SEL & Character Strengths

While character strengths such as honesty, fairness, forgiveness, and compassion are something we all aspire to, it can be challenging to use them when faced with an ethical challenge. This is where social-emotional skills are key: they help us put our character strengths into action.

A student who chooses to be honest rather than cheat on a test uses the following SEL skills:

  • Recognizing that honesty is one of her core values shaping her identity (self-awareness)
  • Navigating in a healthy way the challenging emotions she feels before the test (self-management)
  • Demonstrating respect for herself as someone who is capable of handling challenging tasks, fostering her sense of agency (self-management)
  • Demonstrating respect for her peers who have studied hard for this test, which contributes to a belonging school culture (social awareness)

A school leader who demonstrates humility by asking for help from his staff on an important issue uses the following SEL skills:

  • Identifying his personal strengths and areas for growth (self-awareness)
  • Practicing self-compassion which helps him navigate any incompetence he might feel, cultivating a sense of agency (self-management)
  • Practicing listening and communication skills to create a culture of belonging among staff (social awareness and relationship skills)

What is SEL, including Transformative SEL?

While many frameworks exist for teaching social and emotional skills, one of the most commonly used ones comes from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL.org). CASEL’s revised definition integrates Transformative SEL (T-SEL), which affirms the strengths, experiences, and identities of students and views SEL as a lever for equity and excellence:

Social-emotional learning is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

SEL advances educational equity and excellence through authentic school-family-community partnerships to establish learning environments and experiences that feature trusting and collaborative relationships, rigorous and meaningful curriculum and instruction, and ongoing evaluation. SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities.

 

CASEL’s framework includes five components:

Self-Awareness

The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts (CASEL.org).

T-SEL centers on fostering strong multi-dimensional identities (e.g., gender, race, socio-economic status, religion, social, academic) in both students and adults, which can help them to navigate challenging or traumatic experiences. Explore self-awareness practices for students.

For educators specifically, self-awareness includes recognition of one’s biases and how they might impact relationships with students—along with an understanding of the White privilege and the limitations of colorblindness (or the refusal to see race as a factor in students’ lives and experiences). Explore self-awareness practices for adults.

A group of students who meet each week in Advisory discuss how their different identities, e.g., racial, ethnic, religious, political, academic, social, affect how they interpret a global event, such as the government’s right to mandate vaccines during a pandemic. Following the discussion, students reflect on how they felt during the discussion and whether they gained any personal insights into themselves.

An educator notices that his frustration intensifies whenever a student asks for an extension on a paper. After reflecting, he realizes that he assumes that students who need more time to finish an assignment are either lazy or just procrastinate. He challenges this assumption by creating positive, trusting relationships with students, talking to them more about their needs, and adjusting deadlines when necessary.

 

Self-Management

The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations. (CASEL.org)

T-SEL focuses on cultivating agency, helping students and adults take action to shape their lives and/or to change inequitable systems. Explore self-management practices for students.

For educators specifically, self-management also includes navigating the emotional reactions that may emerge from unconscious biases towards students. Explore self-management practices for adults.

To give them a boost of positive emotions before brainstorming a new project, helping to jumpstart creative thinking, an elementary school teacher has her students write about three things that went well today.

An elementary student who struggles with word problems in math, reminds himself to take three deep breaths and use positive self-talk, such as “I will try my best,” the next time his teacher poses a problem.

A high school senior creates a Pleasant Events Calendar for herself that includes fun activities to balance academics and college applications.

A teacher feels defensive and angry about a student’s disruptive behavior in the classroom. Taking a deep breath, he remembers to shift his thinking from “What’s wrong with this student?” to “What happened to this student and what are their strengths?”

A group of high school students with their adult mentors work together to create opportunities for student voice in school governance.

Social Awareness

The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts. (CASEL.org)

T-SEL emphasizes the cultivation of belonging in schools, where students and adults alike feel safe to bring their authentic selves and thrive. Explore social awareness practices for students.

