Why SEL is as Important as Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic


I am really excited about PlayThrive’s initiative to introduce Social Emotional Learning to its curriculum. In this age of “ultra academia,” and standardized testing, so little emphasis has been placed on how children learn, how they manage their emotions, and how they develop relationships with others.

So what exactly is Social Emotional Learning? Is it just some hogwash fad that educators are fabricating?

What is Social Emotional Learning?

You can find an official definition of SEL here on CASEL’s website. There is a huge body of validated research behind social emotional learning. Peer reviewed research shows that social-emotional learning increases academic success, decreases stress levels in children and prevents negative behaviors such as bullying, drug use and violence.

SEL is a systematic way of teaching children how to respond to their emotions and social surroundings in a way that promotes improved quality of relationships with others (kindness, compassion, empathy), accurate self-judgment (motivation, adaptation, resilience, self-esteem) and making responsible decisions (self-control, focus, predicting consequences).

Something that Happens in My Household Quite Often

My dear daughter is bright, smart and extremely competitive. Whenever we would play monopoly or some competitive game, my heart would be filled with trepidation because I knew there was a high chance a meltdown or tantrum would follow if she lost the game.  The tears would start rolling down and her brain goes into a negative overdrive, “I never win Mommy. Brother always wins. It’s not fair.” And yet, when she does win, she knows to surmise to her brother or to me, “You’ll win next time! Don’t worry.”

There is clearly a disconnect here.

She knows rationally, when she has won the game, that someone else could win the game the next time and she is even empathetic enough to comfort the others who did not win. However when she does not win, our daughter does not have the emotional competency to deal with her feelings of disappointment which clouds her judgment about the future or the current situation.

“I never win Mommy”- which is untrue because she has.

“It’s not fair” – again untrue, because the game was played fairly and within the rules.

This is where social emotional learning comes in. My response to my daughter could be, “Oh that’s just silly,” or “Stop this whining, you’re being unreasonable.” In SEL, my response to her emotions is just as important as her learning to cope with them. I realized that she needed explicit instruction and direction about how to manage her feelings of disappointment and loss. Instead, these days, before we embark on a board game or play a competitive game, I discuss first with both my children, how they might feel, and what their sibling might feel were he/she to lose the game. I also make sure they know that it is quite OK to feel sad and disappointed when they do not win. We talk about concrete ways to express those feelings. I encourage them to comfort each other when the other party does not win. We practice how to use those words of comfort.

The meltdowns post-game have since stopped, but it isn’t that it’s stopped that I’m happy about. My daughter still has tears when she doesn’t win, but she knows how to handle that disappointment. She takes a deep breath and says, “let’s play again.” Sometimes, she takes a break to write a notecard to me after she loses to express why she is sad and how she is sad. She is able to reflect on it. In return, I acknowledge her disappointment and help her feel safe with her emotions. In doing so, she is able to see beyond “never winning” and realizes that she has the grit to try this game again.

How SEL Works in a School Setting

Now, I am not an SEL trained teacher; I did this because I started reading about SEL and decided to try some of the ideas out. A trained SEL trained teacher delivers explicit lessons that teach social emotional skills and then reinforces the lesson throughout the day in various settings. There are various SEL programs but they all share the same elements. They are:

  • Sequenced: connected and coordinated sets of activities to foster skills development
  • Active: Active forms of learning to help students master new skills
  • Focused: emphasis on developing personal and social skills
  • Explicit: targeting specific social and emotional skills.

(From “Why Social Emotional Learning is Essential for Students,” Edutopia.org)

PlayThrive has selected Responsive Classroom as the curriculum we will use and follow for SEL.  Our teachers will be trained to use effective teacher language to promote SEL and to encourage engagement by giving students meaningful choices.  One aspect I would like to highlight is how Responsive Classroom is designed to start each day with a positive tone for learning. In PlayThrive’s schedule, you will see time set aside daily for our students to meet and talk to each other about how to begin their day at PlayThrive.

Most recently, we have also asked for help from Dr. Shani Robins, a licensed psychologist with a private practice, who is also trained in Social Emotional Learning and teaches at Stanford University and Foothill College. Dr. Robins will visit PlayThrive at least once a month as a consultant. During various times of the day, you are going to see Karen and Dr. Robins play different games that emphasize cooperative learning to build a sense of community and shared purpose.

Full disclosure here: I am an educator by trade and I am a board member at PlayThrive. Perhaps I am naturally inclined to promote SEL. So don’t just take my word for it. Check out these links to SEL classrooms and the research behind it.

Social Emotional Learning: Why Now?

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Responsive Classroom: PlayThrive will be using this SEL curriculum.

Video: TedX University of Nevada: Trish Schaffer & Social Emotional Learning


Teresa Ong is an educator, mother of three, and board member of PlayThrive.

Photo Credit: Rainier Martin Ampongan under a CC license



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