Socio-emotional learning is essential for the development of young people


Social and emotional learning (SEL) is under attack in Indiana. Specific problems are rarely identified. A very small (but very strong) group is shouting that SEL is the exclusive domain of the family and that SEL’s current programming is overbreadth on the part of schools. Others suggest that teachers are trying to be therapists or ignore academics.

These statements, as my late grandmother would say, are just a lot of “hooey”.

Since the dawn of time, school teachers have played an important role in the social and emotional development of young people – and you know why? Because teaching and learning is a social activity. Because self-awareness (knowing what you know and what you don’t know) and the ability to regulate your mind and mental state are essential to any learning.

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We help a student resolve a conflict on the playground by helping them identify their feelings and motivations, consider how their behavior may have impacted others, and understand another person’s perspective just like we teach students to do character analysis in Language Arts. We teach them the importance of sleep, nutrition and planning as they prepare for exams. We support them with positive thinking and emotional regulation as brain science proves these impact high-level thinking and performance. We teach them to assert themselves in the face of their needs in a given situation, because autonomy is fundamental for academic excellence. We teach them decision-making skills because they are essential in school, in life and in the workplace.

Decades of research in human development, neuroscience, and educational policy have established that social and emotional development is essential for all learning.

SEL is the process by which individuals develop knowledge and use skills in order to: establish a positive identity; manage emotions; understand and sympathize with others; create and maintain healthy relationships; set and achieve goals; and make fair and caring decisions.

The development of social and emotional skills occurs through explicit and focused teaching, but it also occurs in practices, interactions and relationships. This requires schools to take a holistic approach to SAL. SEL is not just about teaching distinct skills, it is also about creating ‘learning conditions’, including school culture and climate.

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Extensive research indicates that when schools intentionally and deliberately focus on social and social learning, students and communities enjoy the following benefits: improved employability skills; reduced rates of anxiety, depression and risky behavior; improving long-term employment, citizenship and health outcomes; improved behavior and attitudes; and academic earnings, including on-time graduation and post-secondary enrollment.

SEL skills are known to be associated with a decreased risk of alcohol and substance abuse and an increased likelihood of bouncing back from adversity. Teachers with well-developed SEL skills have better relationships with students, are more successful at engaging students, and stay in the profession longer. For all these reasons, SEL is widely supported by teachers, administrators and families.

Young people, even before the isolation and anxiety created by the pandemic, were struggling. Reports of depression and anxiety among young people have now reached an all time high. Sadly, in Indiana, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24 and the fourth leading cause of death for young people aged 5 to 14. Ensuring the emotional well-being of our young people is imperative for schools as well as for families. It is not a proposition of one or the other, but a collective responsibility. Social and emotional learning is our best primary prevention for suicide struggles and mental health.

Hundreds of professional associations, research institutes and educational organizations support socio-economic learning in schools. From the American Academy of Pediatrics, to the Afterschool Alliance, to the Indiana Association for Public School Superintendents, to the Division of Mental Health and Addictions – people with knowledge and experience in the science of learning and human development, drug abuse prevention and education policy – support this work. I urge every legislator and elected official to pay attention to the science, research and all current indicators that “children are not doing well”.

If one is truly concerned with the academic or post-school success of young Hoosiers, they will support social and emotional learning in Indiana schools. The science is clear.

Dr Sandy Washburn is a researcher at Indiana University. Learn more about social and emotional learning at

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: The writer encourages critics to support socio-emotional learning


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