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Social and Emotional Learning: a guide for educators

Published: March 16, 2023
An elementary-age student is smiling and raising a fist in celebration after getting a correct answer.

Learning is not just about getting good grades.

Following the disrupted school years of the Coronavirus pandemic, educators, parents, and legislators have acknowledged that young people have suffered from social and emotional disruption as a result of the isolation and anxiety caused by lockdowns.

These impacts cannot be solved through the curriculum alone. 

As society looks to recover from the effects of the pandemic, educators have an opportunity to reframe learning structures to help young people understand themselves and their relationship to others in their community.

Such skills enable lifelong learning outside the classroom. But how will educators do it?

Thankfully, educators have a learning framework they can turn to that isn’t focused on grades.

Known as social & emotional learning (SEL), this framework can be used in schools to redefine success, create equitable access to education, and create lasting impacts that go far beyond the classroom.

So what is SEL?

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    What is social & emotional learning? 

    The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) first introduced the idea of social and emotional learning 26 years ago, and defines it as: 

    “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 has 3 core intentions:

    1. Improve educational equity and excellence

    2. Enable students to cultivate skills & knowledge across multiple environments

    3. Support and prioritize students’ social & emotional development alongside their academic development

    SEL skills empower students to recognize and regulate their emotions, manage stress and anxiety, empathize with others, communicate effectively, and resolve conflicts peacefully. 

    When introduced into the classroom, SEL skills can be an accelerator for success in school, work, and life. 

    And when a student struggles with traditional approaches to learning, SEL can be a vital method for helping such students find a sense of belonging and purpose, while developing the tools to take control of their future.

    Check out our program page to see SEL frameworks in action!

    The social and emotional learning framework

    CASEL developed The SEL framework to show how the use of SEL can have wide-ranging impacts.

    The SEL framework prioritizes self-awareness, self management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

    The aim of the framework is to show that when classrooms have SEL at their core, the benefits can expand beyond classroom curriculum and into administrative policies, culture, home life and the community.

     The CASEL framework for social and emotional learning, showing that social emotional learning comprises self-awareness, self-management, responsible decisione-making, relationship skills and social awareness. These skills in turn impact classrooms, schools, families, and communities through instruction, schoolwide culture, authentic partnerships, and aligned learning opportunities.The CASEL framework. Source:

    By providing students with the skills and knowledge necessary to think critically, make informed decisions, and understand the impact of actions on outcomes, educators are able to extend learning into the real world in a way that traditional curricula cannot. 

    SEL and equity

    The Coronavirus pandemic also showed us how fractured our society is. Research has shown how historically disadvantaged groups were the hardest hit. At a time when we all need to heal as a society, it often feels like we’re more divided than ever.

    At its core, the SEL framework is designed to promote equitability—educational equity directly by improving access to education for all, but also for the wider community by:

    • Prioritizing holistic education

    • Addressing implicit bias

    • Promoting positive school culture

    • Encouraging empathy

    • Reducing disparities in academic achievement 

    By promoting these skills in schools, SEL helps students develop a sense of responsibility and commitment to creating bonds in the community, and supporting the social and emotional needs of all students, including those who may face additional challenges.

    Through SEL, students, educators, and caregivers develop a greater awareness of their role in the community, and how everyone can play their part to create a community that works for all its members.

    A Work ED staff member helps a couple of 1st graders solve a problem on their laptops.SEL has equitability at its core, helping students, staff, and the wider community understand their relationships and role in creating a community. Copyright Work ED.

    What are the benefits of SEL in education?

    Multiple independent studies across the globe have confirmed the benefits of SEL in both the short and long term. Not only do SEL programs have a proven long term impact on academic performance, students who make significant short-term improvements in SEL skills tend to retain those skills more fully over time.

    A 2019 study showed that students with access to an SEL program show a 27% increase in academic performance, and a 57% increase in skills levels over students who do not. 

    While a UK-based organization conducted a major report that concluded: “Universal social and emotional learning (SEL) interventions have good evidence of enhancing young people’s social and emotional skills and reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety in the short term.” 

