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What is Social-Emotional Learning? And Why It’s So Important for Children?

What is social emotional learning?

In the 21st century, human beings are more connected to each other than ever before. Technology is utterly pervasive and has invaded every aspect of human existence. Most of us are available around the clock on social media, email, text messages, and more. 

Yet, in this scenario of online connections, it takes great skill and effort to form relationships on a human level. 

The ability to create these connections is vital to success in school, the workplace, and life. To this end, developing social-emotional skills during childhood is critical. 

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the process of acquiring essential skills such as self-control, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills that are vital for success in all aspects of life.

Children with a robust foundation in social-emotional skills are better equipped to cope with the challenges of everyday life. These skills are beneficial not only academically and professionally but also socially. 

From impulse control to emotion management, self-discipline to problem-solving, and relationship skills to social awareness, SEL provides children with the skills they need to thrive, succeed, and function as happy, healthy adults who contribute positively to society.

Why is social-emotional learning meaningful in schools?

Studies in schools and classrooms have provided a growing body of evidence on the impact of social-emotional learning in children. Findings show that teachers have a significant effect on instilling non-cognitive (social-emotional) skills in youth. 

In addition, teachers handling non-academic behaviors (absences, suspensions, etc.) predict long-term school dropout rates. 

Research also shows that 83% of high school students from schools that strongly emphasize social-emotional learning feel their school prepared them well for success after high school compared to only 13% from non-SEL schools.

Also, 89% of high school students in strong SEL schools get along with other kids compared to only 46% from schools with less emphasis on social-emotional skills. 

Studies have found that SEL programs promote academic success, increase positive behaviors, and reduce emotional distress and misconduct in children as young as elementary school students. In older students, SEL can have an impact on reducing mental health issues and drug use.

These findings are corroborated by other fields, including health, employment, student achievement, classroom management, and programs on preventing problematic behaviors in youth. 

The evidence is compelling – social-emotional learning gets results. Results that last for the long-term, well into adulthood. 

Where do I start with SEL?

While competent educators are becoming increasingly aware of the necessity of supporting children in social-emotional learning, parents and caregivers can do their bit to oversee skill development at home. 

Suppose teachers and parents work together to build and practice social-emotional skills in a meaningful way. In that case, it will strengthen our future generations as individuals and globally connected communities, especially in challenging and uncertain times. 

Children with a strong grounding in SEL will be better equipped to navigate the anxieties, stressors, and challenges of daily life, work with people from diverse backgrounds from around the world, and have a superior life experience with deeper relationships supported by sensitivity, empathy, and an awareness of self and others.

The 5 Core Competencies of Social Emotional Learning

Yet, most academic programs do not explicitly teach social-emotional skills. 

However, it often falls on parents and guardians to help young people acquire the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that will help them in achieving personal and collective success, forming solid relationships, and making responsible decisions throughout life. 

Ideally, SEL programs should be a school-family-community partnership that establishes a pervasive learning environment. Parents can take the first steps in raising children with social-emotional competencies by understanding the core competencies of SEL themselves. 

These are the 5 core SEL competencies that contribute to the social and emotional development of a child.

Self-Awareness

This is the ability to understand one’s thoughts and emotions and how they influence behavior. 

Self-awareness includes identifying one’s feelings, recognizing one’s strengths and limitations, and having a well-grounded sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy. 

Self-Management

This is the ability to control one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. 

Self-management includes feeling motivated, delaying gratification, controlling impulses, and managing stress to achieve personal and collective goals.

Social Awareness

This is the ability to understand other people’s perspectives and empathize with people in a multicultural environment. 

Social awareness includes the capacity to feel compassion for others, share community resources, and understand ethical norms in different social settings.

Interpersonal Skills

This is the ability to establish and sustain healthy relationships with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. 

Interpersonal skills including communicating clearly, work collaboratively to solve problems, and negotiating conflicts constructively and fairly. 

Responsible Decision-Making

This is the ability to make responsible decisions across a diverse range of situations. 

Decision-making includes realistically evaluating the benefits and risks of actions, understanding consequences, and making ethical choices for personal and collective well-being. 

What Are the Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning?

The insights and observations of experts and thought leaders from multiple walks of life testify to the enormous potential of social-emotional learning (SEL). In a nutshell, social-emotional skills make children life-ready. 

