lessons also teach students to talk about their emotions and to seek help when they need it. In third and fourth grade, students are encouraged to discuss and ask questions about more specific topics.

SEL in Middle School (Grades 5 and 6)

Middle school is one of the most challenging times in the emotional development of children. During pre-adolescence, the brain and body begin to change to prepare for puberty. The hormones that create these changes can cause confusion and frustration for many young people. Friend groups begin to morph as interests become narrowed and many also begin to engage with technology in. At The New School, the high-touch nature of our teachers allows students to engage in a way that is deep and meaningful. Social and emotional learning happens through integrated and collaborative lessons, regular advisory, and grade-level meetings. Our middle school faculty have the ability to and often do sit down with individuals and groups to discuss emotional well being and peer relationships. Because of our small class sizes, teachers are able to get to know each student. This allows them to pick up on non-verbal cues and gives them the opportunity to teach SEL skills earlier than at a traditional school that follows students through adolescence.

SEL in Upper School (Grades 7 through 12)

Our upper school advisory program gives each student the opportunity to be known by a caring adult. In weekly meetings, students and advisors discuss important topics beyond academics such as community and stress management. Our teachers truly value learning beyond textbooks and seek to encourage their students to become confident and engaged learners and people. The very nature of our upper school allows teachers to take the time to get to know each of their students in a way that is deeply meaningful. 

Social Emotional Learning and The New School

While including social and emotional learning in the classroom may seem like a new approach to some, the concept has been around for over two decades. The founders of The New School may not have had the terminology when the school began in 1971, but the philosophy of promoting a well-rounded student who is growing socially and emotionally has always been and will continue to be at the heart of The New School. 

Cailey Gray, Counselor

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