Niemi: CASEL Is Updating the Most Widely Recognized Definition of Social-Emotional Learning. Here’s Why


In the 26 years since CASEL introduced the term “social and emotional learning,” the research and practice of SEL have grown tremendously. Today, educators talk about SEL in many ways and hear about a multitude of strategies for implementation in schools and classrooms.

As the creators of the most widely cited SEL definitions, CASEL now sees a need to clarify what’s necessary to achieve the vision of SEL for all educators, adults and young people. We’ve updated our definition and framework to pay close attention to how SEL affirms the identities, strengths and experiences of all children, including those who have been marginalized in our education systems. CASEL has continued to highlight the importance of enhancing the social-emotional competence of all young people and adults, while putting additional emphasis on how we can all learn and work together to create caring and just schools and communities.

CASEL’s Definition of SEL (2020 Update):

“Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL 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.”

As we continuously learn and refine our collective understanding of SEL and accelerate the movement across research, practice, and policy, we’ve highlighted four priorities:

CASEL will be explicit about how SEL can advance educational equity and excellence

We know from research that attention to students’ holistic learning and development can promote high-quality educational opportunities and outcomes for all children across race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation and other differences. Importantly, SEL has potential to promote the academic, social and emotional development of all children. SEL can also help adults and students co-create more equitable schools and communities. While SEL alone will not solve the deep-seated inequities in the education system, it can help adults and students build more meaningful relationships and develop knowledge, skills and mindsets to interrupt inequitable policies and practices, create more inclusive learning environments and nurture the interests and assets of all individuals

CASEL will work alongside researchers, educators and policymakers to address issues of identity, agency and belonging that are fundamental to human development

By elevating young people’s perspectives and experiences, SEL affirms who they are as individuals and helps students and adults understand how their unique identities support and shape their learning. By offering opportunities for students to use their voice, examine social problems and work alongside adults to co-create solutions, SEL can help cultivate change agents and leaders who will meaningfully contribute to their communities and the world. By fostering deeper connections and meaningful relationships, SEL can help create a sense of belonging and more inclusive learning environments and communities.

With these priorities in mind, our updated framework reflects expanded definitions and examples of five core social and emotional competencies — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. The updated language pays attention to personal and social identities, cultural competency and collective action as part of SEL. It also emphasizes the skills, knowledge and mindsets needed to examine prejudices and biases, evaluate social norms and systemic inequities, and promote community well-being.

CASEL will continue emphasizing how environments, relationships and broader contexts shape learning and development

SEL is most beneficial when school leaders and educators enhance both the competencies of young people and adults and the systems in which those competencies are promoted. Poorly implemented SEL will be less beneficial and actually may harm kids when contexts are ignored. Authentic partnerships among schools, families and communities are critical to creating equitable learning environments, supportive relationships and coordinated practices to truly promote SEL across all the settings where students live and learn.

Our framework continues to underscore the importance of establishing equitable learning environments and coordinating SEL practices across classrooms and schools, with additional emphasis on the essential roles of families and community partners.

CASEL will support schools, districts and states to infuse SEL systemically into curriculum and instruction, out-of-school time, discipline, student support services, professional learning and ongoing assessment for continuous improvement

When SEL is woven into the daily life of school — from academic instruction to discipline practices — it is more likely to produce the many benefits that research has documented, including the promotion of students’ skills and attitudes, improved school climate and long-term academic achievement. This requires district and state policies and resources that help adults strengthen their own SEL and professional skills to support and sustain the healthy development of one another and the young people they support.

Given the uncertainties and challenges of today’s world, our education systems should prioritize SEL to build healthy relationships, engage students and support adults to contribute to more equitable schools and communities. SEL is not a panacea or silver bullet; there is much more to learn about how best to implement SEL to promote equitable outcomes, and how to sustain high-quality implementation long-term.

At the same time, SEL is grounded by a growing body of research and bolstered by overwhelming demand from principals, teachers, parents and students. Our hope is that SEL will not only improve schools today, but help build a better world tomorrow.

Karen Niemi is president and CEO of CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

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