What is Social-Emotional Learning and Why is it the MOST Important Skill to Teach

This series of Social-Emotional articles is written by Victoria Kirgesner

Any educator can tell you the buzzwords that are on their administration’s and colleagues’ lips. Just a few years ago, every professional development seemed to be about “increasing rigor in the classroom” or “differentiating to meet every student’s needs” while promoting “data-driven education,” and teaching “21st-century skills.”

The COVID-19 pandemic only expanded the educational jargon dictionary, adding “blended learning” and “remote learning” as possible options to avoid “learning loss.” Sometimes it seems as if these buzzwords don’t have a defined meaning or seek to change and shape our pedagogy in drastic new ways. But there is one exception to this that I’ve been able to pinpoint: social-emotional learning. So what is “social-emotional learning” anyway?

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning, to put it briefly, is the epitome and facilitator of whole-child education. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning encompasses ”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.” In other words, it is the teaching of skills that create better humans, ones who are cognizant of their emotions as well as others and use this knowledge to help others. As I would tell my high school students when we would work on social-emotional learning activities, there are many adults who haven’t acquired these skills or understandings.

Social-emotional learning (or SEL) can be broken down into five different competencies: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. If you reflect on your day-to-day life as an adult, you navigate in and out of these different realms continually, whether you’re interacting with colleagues, parents, students, friends, or family members. If we want to give our students “real-world” skills and the tools to navigate their adult lives successfully, SEL is crucial to setting our students up to be high-achieving adults, capable of navigating life outside of the classroom.

Let’s dive a bit more into each of the five competency areas to talk about what exactly is encompassed under each.


First, self-awareness. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize your emotional state and understand how that is affecting your behaviors. It is also the ability to understand how your values and thought processes influence how you interact with others. Having and fostering a personal growth mindset falls under this category. Knowing your own personal identity, and being able to identify different components of your identity fall under this competency.

this is the sign you've been looking for coderz coding and roboticsBeing able, to be honest, and have personal integrity would be housed here as well. Self-awareness is understanding how thoughts and emotions connect to your values and thought processes on different topics. It is being able to understand and confront your prejudices and biases, looking at them with a clear perspective, rather than assuming you don’t have any (because let’s face it, we all do…but I digress). Self-awareness helps give you a sense of purpose. Encompassed under the self-awareness umbrella too is the ability to name your emotions, and be able to discuss the limitations and needs that you might have.

Personally, I was using the skill of self-awareness a lot in the last year during the pandemic. To tell a rather personal story: in May of 2020, I had just bought a new house, trying to finish what had turned out to be the weirdest school year to date. I was trying to figure out how to make senior year normal for the Class of 2020, who had been the class of students that I’d started my tenure at the high school with; they were freshmen my first year there, so we had a special type of bond. And now all of the moments we’d looked forward to over the last four years were gone in an instant and there was nothing we could do to get those back.

Emotional Overload

One night, I was watching Netflix with my significant other and I heard a little pop. We looked over and discovered that my hamster had chewed through the plastic latches on his cage and was now able to open the hatch at the top of it, and very well could figure out how to escape. I found myself in tears over the fact my Syrian teddy bear hamster could leave his cage, not that he actually did. After getting a hug from my significant other, I realized why I was having a complete breakdown. I did some introspection and was able to identify all of the different components that were affecting my mental state and causing me to dive into overload.

Without the ability to be self-aware, I might have been left thinking that all these hysterics were over a chewed-through hamster cage. But by being able to step back from my own brain and say “hey, wait…this isn’t actually a huge problem. What really is going on with me?” I was able to practice self-awareness, realizing the hamster cage was just the catalyst, not the real reason I was upset, and thus I was able to express more succinctly and concretely my emotional needs and limitations. Nevertheless, my hamster, Pavoratti, found himself in a much nicer, much bigger wire cage shortly after this incident.

Social Awareness

The second competency that falls under the SEL banner is social awareness. This is pretty similar to self-awareness, but obviously with a broader focus. In social awareness, you are able to empathize with and understand others’ perspectives, even when they come from backgrounds (cultural, racial, linguistic, etc) other than your own. It allows one to take others’ perspectives into account, and recognize their strengths and abilities. When you are socially aware, you also can recognize social norms, whether just or unjust, that guide behavior in different settings, be that at home, school, or other places in the community. But you also know how these different settings influence and guide our behavior, and thus, in turn, you also know how to behave in a wide array of social situations.

learn from other experiences coderz coding and roboticsWhile social awareness focuses a lot on the ability to empathize with others (and if you ask me, really what might help us stop all the fighting on Facebook and social media that has become all too common), it also emphasizes expressing gratitude and understanding what it means to have gratitude. At first glance, this might seem to be outside the realm of social awareness, but it truly does pair perfectly. Gratitude is the understanding of the various kindnesses that have happened in our lives, and when we are able to express this, we are in turn acknowledging and being aware of how others have helped us along our respective journeys. Thus, gratitude is being cognizant of your place within a larger social network and community, which is a large part of social awareness.


