How to Apply Social Emotional Learning Skills in Academic Settings


Have you ever faced this struggle: should I focus on academic content or boost social emotional character development? I am sure educators have encountered this dilemma many times, including myself. With no guidance on the topic, it is hard to know how to teach it to students.

I have been thinking about social emotional learning for some time. I came across an article “Making the Case for SEL” it states decades of research and implementation support SEL, and they are:

  • Social Emotional Learning builds life-long future ready skills
  • Social Emotional Learning improves academic achievement
  • Social Emotional Learning is urgently needed now to support the well-being of children and adults
  • Parents overwhelmingly support social emotional learning

I understand supporting SEL, but how do you integrate with academic content? I have done some digging for answers, and the one thing that keeps coming up is that SEL is grounded in skills.

SEL: A Skill-Oriented Approach

A case in point by Jeffrey S. Kress and Maurice J Elias (2019), authors of the book Nurturing Students’ Character, illustrates:

“A teacher sees a student sitting alone on the floor in the hall. What might that student be feeling; what non-verbal clues exist as to why the student is sitting alone in the hall? Have we seen anything like that in the past? What is supposed to be happening for the student now—where should that student be? What is the teacher’s initial emotional reaction to seeing the student? Might the teacher need to regulate her emotions as the situation unfolds, with initial anger over a student being out of class evolving into empathy once the student’s emotional state is clear? What tone of voice and what phrasing would the teacher use when speaking with the student? How will this be modulated as the conversation unfolds? What will the teacher decide to say to his student? Regardless, it will have an impact on the emotional state of that student and will likely involve other people. Send the child back to class? Engage in a conversation about what’s going on? Bring the student to a counselor or administrator’s office? Contact parents/guardians?” (pg.18)

I am sure many educators have faced similar situations and wonder what I should do. Kress and Elias believe it requires many skills, and note CASEL uses five broad categories:

  1. Self-awareness (e.g., identifying one’s emotional state).
  2. Self-regulation (e.g., the ability to calm oneself during times of stress).
  3. Social awareness (e.g., empathy or perspective taking).
  4. Relationship skills (e.g., communication and listening skills).
  5. Problem solving and decision-making skills (e.g., the ability to anticipate consequences of one’s choices).

Kress and Elias (2019) emphasize that “Because these skills are relevant at every age level, and during every school day, we need to have comprehensive ways of building them over time—just like we do for reading and math skills.” (pg.18)

Kress and Elias suggest what teachers or coaches can do to build these skills:

Encouraging Students’ Use of Skills

1. Naming

• Establish terminology to serve as a shorthand for the skill or set of skills.

• Example: “We’re going to be practicing Keep Calm as a way to help with stress.”

2. Building motivation

• Work with students to understand why these skills could be helpful in their lives.

• Example, in introducing listening skills, ask students to reflect on how it feels when a friend listens carefully to them, as opposed to ignores what they say.

3. Modeling

•Showing students how to use ideas from the SEL lessons is more effective than telling students to use them.

•Example: When introducing a theme, discuss when it is important in your own life.

• This need not be discussed in any detail.

• You can focus on your professional life, not your personal life.

4. Prompting and Cueing Concepts and Skills Learned Previously

• Reminding students to use skills will promote students’ generalization of skills.

• Ask, “How does what we spoke about in October’s leadership theme help us with this situation?” These prompts add up over the three years students spend in the SEL instructional context.

• Students learn that SEL lessons are good for advice and practical help.

5. Pedagogy for Generalizing Skills


• Generalization of skills comes from deep learning and guided practice.

• Review prior activities for the students who were present, those who were absent, and those who were present but not attentive.


• Students will not learn the skills in one lesson.

• Repetition helps students discover how to flexibly apply the skill in many circumstances.


• Anticipate: When you know about an upcoming opportunity to use new skills, remind students in advance it will help them to use the skill

• Visual Reminders: Place (student-made, ideally) posters, signs, and reminders of SEL themes and skills in classrooms, guidance offices, group rooms, the main office, on bulletin boards.

• Testimonials: Use sharing circles so students can share examples of times they have used skills (or could have used them to a good advantage if they would have remembered to do so).

• Prompts: Develop verbal and nonverbal prompts to remind students to use skills.


• Students are especially attuned to appreciation, both from adults and from peers. So be alert to students “living” the SEL themes.


• Build into many SEL activities.

• Opportunities for reflection (discussion, journaling, etc.) build a habit of thoughtfulness.

Three Essential Components for Integrating SEL into Academics

In the article “Three Principles for Using SEL in the Classroom“, identified 3 essential components for integrating SEL into academics and how they can be used in the classroom:

1. Fostering academic mindsets

Helping students adapt a growth mindset is key to this process, Schu says. The goal, she explains, is for students to understand “who they are as learners, so they can improve with effort and new strategies, and [that they] know struggle is part of the process.” Students should feel they belong, that they can succeed, and that their work has value, she adds.

To accomplish this, try to communicate high expectations for students by asking them about their thinking, sharing exemplary work, using specific feedback to drive improvement, and communicating that mistakes are an important part of learning. “How teachers communicate the meaning of setbacks, struggle, and failure is critical to students’ mindsets,” the CASEL guidance notes.

2. Aligning SEL and academic objectives

SEL can help foster learning. One objective of the Common Core, for example, is for students to “construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.” To include SEL in this learning, help students anticipate how others will hear their arguments, and teach active listening skills, so they can understand other perspectives. Both approaches involve social awareness and relationship skills, which are key SEL goals.

SEL is helpful in explaining challenging ideas and tasks, or in lessons that involve understanding decisions or relationships—such as why characters in history or fiction may have acted a certain way.

3. Using interactive instructional practices and structures to promote SEL

Class discussions and group learning can enhance SEL understanding and competence. Try some of these activities to introduce SEL skill-building into your practice:

  • Journal writing. Ask students to write down a response to a prompt that uses an SEL skill, such as: When did you see someone empathize or understand the feelings of another person this week? Or what is one thing your team can do differently next time to achieve your goals?
  • Class meetings. Encourage participation and focus on solving problems and creating a positive climate, with everyone contributing.
  • Collaborative problem-solving. Have students work together on a project, puzzle, or problem. If appropriate to the grade level, examine the process that worked best for decision-making and problem-solving.
  • Goals and progress. Encourage students to set goals for the day, week, quarter, or year. Focus on successes and setbacks, the reasons for them, and the value of the process more than the outcome.
  • Emotional intelligence. Explain the emotions you or a student are feeling. Name the feelings and explain why they are valuable and how they can be channeled.


Social Emotional Skills are important for students to build. Once students can apply these skills, they have the tools to deal with hardship or conflict in life. If you want to know more about SEL, visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) at


Making the Case for SEL

Kress, J. S., & Elias, M. J. (2019). Nurturing Students’ Character. Taylor & Francis.

Paterson, J (2021, August 16) Three Principles for Using SEL in the Classroom