Skip to main content

How to Build Social-Emotional Learning Skills in the Classroom

December 3, 2020

Starting the school day with a check-in, encouraging a culture of kindness, and inviting students to explore their feelings through art are just three simple ways teachers support social-emotional learning (SEL). Incorporating social emotional learning in the classroom is vital to teaching students how to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, and make responsible decisions.

Social-Emotional Learning Skills

Social-emotional learning is the process of developing and using social and emotional skills, according to Understood. It comprises five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Students who master these skills tend to do better in school, attend college, get a full-time job, and have less emotional distress.

Emotion Management

When students are stressed, overwhelmed, or excited, they often act out, disrupting activities or disobeying rules. When they understand how their emotions drive their behavior, however, they can express how they feel in more acceptable ways, according to We Are Teachers.

Self-awareness and self-management are key to managing emotions; the former helps students recognize their emotions, and the latter helps them regulate their emotions. Students who have these two skills are able to recognize their strengths, develop a growth mindset, control impulses, and set goals, according to Understood.

Goal Setting

To set and achieve goals, a student must understand their limitations and strengths in specific subjects, such as math. After setting goals, the student will have a greater opportunity to grow and turn their limitations into strengths, according to CASEL.

Their behavior also needs to be goal-directed. Students must initiate tasks to act on their goals and be persistent in completing them. Teachers can encourage this type of goal-oriented behavior in the classroom through various assignments and activities, including:

  • Filling out a pie chart of strengths and weaknesses
  • Writing a narrative essay on goals and how to achieve them
  • Expressing goals for the day at the start of each class meeting


Students develop empathy, or the ability to understand and share in another person’s feelings, through social awareness. Seeing things from a peer’s perspectives, appreciating diversity, and respectfully interacting with others are a few skills students need to practice empathy. For example, students who gain a better understanding of a person who is culturally different from them have a higher chance of empathizing with their experiences.

Empathetic students show tolerance and cooperation, accepting different opinions. Relationship skills are another important aspect of empathy. Consistently acting in socially acceptable ways—knowing when to be quiet, share something, express thoughts in class, etc.—builds relationships and fosters empathy.

Responsible Decision Making

To make responsible decisions, people need to consider the consequences of their behavior. Taking personal responsibility for their actions allows students to weigh their decisions first, considering how they affect others.

To build these skills, students need to learn from previous experience and accept responsibility for their actions. For example, if they choose not to study for an exam and get a low grade, they can gain insight from that experience when they use SEL skills.

Social-Emotional Learning Outcomes

A two-decade study found that students who are taught SEL skills experience numerous positive outcomes, including better behavior. Students who begin SEL in kindergarten are 54% more likely to get a high school diploma and two times as likely to graduate college than those who don’t. They also experience fewer disciplinary incidents, increased attendance, and improved grades, according to Understood.

Integrating Social-Emotional Learning Into the Classroom

Teachers implement multiple strategies to foster social emotional learning in the classroom. These approaches use evidence-based practices, incorporating SEL into every part of the school day.

Social Teaching Practices

Social teaching practices involve:

  • Student-centered discipline
  • Teacher language
  • Responsibility and choice
  • Warmth and support

To emphasize responsibility and choice, for example, teachers can focus their instruction on a student’s emotional intelligence, wherein the goal is for students to understand and respect themselves and others.

To use teacher language and exhibit warmth and support, teachers can begin the morning by asking each student about their day. In this way, teachers demonstrate that the classroom is a safe space for students to express thoughts and feelings.

Educators can also raise awareness of the various skill sets that SEL entails by asking questions such as:

  • “How can you make sure your group work is fair?”
  • “How can you make sure your classmates and teachers understand what you are saying?”
  • “When working in a group, how do you make decisions?”
  • “How do you keep moving toward a goal when you are stressed or lose focus?”

By asking questions that relate to decision making, managing emotions, and setting goals, teachers are modeling SEL skills and allowing students to reflect on them.

Teaching Social-Emotional Learning Online

Ordinarily, instructors would teach SEL skills in person, in an actual classroom. However, with the current global pandemic, most teachers no longer have this option. Educators can still teach SEL online, however, and it’s more important than ever for students to have SEL skills. Online teachers can:

  • Read fiction aloud and ask students to reflect on characters’ SEL skills
  • Send daily “good morning” notes to students
  • Have students check in on classmates and ask if they need help
  • Remind students to follow guidelines to help reduce risk to themselves and others

Earn an Advanced Degree and Become an Equitable Teacher at American University

Explore American University’s online Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) to learn more about how an advanced degree program can prepare teachers to provide equitable and excellent learning environments. Faculty members participate in cutting-edge research and develop relevant, evidence-based coursework to inspire current and aspiring teachers to create change in vulnerable communities through education. Discover how to provide equitable education to all students at American University.