Social-Emotional Learning (SEL): How are we going to address our children’s emotional needs?

Our children are hungry — food-wise and emotion-wise. Schools have addressed the former and they are starting to address the latter. In this beginning blog post on SEL — social and emotional learning — we define it, raise a few provocative questions, and then we hear from Dr. Tyralynn Frazier, an SEL expert, who explores “SEL and Equity.” A very good place to start!

  • "Hungry Children Can't Learn Properly!"
  • "School lunch is critical to student health and well-being, especially for low-income students and ensures that students have nutrition they need throughout the day to learn."
  • "food [is] a basic school supply, akin to textbooks and pencils."

Recognizing the need to provide America’s children with food – lunch and now breakfast – the U.S. Congress has passed a number of bills (the National School Lunch Act of 1946, the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 and the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010) to address this issue. Sadly, though, hunger is still an issue in America’s schools.

  • "More than 13 million kids in this country go to school hungry… Currently, 22 million students across the country rely on reduced-price or free school lunches through the National School Lunch Program (funded by the USDA)."

Clearly: stay tuned!


Stressed children can’t learn

  • "Our findings indicate that stress in the classroom environment affects children’s likelihood of exhibiting learning problems (difficulties with attentiveness, task persistence, and flexibility), externalizing problems (frequency with which the child argues, fights, disturbs ongoing activities, and acts impulsively), problems interacting with peers (difficulties in forming friendships, dealing with other children, expressing feelings, and showing sensitivity, or internalizing problems (presence of anxiety, loneliness, low self-esteem, and sadness in the child)."

And there are many sources of stress outside the classroom that the children then bring into their classrooms:

  • "Stressed out, overscheduled, hurried: These words are often used to describe children these days."


Based on the pioneering work of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization started in 1994 to spread the word about social and emotional learning (SEL) and on the work of other organizations (e.g., the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development – MGIEP, the Committee for Children) who are now lending their voices to the choir, there is recognition that:

  • "in order for kids to be successful academically, their other needs must be met, too. That includes their social and emotional needs."
  • "students need to be socially aware and emotionally engaged to learn effectively."

The U.S. Congress has even begun to participate. There are some funds provided in the 2015 "Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) " for schools to implement "evidence-based SEL" programs.


So, what is SEL social and emotional learning?

  • "Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."

In contrast to cognitive skills, which have traditionally received the lion’s share of attention in schools, SEL are the "soft," non-cognitive skills. CASEL identifies five core SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills, and responsible decision-making

  • "These competencies enhance students’ understanding of themselves and others around them."


While CASEL has been around since 1994, it is only relatively recently that SEL has received serious attention. Indeed:

  • "Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become arguably one of the hottest topics in education in the last couple of years."
  • "The Future of Education Depends on Social Emotional Learning: Here’s Why"
  • "I believe [SEL} is the start of a new education for the future."

Why SEL now? Good question.

Can SEL be taught? Good question, too.

Does SEL have positive impacts on students their learning, their behavior, etc.? Yes. (Oh, and another good question!)


We can’t possibly deal with the richness of SEL in 1000 words. So, in this first blog post on SEL we just briefly introduce SEL (see above) and then we turn the podium over to an SEL expert, Dr. Tyralynn Frazier, a research scientist heading the SEE Learning Compassion Lab at Emory University’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics (see below). We (CN & ES) met TF at TECH19, an international, education conference sponsored by MGIEP and recently held (Dec, 2019) in Vishakhapatnam, India. On a panel entitled "Catalytic Session 4: SEL for teachers empowering teachers with SEL for self and the classroom," TF spoke on the fostering of agency in students for like-long flourishing. In subsequent blog posts we will hear from other SEL experts.


And, for additional articles and resources (e.g., a course on SEL!) we urge our readers to check out the SEL blog space being hosted by our good friends at MGIEP - the UNESCO Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Education for Peace and Sustainable Development.


We thank Tyralynn for sharing her thoughts on "SEL and Equity" with us. Take it away, Tyralynn!


SEL and Equity: Both Need to be Addressed

Prepared by: Dr. Tyralynn Frazier


During a training that I was taking on equity in education, I was talking with an expert and respected colleague about the work that I do on social, emotional, and ethical (SEE) learning. With respect and warmth, she turned to me and made this comment:

  • "Mindfulness-based social and emotional learning programs feel like the warm hug of white supremacy."

    The purpose for my presence in the training was to learn how to bring genuine and overt equity skills into our program. I was among a group of educators in the South Eastern United States, an area living with legacies of racial inequity. As someone who was raised in the south, I knew this struggle well, but her comment confused me. How could she say this? This talented, dedicated teacher working passionately for her students, all of them, seemed to fundamentally misunderstand what social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are about.



After the training, I brought my confusion and frustration to an educator and team member working with me on the SEE Learning program, and she said

  • "I get it."

This response transformed my perspective on what SEL needs to be to support all of our students, not simply the most privileged. My team member said,

  • "We are like fish, swimming around in systems of inequity that depend on the maintenance of these unseen structures of supremacy to remaining unseen. We are fish who refuse to acknowledge the existence of the inequitable waters because the privileged in these inequitable waters get the most oxygen and thrive, while the most disadvantaged are suffocating."

My friend and team member said that I was coming to the educators I work with to bring SEE Learning into their classrooms giving children tools for individual capacities such as self-regulation without creating spaces that acknowledge the inequity. A person cannot change a system simply by trying to "fix" an individual. This is a piece of the puzzle but not the whole picture because it is the disparity and inequity that has created the stress and adversity many of the most disadvantaged kids carry. When some SEL programs that do not address equity explicitly are introduced into schools it can feel to the educators and students of those schools that these tools are to navigate the inequity thus passively allowing the supremacy structures to remain in effect. This is the "warm hug" that educator was talking to me about in that equity training. 


Wow! By not thinking about the systems in which the students were embedded, I was inadvertently and ignorantly, ignoring a fundamental need.


After this experience, my colleagues and I, in the SEE Learning program, continued the conversation about equity and what it means in the context of SEL skills. Equity is hard when we talk about SEL because SEL programs tend to target individual capacities, while equity challenges tend to be entrenched in systemic patterns. The solution that I put forth is to think about where change happens in a system. It happens at a policy level, which is not the domain of SEL programs.


Change also happens at the level of the relationships. How do I see you and how am I seen by you? We live in entrenched systems of dominance and oppression, but can I both see this and have compassion for you and myself? If SEL programs ignore this need to sit comfortably with discomfort, and to compassionately see one’s own place in inequitable systems with humility, then the programs are potentially enabling systems of white supremacy to remain unaffected.


There is overwhelming evidence that SEL in schools improves social, academic and health outcomes. The social and emotional development of our children, globally, is a powerful tool for global change. But there are additional responsibilities that must accompany social and emotional development programs as they come into the classroom and schools we support. This is a long conversation that must begin with students and educators being provided the skills to hold space for compassionate discomfort and disagreement, without getting dysregulated. And schools, globally, need greater support in implementing social and emotional development programs at the level of the whole school.