Next, we turn to self-management. This one many of us as educators are familiar with, as it is the ability to manage and control your emotions, behaviors, and thoughts within different settings. It is the ability to use this control to accomplish not only whatever goals or aspirations you’ve set for yourself, but also to achieve the goals of the wider community in which you are located. Also housed under this competency are self-discipline and self-motivation, as well as organizational and planning skills.

As educators, we tend to identify when students struggle with this particular competency. I know as a high school educator, I’ve encountered many students who struggled with this competency, and often I fell into the trap of thinking that these skills should’ve already been taught, whether at home or in the elementary classroom. But just like all of the other competencies within the SEL header, this one too needs to be reinforced and refined even throughout the teenage years, as it is crucial to career and college success.

But self-management is more than emotional regulation; it also touches on identifying and using stress management techniques, as well as learning to delay gratification and taking the initiative to make your goals happen. As I taught in my Latin classroom, I realized often that my students were reluctant to take risks and solve puzzles to find the answers, and in talking to many of my colleagues, they seemed to be noticing similar things. In a world where toddlers can be hushed and taught to wait by handing over an iPhone, and the next TikTok video is just a few seconds away, learning to delay gratification and be okay with waiting or even struggling to find an answer becomes an even more crucial skill.

Relationship Skills

Next, let’s turn to relationship skills. These are pretty self-explanatory, right? It’s the ability to create, foster, and grow different relationships with a myriad of different people. SEL emphasizes building healthy and supportive relationships, and the knowledge to be able to interact effectively with diverse individuals and communities of people. The ability to communicate clearly and constructively, to practice active listening, to collaborate, and to cooperate to solve problems effectively all fall under this competency. It is also the ability to be a leader when needed and knowing how to navigate situations with different cultural or social demands than you might be used to.

two people washing dishes coderz coding and roboticsThe relationship skills competency also teaches you how to be an effective ally. In building this particular competency, you learn when to offer support to others (and when to seek it out yourself), and how to resist negative social pressure, and stand up to fight for the rights of others. As with many of these competencies (if not all), it is fairly easy to identify how building these specific skills will set students up for success in their adult lives, but also work to create a more positive and uplifting school community.

Responsible Decision-Making

Finally, we have responsible decision-making. This is knowing how to make choices that are constructive and caring in a variety of situations, both in regard to your personal behavior and social interactions. It is knowing how to make a decision after considering the different pieces of information you have at your disposal: safety concerns, data, facts, and ethical standards. When you make a responsible decision, you’ve evaluated the benefits and the consequences of the different courses of action. You can identify potential solutions to different personal and social problems, and anticipate the consequences (both positive and negative) to the course of action you’ve chosen.

Beyond this, responsible decision-making allows you to become more introspective. You can reflect upon and advance the well-being of yourself, your family, and your community. You can analyze the impacts of a particular decision on your community, yourself, your family, and your interactions with others. But also you can begin to see why this particular knowledge is important both for your career as a student and your adult life.

learn from failure CoderZ Coding and RoboticsAll of these different competencies can be learned and reinforced both within and outside the classroom. Whether students are interacting with family members at home, teammates in an athletic event, peers in their wider school community, or any space in which students are interacting with other humans. It allows for the creation of humans with empathy who are able to take credit for their actions and better understand how to navigate interpersonal relationships. SEL is truly the epitome of a cross-curricular subject, and one that teaches skills students will be able to use – and in fact, need to use – for the rest of their lives.

What’s Next?

In this series of articles, we’re going to explore why social-emotional learning is crucial to education and how it is a natural partner with the STEM/STEAM fields. We’ll explore sample lessons and activities for students of all ages, in the K-12 classroom and even preschool-age children. We’ll see how SEL is a natural fit with robotics and computer science, and how it partners beautifully with any curricular topic you might have – without requiring you to do any extra work or planning upfront (and really, who doesn’t love that!?) It’s never too early to start your SEL journey – or too late. Whether your students are in front of you or at home, learning remotely, SEL is an important component of cultivating success in our students and setting them up to be high-achieving human beings once they leave the walls of our classroom.

Georgetown University graduate, Victoria Kirgesner, has been a Latin educator since 2015, teaching both in traditional settings and more. She is a passionate educator, and forever linguist. Her academic background informs her research and exploration and became finding the best EdTech tools to reach all of her students based on their interests, passions, and backgrounds. She spends many hours giving life advice to her students, while also teaching them. Her favorite part about her career has been helping her students navigate the journey from childhood to adulthood. All of these hats culminate in her ability to connect with colleagues nationwide, improving education for all.