For educators, social awareness also includes taking into account the socio-historical and political contexts that influence students to better understand and support them. Explore social awareness practices for adults.

When a girl speaks harshly to another boy in class, he remembers what he learned during the “Family Business” session earlier that day: that the girl’s brother is going through a really tough time. Rather than respond with unkind words, he remains quiet and looks for an opportunity to show kindness to his peer.

A teacher notices that some of her students never raise their hands. Based on her knowledge of their cultural backgrounds, she questions whether they might prefer pair or small group learning. Rather than make this assumption, she talks to the students and their families to understand students’ perceived hesitancy and to discover a more appropriate way to build students’ verbal abilities.

Relationship Skills

The abilities to establish and maintain supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. (CASEL.org)

T-SEL features collaborative problem-solving where students and adults come together to actively seek solutions to challenges by sharing their understanding, knowledge, and skills. Explore relationship skills practices for students.

For educators, relationship skills also include standing up to injustice, demonstrating empathic concern about the ways injustice impacts students, and creating healing-centered schools where students can safely discuss how to resist the injustice they experience. Explore relationship skills practices for adults.

When working on a small group project, students encourage rather than criticize each other when someone doesn’t know something or is having a hard time finishing their part of the project.

A principal builds trust with his staff by showing his vulnerability when he asks for their input and support in resisting a school board initiative that would negatively impact certain students based on their cultural, social, and economic backgrounds.

 

Responsible Decision-Making

The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. (CASEL.org)

T-SEL develops curiosity in students and adults to deepen their understanding of themselves and society and motivate them to take action for improvement in both. Explore responsible decision-making practices for students.

For educators, responsible decision-making also means recognizing how one’s decisions about students, e.g., disciplinary action, academic potential, or pedagogical methods, might be influenced by unconscious biases. Explore responsible decision-making practices for adults.

A student asks a new student to play with her at recess even though she knows her friends might make fun of her.

A high school student makes the choice to turn off her phone and study for a math test rather than spend the next hour texting her friends.

A group of educators who are discussing community building strategies ask themselves how they are currently practicing love and care. They also discuss the opportunities and practices that are in place that encourage the development of authentic relationships.

Why Is SEL Important?

The research on SEL’s effectiveness is robust. However, as with any academic intervention, the quality of implementation matters. To effectively integrate SEL into schools, school leaders and educators need to understand and practice SEL themselves. Other factors that influence implementation include fostering a healthy school climate, providing ongoing training in SEL for the adults, partnering with families and communities around SEL, and identifying policies that may promote or hinder SEL.

One thing to keep in mind when implementing SEL (or any other prosocially-oriented practice) is that social and emotional development is a “process” not an “outcome.” We’re all learning as we go, students and adults alike.

Here are some of the research-based benefits of SEL:

SEL promotes in students:

  • Academic success
  • Health and well-being, including greater ability to manage stress and depression
  • Improved classroom behavior
  • Communication skills and teamwork
  • Positive attitudes about self, school, peers, and teachers

 

SEL prevents in students:

  • Alcohol and drug abuse
  • Violence
  • Truancy
  • Bullying
  • Emotional distress

 

Long-term benefits of SEL:

  • SEL can have a long-lasting, positive impact—up to 18 years on academics, behavior, emotional distress, and drug use.
  • Students who receive SEL instruction at an early age are less likely to live or be on a waitlist for public housing or receive public assistance. They are also less likely to have police involvement before adulthood or spend time in a detention facility.

 

Benefits based on a 2017 meta-analysis (82 interventions; 97,000 K-12 students; six months to 18 years after the programs ended) include:

  • Students who received SEL instruction performed 13% higher than peers who didn’t.
  • SEL increases social-emotional competencies and prosocial behavior and attitudes.
  • SEL decreases behavior issues, emotional distress, and drug use.
  • SEL increases high school graduation by 6% and college graduation by 11%.
  • Students are less likely to have mental health disorders, be arrested, and have STDS or pregnancies.

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