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What Is Social and Emotional Learning?

Learn what social emotional learning is and how to apply it

By: Applied Learning Sciences Team
Tags: Learning Science, Article, Social Emotional Learning, Education Methods

It’s not what you think. When we reflect on ourselves as a species, we humans tend to be quite proud of our intellect, especially in comparison to other creatures – and this pride is well-founded. Our capacity for deep thought, for creation, and for changing the world…all of this is due to the remarkable powers afforded by the large prefrontal cortex of the Homo Sapiens brain. Indeed, we possess the largest of prefrontal cortex of any animal on Earth.

That prefrontal cortex is quite important when we think about education. In designing our educational landscapes, we often focus on the sorts of things we can accomplish with our considerable brainpower. Things like mathematics, for example, or learning a new language. This is an excellent focus. The desire to shape and pass on what we know to future generations has been the key to the development of advanced civilizations across the world.

However, it is also important to remember something else.

It’s not just what you think, it’s also what you feel.

Thousands of years ago, early Hominid brains were a third the size they are now. The prefrontal cortex was not nearly so large, and other areas of the brain were more dominant. Areas of the brain’s limbic system, such as the amygdala and thalamus, which are buried in the middle of the modern Homo Sapiens brain, were of critical importance to our earliest ancestors. These areas were (and are) responsible for processing sensory information and translating it into physical, social, and emotional responses. The visual input from an oncoming hyena, for example, triggered a feeling of fear and a corresponding impulse to run (or fight!).

Today, we are not likely to run into a sabre-toothed cat, but it is only relatively recently that the human race has enjoyed the level of safety and health that we now experience. In many respects, in fact, our brains have not yet caught up to our modern lifestyles. Case in point: when you see a snake in the grass, you will startle just as your ancestors did, even before your prefrontal cortex registers that it is not a snake, but rather a harmless tree branch. You will feel even before you think.

Why is this important? In education, it is because our ancient, emotional brains play a major role in what happens at school – arguably as important a role as the prefrontal cortex. How we feel, how we behave, and how we interact with others all have profound effects on how we learn.

To understand these effects, experts and researchers in education, psychology, cognitive science, and other fields have embarked on a collaborative journey. Their collective, ongoing work has become part of a growing field of study, going by many names: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), for example, or soft skills, or non-cognitive competencies (arguably a misnomer, since emotions and social responses involve cognitive processes). While each term encompasses a slightly different combination of traits and skills, in a more general sense, they all acknowledge our emotional and social selves.

Recognizing the need to translate this research into preK-12 education, a group of researchers and practitioners formed the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL’s work, and the work of others, have uncovered some remarkable findings.

For example, a pivotal meta-analysis combining the results of over 200 studies found that when students participate in a research-based SEL program, these students demonstrate an astounding 11% gain in academic achievement compared to students who do not participate. Another study found that the benefits of SEL programming far outweigh the costs, with a return of $11 on every $1 spent. Additional research has shown that early support in social and emotional growth can lead to decreased poverty and likelihood of criminal activity in adulthood, increased ability to cope with stress, improved attitudes about social groups and school as a whole, and enhanced employability.

These results have caught the attention of stakeholders, and SEL is now one of the “hot topics” discussed in education circles throughout the nation. This is a well-deserved spotlight, as staff at LA Unified will attest. Even in the face of looming funding cuts, the district, home to 109 schools, is arguing to not only keep, but expand all SEL programming. Since implementing SEL interventions, the district has noted marked improvements in attendance, behavior, and academic performance.

What lies ahead? In an article describing initial research surrounding a program that combines SEL interventions with literacy instruction, Professor Ann Daunic and her colleagues offer a hint of what is to come. They note that “social-emotional growth and academic learning…are inextricably connected,” yet teachers often have little time to focus on SEL due to the focus on content learning for high-stakes assessments (2013, p. 43). One very promising solution to this dilemma is the conscious integration of SEL support and instruction into academic curricula (stay tuned for a future post on this topic!). Others are exploring how technology may support SEL instruction in schools, while still others are working on building SEL into after school programs.

In many respects, this work is itself a perfect example of what can happen when we pair our hearts (or rather, our limbic systems) with our minds (more accurately, our prefrontal cortices). The evidence is clear: it is time to stop thinking of our hearts and minds as two separate domains, and acknowledge that social, emotional, and academic learning go hand-in-hand.

After all, we’re only human.


This article was created by the McGraw-Hill Canada team. Visit to learn more.

About the Applied Learning Sciences Team

The Applied Learning Sciences (ALS) team is dedicated to the application and translation of foundational and cutting-edge learning science research toward product development. Working collaboratively across all School Group teams, ALS draws upon the vast body of research in fields such as neuroscience, education, cognitive science, psychology (including educational psychology), learning analytics, applied linguistics, anthropology, computer science, and philosophy.