Why social emotional learning is so important in schools

The passage of the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003 made Illinois the first state to establish social and emotional learning standards. The legislation was supported by the Chicago Public Schools, The Large Unit District Association, The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, and all of Illinois’ professional associations representing School Counselors, School Psychologists, and School Social Workers. Today, these standards are listed among the other academic standards found on the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE) website.


Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children develop awareness and management of their emotions, set and achieve important personal and academic goals, use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships, and demonstrate decision making and responsible behaviors to achieve school and life success. There is a strong a research base indicating that these SEL competencies improve students’ social/emotional development, readiness to learn, classroom behavior, and academic performance.


Standards related to the first goal of developing awareness and management of emotions and setting and achieving important personal and academic goals are to:

  • Identify and manage one’s emotions and behavior.

  • Recognize personal qualities and external supports.

  • Demonstrate skills related to achieving personal and academic goals.


Standards related to the second goal of using social awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships are to:

  • Recognize the feelings and perspectives of others.

  • Recognize individual and group similarities and differences.

  • Use communication and social skills to interact effectively with others.

  • Demonstrate an ability to prevent, manage and resolve interpersonal conflicts in constructive ways.


Standards related to the third goal of demonstrating decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school and community contexts are to:

  • Consider ethical, safety, and societal factors in making decisions.

  • Apply decision-making skills to deal responsibly with daily academic and social situations.

  • Contribute to the well-being of one’s school and community.


The ISBE site goes on to break down the standards and the benchmarks (ways to measure progress) by age and grade levels starting from pre-school until the end of 12th grade. Although previously thought of as two distinct domains of functioning, there is evidence that mental health (or social emotional competence) and academic achievement are interrelated. Fostering positive mental health in students has been shown to enhance academic growth and several curricula exist that aim to grow academic competencies through social and emotional learning. Just like regular instruction, the more frequent the exposure to social emotional learning, the greater the effect on academic achievement.

Finally, the development of social emotional learning contributes to psychological safety often overlooked when considering safety issues in schools. The emphasis has been on physical safety. Psychological safety is equally important and adds to a climate where students feel connected to school, respected by others, comfortable to express concerns, and vigilant to their own and others’ well-being. Social emotional learning mastery also enhances resilience in students and problem-solving skills so important in dealing with crises and other challenges.


More Information on Social Emotional Learning:

Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning, located here in Chicago at UIC

Harmony for Social Emotional Learning: Training for Educators and Families

Second Step, a popular school wide program with significant research backing its success


An Extra Resource Given the Prominence of National Attention to Mass Shootings this Summer

Talking To Children When Scary Things Happen ( from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network)


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