    And another recent report argued that SEL can make schools feel like safer spaces for all students, and may reduce incidences of violence: 

    “Students who participated in SEL programs reported better relationships with their teachers, witnessed less violent and aggressive acts at school, and expressed that their school environments have fair policies and rules. Students also reported feeling more supported, and on the whole, experienced increased perceptions of inclusion…This finding has significant implications for all youth, especially students with historically marginalized identities.”

    According to Kappan, a US-based K-12 education and policy research institution, “We believe that the expansion of SEL programming in low-performing schools is warranted… and that teacher preparation programs should include serious attention to SEL.” 

    So how can educators bring the SEL framework into their classrooms?

    Studies show the sooner SEL starts, the better! See the SEL-led programs we offer by clicking below!

    Launch your own SEL-driven programs


    How can educators bring social and emotional learning into the classroom?

    Teachers can teach SEL skills explicitly, through lessons and activities that focus on developing specific skills such as emotional regulation or conflict resolution.

    Giving students ample opportunities to practice SEL in a safe and supportive classroom environment sets them up for real world success by fostering

    • Collaboration

    • Self-reflection

    • Conflict resolution

    • Active listening

    • Goal setting

    Social and emotional learning activities in the classroom:

    Some simple ways to incorporate social and emotional learning into your classroom might include (but certainly are not limited to):

    • Gratitude journals: Students create a journal where they write down things they are grateful for. This activity helps students develop their gratitude and positive thinking skills

    • Self-reflection: Students reflect on their strengths and areas for improvement and set goals for self-improvement. This activity helps students develop their self-awareness and self-management skills.

    • Interest presentations: Students create presentations that explore their values, beliefs, and interests. This activity helps students develop their self-awareness and self-expression skills

    • Service learning projects: Students work on projects that involve serving their community. This activity helps students develop their empathy and pro-social behavior skills.

    We also run intersession programs for grades 3-8!

    Check out our intersession programs

    A member of Work ED staff oversees a group of elementary-age students working on a project on their laptops.There are many ways to bring SEL into the classroom. Copyright Work ED

    How to apply social and emotional learning in afterschool and enrichment programs

    Research suggests that SEL programs are more effective when they extend outside the home, and highlight the importance of support from both caregivers and the community as a whole. 

    And besides, educators can only do so much in the classroom. 

    But there are many other opportunities to introduce students to SEL concepts in a safe and controlled environment, such as afterschool and other enrichment programs like summer camps.

    Because such programs exist outside of the curriculum (though are designed to support the school day), enrichment programs can give students who struggle at school an alternative environment in which to learn, grow, and meet other students while under the guidance of strong mentors.

    And, right now, there is record levels of funding available for school districts to run afterschool and enrichment programs.

    Funding for SEL afterschool and enrichment programs

    The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) fund is available nationwide for local education authorities (LEAs). ESSER was developed to help students recover from the academic and emotional impacts of the disruption caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.

    The latest version of ESSER (ESSER III) requires that LEAs use 20% of their funding to address learning loss and to support the social and emotional development of their students. 

    Check out our guide to ESSER funding here

    There are literally billions of federally-funded dollars available that require LEAs to help their students, which explicitly list afterschool and enrichment as allowable uses of the funding. 

    However, school districts must show how the way they used funding met the allowable uses guidelines.

    So it’s important that educators, when partnering with outside companies to run afterschool programs, ensure that who they partner with run programs that have the social and emotional development of students at their core.

    ESSER also requires that funding is used to create equitability access to learning opportunities and community engagement. Funds must be used to remove barriers to students who identify with historically underserved communities, who are experiencing homelessness, or have unique physical or emotional requirements.

    In summary, afterschool and enrichment programs are a great way to incorporate SEL into student experiences. Here’s how to find the right program:

    • Find programs that your students will want to attend—you can’t expose them to SEL if they don’t want to show up in the first place!

    • Look for partners that are well-educated in the SEL framework and apply it in their programs.