A balanced education that highlights academic performance and social-emotional growth prepares children for lifelong learning, college graduation, meaningful employment, successful careers, engaged community living, and happy family life. 

SEL programs essentially help a child overcome the hurdles that prevent them from life achievement. 

Decades of research support that effectively implemented social-emotional learning provide the “missing piece” to provide all-round development to young people. 

Here are some of the critical benefits of SEL.

Greater Academic Success

Meta-analyses have shown that stronger social-emotional skills lead to better academic performance in children.  Academic achievement is closely tied to behaviors such as self-motivation and study patterns. 

The “soft skills” acquired through SEL have been found to improve children’s attitudes towards learning, and consequently, their performance in the classroom.

Studies in inner-city youth have shown that being taught social-emotional skills leads to greater academic success, to the point of changing the trajectory of their life (these children from low-income families often lack early childhood education and are in great danger of not succeeding in life).

Fewer Behavioral Problems

Engagement in social-emotional learning has been found to reduce aggression and disruptive behavior in children. 

Approximately 1 in 3 high school students engage in multiple high-risk activities (sex, violence, substance abuse) that interfere with school performance and jeopardize their potential of succeeding in life.

For example, SEL programs teach children to voice and express anger and frustration in a constructive way. This helps prevent behaviors that damage relationships or lead to reprimands in the classroom or suspension from school. 

Better Emotional Regulation

Mastering social-emotional competencies over time result in a gradual shift from being emotionally controlled by external factors to increasingly acting based on internal values and beliefs while caring for the welfare of others, making good decisions, and being accountable for one’s choices and behaviors. 

SEL programs positively influence a child’s ability to control impulses, delay gratification, and switch between tasks without feeling overwhelmed.

More robust self-regulation leads to fewer incidents of anxiety, depression, stress, and social withdrawal.

Positive Social Interactions

SEL helps children develop empathy for others and understand people from different backgrounds than their own. 

For example, children learn to identify verbal and physical social cues, consider other people’s perspectives, understand the importance of expressing gratitude, and identify social norms, including unjust ones.

As a result, students with a strong foundation in social-emotional skills get along better with fellow students, teachers, parents, and community members.

What Are the Effects of Social-Emotional Learning on Children’s Mental Health?

Mental health refers to a child’s emotional and psychological wellbeing. This aspect of a child’s health affects how they think, feel, and act. 

It also influences how a child handles stress, makes choices, and relates to others. 

A well-adjusted child with a healthy mind can cope with the everyday stressors of school, work, and life, function productively and fruitfully, and become an engaged citizen who contributes positively to their community. 

In short, a child’s mental health affects everything they do.

During the past decade or so, there have been critical research studies on the effects of SEL programs on mental health in children. Here were included depressive behaviors, antisocial and aggressive behaviors, drug use, violence, and high-risk sexual behaviors in youth. 

The studies have significantly differed regarding the social-emotional strategies employed, the student populations studied, and the behavioral outcomes examined.

Still, they have all reached a similar conclusion – that social-emotional learning is universally beneficial to children’s mental health.

It is also well understood that a child’s mental and emotional health, from a very early age, is related to overall development and success in the personal, academic, and social spheres.

Many organizations that work with children with mental health challenges use social-emotional strategies to help these youngsters overcome barricades that prevent them from succeeding in life. 

For example, SEL programs teach children and their parents to notice the warning signs of mental health problems. This way they can learn interventions to deal with them and know where to access resources to address these issues. 

How can parents use Social-Emotional Learning for mental health?

The importance of teaching children to successfully cope with social and emotional challenges cannot be highlighted enough. 

Studies have shown that disruptive mental health events in childhood can lead to continuing mental health problems well into adulthood. 

In addition, early exposure to stressful experiences can lead to a disruption in brain development.

This increases the risk of severe mental health problems later in life. 

Given that 10% of children and adolescents worldwide experience mental disorders and over half do not receive care. The importance of imparting social-emotional skills to children to shape their current and future mental health assumes even greater importance.

Parents can use social-emotional skills to prevent mental health problems in children and teenagers proactively. 

Within the home’s safety, and supportive environment, instructions in social-emotional skills can help children learn coping mechanisms. They can develop a positive attitude, practice self-regulation, communication skills, and reduce risky behaviors. 

