Developing a more nuanced understanding of social emotional learning and its role in schools

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Developing a more nuanced understanding of social emotional learning and its role in schools

Social emotional learning (SEL) has become something of a buzz phrase in education of late. More and more schools are recognising the importance of supporting students’ social emotional learning needs, which include motivation, self-regulation, self-efficacy, growth mindset, social connection and sense of belonging at school. The evidence strongly supports such a focus. Research demonstrates that supporting these types of needs leads to higher academic achievement and a more positive sense of wellbeing; indeed, there is some evidence to demonstrate that SEL is a better predictor of later life success than grades.

However, like so many popular education trends, SEL is not without controversy. In the main, this controversy seems to be less about the importance of SEL and more about how it is being positioned and integrated in teaching and learning in schools.

The Education Hub can attest to the challenges associated with the research on SEL. It’s taken us the best part of a year to put together the suite of resources we’ve recently released on SEL, motivation, self-regulation, social connection and agency. Through this work, we’ve learned some important lessons about SEL that are relevant for teachers and schools thinking about how to address SEL in their contexts.

SEL research and practice are challenged by a multitude of different frameworks, and inconsistent and often vague terminology

The field of SEL is complex. There are a staggering number of SEL frameworks, which encompass a wide range of different skills, mindsets, behaviors and competencies many of which are often loosely or inconsistently defined. The result for schools is that it’s often difficult to know where to start or on what to focus. To help combat some of this complexity, Harvard has developed EASEL Lab, which enables people to compare and contrast different frameworks and to identify commonalities between them.

Understanding whether and how SEL should be taught in schools

The research is increasingly clear that SEL skills are malleable and teachers and schools can support their development in students. Effective teaching should incorporate both the elements of high-quality academic instruction and high-quality practices that promote students’ social and emotional development and well-being. What is more controversial is whether schools should pursue a programmatic or interventionist approach to the teaching of SEL or whether they should take an integrated approach. While there is research to suggest that some interventions targeting specific aspects of SEL have been successful, long-term, sustained SEL development and wellbeing should not be seen as something separate from other educational foci or outcomes, but rather integrated into every-day teaching and learning practices and instruction.

It is important that a focus on SEL does not mean less of a focus on other, particularly academic, aspects of the curriculum. Indeed, there is a strong body of evidence demonstrating the close connection between emotions and cognition – learning. That is, SEL skills and the emotional wellbeing of students is inextricably connected to the ability to learn in a given domain or context.

Environment and context are important

When thinking about the integration of SEL in a school, it is important to consider not only the beliefs, actions and practices of teachers (and the corresponding actions, beliefs and behaviours of students) but also the school environment and the broader context students inhabit. Establishing a school culture and climate where all students feel like they belong, feel included, feel safe and secure (physically and emotionally) and have strong relationships with other students and staff is an essential part of SEL. Similarly, understanding the context that students bring with them into the classroom also forms an important aspect of this work.

Be cautious about measuring SEL

Knowing that SEL is malleable and that schools and teachers can support the development of SEL skills in their students, it’s only natural to want to know how well this is being done. While there are a growing number of tools available to measure aspects of SEL, it is important not to oversell these. There is not yet a robust evidence base for their stability across settings or domains. Consequently, while it is important for teachers to understand the needs and capabilities of their students, connecting measurement to accountability structures should be avoided.

For schools considering how they want to approach SEL, we encourage you develop your knowledge and understanding of SEL, and also develop a collaborative, open culture that encourages ongoing discussion and reflection on the role of and approach to SEL you are adopting.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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