    • Find programs that have a proven record of helping students grow socially and emotionally—does the company have data or testimony from students and parents?

    • Make sure the company talks about community. If they aren’t thinking about community impacts, they aren’t as up on SEL as they might be claiming.

    • Choose a program that fits funding criteria. If there’s money available that allows you to run enrichment programs, save your budget for other areas.

    • Look for partners who make things easy. Do they know what it takes to set up and run enrichment programs? Are they committed to forming a strong working relationship with you?

    (P.S. We also made a guide on how to use ESSER funding specifically for afterschool. Click below to access it!)

    Using ESSER funding for afterschool

    How to adopt SEL in schools

    In order to secure student success, it’s critical to develop a detailed plan for executing an SEL plan. If you are an educator looking to implement SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) at your school for the first time, here are some steps you can take to get the ball rolling:

    1. Educate yourself: Before you can effectively implement SEL in your school, it is essential to educate yourself on what SEL is, why it is important, and how it works. CASEL has an abundance of resources for educators and administrators looking to kick-off programs at their schools. 

    2. Get buy-in from administrators: Talk to school administrators and other decision-makers about the benefits of SEL and why it is important to implement it in your school. Discuss how SEL can support the academic and social-emotional needs of students and how it can align with the school's mission and values.

    3. Assess your school's needs: Conduct a needs assessment to determine what specific social and emotional skills your students need to develop. Consider factors such as demographics, school culture, and student behavior.

    4. Develop a plan: Develop a comprehensive plan for implementing SEL in your school, including goals, strategies, timelines, and measures of success. Consider the needs and interests of all stakeholders, including students, teachers, parents, and community members.

    5. Integrate SEL into existing practices: Look for ways to integrate SEL into existing practices, such as classroom instruction, student support services, and school-wide policies and procedures.

    6. Identify community resources: Identify available resources and materials to support SEL implementation, such as curricula, training materials, and assessment tools. Consider partnering with community organizations and experts to support SEL efforts.

    And by the way, we know a company that has set up a whole bunch of successful SEL-driven programs ...

    A group of students, some of whom are wearing Work ED t-shirts, run towards the camera in a state of joy.Adopting an SEL framework really does help students find their voice. We've seen it in action. Copyright Work ED.

    How Work ED uses SEL frameworks to create impactful enrichment programs

    At Work ED, we create programs that provide opportunities for students to apply social and emotional skills in real-world settings—and open doors to exciting future careers. 

    We design programs that empower students to take control of their own education and help them learn to work as a team to see projects through so that they see what they’re capable of as individuals and what they can achieve when they work with others.

    Here’s how SEL is at the core of everything Work ED does:

    • Staff are trained to bring elements of SEL into classroom management

    We treat our students respectfully as individuals, meeting them on their level so that they feel safe to express themselves and learn in their own way, finding their voice along the journey.

    • All curricula are designed to help students develop the SEL foundations

    Students create classroom rules together so that they are part of creating a respectful classroom. They work in teams to create and complete a project, taking turns in leadership roles, learning what it takes to collaborate and becoming self aware of their impact on others. At the end of the program, students give presentations in front of the class and their parents/caregivers, developing a level of confidence they didn’t know they had.

    • Programs are created around exciting, future-facing topics, such as video game design, cybersecurity and business startups. 

    Our programs get students excited to learn! By creating exciting programs that get students excited, we get more students showing up—and wanting to come back for more! The topics are also designed to help students discover high-earning careers they didn’t know were available to them.

    • Creating community connections through our high school Teaching Assistant program

    We’re committed to creating growth in the communities we work in. This extends beyond programs: we hire high schoolers from the school district as part of our Teaching Assistant internship. This gives valuable work experience to young people and helps them given back to their community. We also hold community days on the last day of each program, where parents and caregivers are welcomed in to watch students present their projects. We celebrate the students’ achievements as a community.

    If you’d like to run afterschool and enrichment programs that have SEL at their core, reach out to or fill in the form below.

    We can’t wait to hear from you.