Starting with Social-Emotional Learning at Home

Parents, guardians, and caregivers can oversee social-emotional learning at home in various ways. By helping children practice social and emotional skills, parents can better equip their children to navigate challenges and solve problems. Here are some tips that families can follow to develop SEL skills at home.

Practice SEL regularly

Social and emotional skills are like any other skills – regular practice is vital

Just like dribbling a ball and shooting hoops every day increases the chances of scoring in a basketball game, practicing social and emotional skills creates a toolkit that children can draw upon in stressful situations. 

Every day presents new opportunities to practice compassion and empathy, identify and express emotions, and learn self-control. Families should work through these feelings together, learning essential skills along the way.

Name and express emotions

Children often struggle with understanding what exactly they’re feeling. 

And when children cannot name their feelings, it can be difficult to express these emotions. 

Parents can work with kids to develop skills that make it easier to identify and express emotions. In younger children, drawings, facial expressions, and body movements are good ways to accomplish this. 

Adolescents can be encouraged to make journal entries or express their feelings through music, art, or physical activity. 

Listen actively and be present

Parents tend to assume they know what a child is thinking and feeling.

However, this can be detrimental to a child’s social and emotional development. 

It’s important to practice active listening.

Instead of assuming, parents should ask questions. They should listen carefully without distractions to what the child says and answer their questions to the best of their ability. 

Keep in mind that being physically present is not enough. 

It’s essential to be mentally present when spending time with children.

It’s also important to be mindful about not diminishing a child’s fears (“that’s nothing to be afraid of!”).

Instead, acknowledge the child’s concerns and validate their emotions to help them better understand their feelings.

Lead by example

Children are great at imitation. As parents, you should give them something worth imitating. Remember, children do what they see, not what they’re told. To cultivate social and emotional skills in children, parents should demonstrate these skills themselves. 

When you’re worried or anxious, stay calm and be realistic. 

Practice wellness for yourself, whether it is through meditation, journaling, or exercising.

Expressing gratitude towards others sends a more powerful message to kids than simply talking about these practices.

Practice gratitude

As a family, find one or two things to celebrate every day. Research has shown that children and adults who savor the good stuff develop resilience to withstand adverse events in life. 

People who are grateful and appreciative tend to be less stressed and happier. 

Encourage your children to focus on what they have instead of thinking about what’s missing.

Gratitude fosters positive emotions and boosts a child’s ability to make good decisions. These are all essential social-emotional skills that will last your child a lifetime.

Best Social-Emotional Learning Activities for Kids

There are endless ways to incorporate social-emotional learning in everyday activities. 

Here are some ideas:

Read books

Reading can spark a child’s imagination and stimulate their curiosity about the world. It is also a great way to learn about emotions and how to express them. 

As children watch other characters go through emotions similar to what they’re experiencing, they know how to develop higher self-confidence. 

Kids can pick up all kinds of social and emotional skills from books, such as conversational skills and conflict resolution.

Reading also helps to develop patience, concentration, and focus.

This is how I feel books

Get creative

Creativity is an opportunity to learn new things, draw new connections, and expose different perspectives and ideas. 

Doing creative activities together as a family will give you the chance to learn new things about each other. 

The activities can include anything from building something together to choreographing a dance, baking or cooking, or working on an art project. 

The objective is to learn social and emotional skills such as being cooperative and supportive, practicing perseverance, coping with change and uncertainty, and solving problems.

Assign household chores

A great way to help your children develop social-emotional skills is to assign household chores and tasks to them. 

This can include anything from watering the plants to turning the lights off at night to organizing a messy cupboard. 

As a result, children will learn about decision-making (do I want to skip watering the plants and play with my friend instead?) and about actions and consequences (the plants will die if they’re not watered).

Practice mindfulness

Self-awareness is one of the core competencies of social-emotional learning. 

Mindfulness activities can help children develop this skill. These activities teach children to identify where they’re holding stress in their bodies, pause and take a breath to calm down. They need to observe the situation and proceed with the best solution in the circumstances. 

Deep breathing to a count of 4 is one of the easiest ways to practice mindfulness.

You can also encourage children to slow down and pay attention to their senses. They have to experience their environment through touch, taste, sight, hearing and smells.

What is social emotional learning?

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