The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is a central topic in education today. While it’s hardly a new concept, the importance of and interest in our children’s emotional well-being has notably increased after the stresses of the pandemic. Studies are showing large increases in rates of depression and suicide in our adolescents. According to the 2021 Educator Confidence Report, from 2019-2021, 72% of educators cited students’ social and emotional needs as a top concern, and 82% said that an integrated approach to SEL in the classroom can improve students’ outcomes. 

With the establishment of Mount Tamalpais School’s Into Action Strategic Plan last year, one of our key Habits of Excellence is “Collective Wellness and Belonging,” where we “commit to actively nourishing the mental, physical, and emotional needs that allow individuals and the collective to thrive.” As part of this commitment, MTS partnered with the Institute of Social Emotional Learning (IFSEL) in the 2022-23 school year to strengthen that focus. IFSEL leads professional development workshops with schools in order to “empower educators, young people, and parents to transform their schools into caring, inclusive communities.” The partnership entails a “whole community approach,” with administrative leadership workshops, professional development institutes for faculty, and a parent and caregiver series offered throughout the year, including tools, resources, and ongoing support.

Some parents might feel uncomfortable with the idea of spending school time talking about emotions and may view it as an additional activity that distracts students from their academics. In fact, social and emotional learning is viewed by educational experts as foundational to the learning experience. As Elizabeth McLeod of IFSEL puts it, “Social emotional learning is the content.” In other words, SEL must be infused in every aspect of the academic experience in order for it to be successful. Rather than seeing it as an “add-on,” SEL is a lens that can be applied to everything in the classroom. Only with the foundation of SEL in place can learning truly begin. In fact, studies show that students’ academic learning significantly improves when guided by an effective SEL framework. A meta-analysis conducted in 2011 evaluating over 200 SEL programs by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, found an 11% point difference on standardized tests between those who have SEL in their school and those who don’t. 

What exactly is social and emotional learning?

According to IFSEL, social and emotional learning is “a lifelong, dynamic process through which people acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and mindsets to understand and manage emotions, develop healthy identities, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, achieve personal and collective goals, and make responsible and caring decisions.” Students, and all adults, need to learn how to choose how to deal with emotions, rather than be at the mercy of them. It’s an ongoing, lifelong endeavor, not just a class. It’s the practice of learning how to “act, and not react.”

It makes sense, then, that students in an integrated SEL program perform better. These students can handle stress and anxiety better, do better socially, and they have a better attitude about others and themselves. The healthy relationships they develop with students and teachers alike allow them to thrive. And by feeling connected in their relationships, they have a sense of belonging. When a student feels seen and heard, they are better able to focus on academics because they are not distracted by the background noise of social anxieties and other emotions. And if something does come up, they are better equipped at addressing conflict. 

In a school with an intentional social and emotional learning program, topics are structured such that the focus scaffolds up over the years to connect with students’ maturity levels. The components of SEL start with helping everybody understand and manage their own emotions. Students need to be able to name their own emotions in order to handle them along with understanding a sense of their own identity. Once a student understands themselves, they can begin to build empathy and connection with others. Then, with these positive relationships in place, students can learn how to resolve conflicts and repair those relationships when conflicts arise. This process of understanding ourselves, and others, and how to resolve conflicts is a lifelong endeavor. Students learn that it’s OK to make mistakes and that it’s all part of the learning journey. 

Students feel more comfortable seeking help when there is an established culture around talking about emotions and feelings. This is where the importance of the community comes in. As the entire community learns to speak the language of SEL and share this common language, the mindset of the school culture shifts. Teachers who go through professional development training in order to promote social and emotional learning with the students at school can also share this information to parents and caregivers, so that parents can utilize the same ideas and strategies at home. As more people begin to understand and accept social and emotional learning as a normal part of our world and societal practice, the more likely our students will be willing to engage in the work themselves, allowing the whole community to thrive. 

The MTS partnership with IFSEL is the first step in our work on the Habit of Collective Wellness and Belonging. This program will serve as a strong foundation as we layer other initiatives onto this work. Ultimately, MTS will be able to better realize all four habits of excellence because of our focus on social and emotional learning.  



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