What Is SEL? Understanding the Importance of Social and Emotional Learning in Children

photo of two todlers playing and smiling

Everyone knows that it’s important for young children to learn how to write their names, count to ten and know their ABCs. Fewer people understand the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) in the early childhood years.

So what is SEL, and why does it matter? This aspect of childhood learning is what helps children develop empathy, communication and other skills that allow them to build strong relationships with others, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).1

If you still need more information, you’re not alone! While a lot of social and emotional learning happens naturally through life experiences, there’s more to encouraging healthy development than just letting kids take on a lifetime of trial and error. Join us as we hear from ECE professionals about what SEL is, why it matters and how they encourage this vital type of learning in the children they care for.

What is SEL?

In a nutshell, social and emotional learning refers to development that affects relationships and social interactions. Emotions are a part of daily life, and it takes time for children develop an awareness of what they’re feeling and why.

“Social and emotional learning is the development of a child’s healthy perception of who they are and how they feel,” says Cynthia Dow, director of in-home childcare advancement at TOOTRiS.

SEL begins in very young babies by showing itself through simple milestones like smiling at a caregiver or sucking a thumb for comfort. A child’s social and emotional growth continues to develop as they get older. “As a child ages, they progressively understand more complex emotions and how their actions can impact those around them,” Dow says.

Social and emotional learning begins with a “me”-centered focus as children learn to acknowledge and understand their own feelings. But over time, SEL impacts every aspect of a child’s relationship with others.

“It’s the process of learning how to manage emotions and behavior, have empathy, show care and concern for others, solve problems effectively, make responsible decisions and maintain healthy relationships,” says Ori Hofnung, founder and CEO of GiantLeap.

The importance of SEL in early childhood

We all know that adults are expected to work on a team without fighting over a favorite pen or express their concerns about a problem without falling to the floor in a tantrum—even if the underlying urge might still be there. Those social-emotional skills don’t just appear on their own! They’re learned in early childhood.

Young children’s brains are wired to develop these social-emotional skills as they navigate the world around them. When it comes to SEL, children are at an advantage over adults who want to improve the same skills.

“The skills that a child learns in the first five years of life set the foundation for how they will perceive themselves and treat others into adulthood and beyond,” Dow says.

Young children may be predisposed to social-emotional learning, but these skills do need to be taught. “A common misconception about social-emotional skills is that they evolve naturally,” Hofnung explains. SEL may come naturally for some kids but not all of them. That’s what makes SEL in early childhood settings, like childcare and preschool, so important.

“For children who have difficulty reading social-emotional cues in other people and realizing their emotional state, a conscious decision to teach these children those skills has to be made,” Hofnung says. “Even if a child is considered gifted academically, it is the social-emotional skills that can get in the way and lead to social isolation, anxiety and depression.”

The many benefits of SEL

Social and emotional learning comes with plenty of benefits for children, both in school and as they become adults who eventually enter the workforce.

According to the Committee for Children®, studies show strong social-emotional skills are associated with a decrease in school drop-out rates and bullying as well as an increase in academic development.1 And in the workplace, 79 percent of employers reported that SEL skills are the most important qualities for success.2

Social-emotional skills tend to snowball into positive outcomes in nearly every area of life. This includes academics, healthy romantic relationships and pursing a fulfilling career “because they have the social and emotional skills it took to get them there,” Dow says.

However, the opposite is also true: A lack of SEL early in life can lead to devastating consequences for children who didn’t have the benefit of guided social-emotional development. “If social-emotional development is not established in the early years, it could lead a child down a path of low self-esteem, lack of impulse control, poor problem-solving skills and deficiency of empathy for others,” Dow says.

How parents and ECE professionals can encourage SEL in children

It’s clearly important to ensure that all children are given every opportunity to develop strong social-emotional skills. Thankfully, there are several strategies parents and ECE professionals alike can use to help children grow their SEL skills:

Model strong SEL skills yourself. Children may not magically learn how to be socially and emotionally aware, but they are watching how you interact with the other children and adults around you. By modeling kindness, good decision-making skills and empathy for others—and narrating these skills out loud so children can hear your thought process—children will gain a basic foundation of SEL.

Practice SEL through role-play. Young children are drawn to pretend play, so this is the perfect opportunity to introduce social-emotional learning. “You can use puppets or toys to act out conflicts between characters and ask how they would handle the situation,” Dow says. This allows children to practice their budding SEL skills when they aren’t feeling strong emotions themselves.

Talk about emotions often. Emotions are a universal human experience, but children aren’t born with the vocabulary to express themselves when they feel frustrated, angry or left out. Name emotions in yourself, characters in books and in children themselves. For example, you could say, “You feel frustrated with that puzzle. Would taking a break help you feel calmer?”

Facilitate group play. Children need lots of practice to grow comfortable reading others’ emotions, navigating conflict and expressing themselves respectfully. This can only happen through lots of group play with their peers, whether that be siblings, friends at a childcare center or students in a homeschool co-op. “Think not only in terms of academic/cognitive elements of a lesson but also how to group kids in the best way for cooperative or collaborative learning,” Hofnung says.

How will you nurture children’s SEL skills?

What is SEL? These social and emotional skills are an essential part of young children’s development—and their impact extends far beyond childhood.

Guiding social-emotional development is just one reason early childhood education is so important, but it’s certainly not the only one! Learn more about what makes this field so vital for young children with our article “5 Reasons Why the Importance of ECE Is Impossible to Ignore.”

1Collaborative for Academic, Social,and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Overview of Social and Emotional Learning, [accessed March, 2021] https://casel.org/overview-sel/
2Committee for Children, A Foundation for Success: Making the Case for SEL [accessed March, 2021] https://www.cfchildren.org/about-us/making-the-case-for-sel/

Committee for Children is a registered trademark of the Committee for Children non-profit corporation

About the author

Ashley Brooks

Ashley is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She believes in the power of words and knowledge and enjoys using both to encourage others on their learning journeys

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