Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL originates partly from Mayer and Salovey’s (1997) emotional intelligence (EI) theory (made popular by Daniel Goleman, 1997). EI refers to the ability to perceive, control and evaluate emotions. Salovey and Mayer proposed a hierarchical model that identified four different factors of emotional intelligence i.e. emotional perception, being able to a) perceive emotion, b) reason using emotion, c) understand emotions and manage emotions (please see figure below). These abilities are more likely to be associated with social competence, adaptation and academic success (Mayer, Roberts & Barsade, 2008).  SEL is the process through which children effectively acquire and apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills required to understand and cope with emotions, set and accomplish positive goals, feel and demonstrate empathy for others, create and maintain positive relationships, effectively handle interpersonal situations while developing responsible decision-making skills (Zins & Elias, 2006). CASEL (2013) defines the five core SEL competencies as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. With an underlying social-constructivist epistemology and theoretical underpinnings from social, behavioural and biological sciences, SEL advocates for a holistic approach to education.

Emotional Intelligence Hierarchy
Highest                             Managing Emotions
                                          Understanding Emotions
                                          Using Emotions
Lowest                              Perceiving Emotions

Salovey & Mayer’s (1997) Four-branch Hierarchical Model of Emotional Intelligence

SEL and Education

Learning incorporates social, emotional as well as academic components, with schools playing a central role in a child’s socialization while providing a safe environment for learning and growth (Zins, Weissberg, Wang & Walberg, 2011). Research on the benefits of school-based SEL programmes conducted by CASEL (2013) demonstrate that students improve significantly with regard to social and emotional skills including self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision-making; attitudes towards self and others; classroom and social behaviour; conduct issues within the classroom; managing emotional distress and improvements in academic achievement. Please see figure 2 which illustrates evidence-based SEL intervention programmes pathways to overall success in school and across the lifespan.

Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor and Schellinger (2011) conducted a meta-analysis spanning 213 schools and found that, compared with controls, students exposed to social and emotional learning (SEL) demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, behaviour, attitude as well as improved academic performance of 11-percentile-points. Other research has shown that Grade 8-students’ academic achievement could be predicted by their Grade 3 social emotional competence (Caprara, Barnbanelli, Pastorelli, Bandura & Zimbardo, 2000), while students consistently learning SEL techniques such as self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills and empathy scored higher on tests that required executive functioning of the brain i.e. working memory, coordinating, inhibitory control, monitoring, problem solving and reasoning. The implication of these results being that SEL programmes, which develop pro-social behaviour in elementary students, will positively affect future academic achievement and social preferences.

Despite this, current high-stakes testing are placing schools under increasing pressure to improve academic performance, often to the detriment of students’ social and emotional wellbeing. With the rapid advances in technology, social media and globalization, social emotional competencies are becoming even more important to deal with life’s adversities and adapting to constantly changing circumstances (Weissberg, Kumpfer & Seligman, 2003).

Evidence-based SEL intervention programming pathways to overall success in school and across the lifespan. Adapted from page 197 of Zins et al (2004).


Caprara, G., Barnbanelli, C., Pastorelli, C. Bandura, A & Zimbardo, P. (2000) Prosocial foundations of children’s academic achievement. Psychological Science, 11 : 302-306

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) (2005) An Educational Leader’s Guide to Evidence-Based Social and Emotional Learning(SEL) Programs retrieved from

Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning Guide (CASEL), (2013). Effective social and emotional learning programs – Preschool and elementary school edition. Chicago, IL: Author.

Durlak, J.A., Weissberg, R.P., Dymniki, A.B., Taylor, R.D., & Schellinger, K.B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405-432.

Goleman, D. (1997) Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam.

Mayer, J. & Salovey, P. (1997). What is emotional intelligence? Cited in P. Salovey & D. Sluyter (Eds), Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Implications for Educators. New York: Basic Books.

Mayer, J., Roberts, R., & Barsade, S. (2008) Human Abilities: Emotional Intelligence Annual Review of Psychology 59. 507-536.

Weissberg, R., Kumpfer, K., & Seligman, M. (2003). Prevention that works for children and youth: An introduction. American Psychologist, 58 (6-7), 425- 432.

Zins, J. & Elias, M. (2006) Social and emotional learning. In G. G. Bear & K.M. Minke (Eds), Children’s needs 111: Development, prevention, and intervention (pp.1-13). Bethesda, MD. NASP Publications.

Zins, J., Weissberg, R., Wang, M. & Walberg, H (Eds.) (2004) Building academic success on social and emotional learning: What does the research say? NewYork: Teachers College Press.