Social and Emotional Learning: What it is, Why it Matters, & How Analytics Can Help

Contributed By

Tony Davis, Ph.D

Academic Advisor, PowerSchool

Social and Emotional Learning: What it is, Why it Matters, & How Analytics Can Help

Posted in Evolving Ed | May 07, 2020

In the United States, over 20% of children and adolescents experience a mental health condition1, and 70% of those do not have access to the appropriate services outside the school system2. Students who do have access usually receive services in schools, and most wait years before receiving the proper mental health interventions—inhibiting their progress both inside and outside the classroom. 

Strengthening your social and emotional learning (SEL) program and monitoring it with sophisticated analytics can help accelerate the much-needed services that support the needs of the whole child and their family. Read on as I discuss what SEL is, why it matters to student success, and how interoperable analytics products can help you have a more meaningful impact on your students. 

What is social and emotional learning? 

Social and emotional learning has been a specific focus of educators for almost three decades. Initially, SEL was a combination of emerging ideas, beliefs, and theories that concentrated on supporting the wide array of developmental needs of school-age children3. Aside from their effect on academic development, an assortment of topics fell into the category of SEL—such as moral competence, self-determination, self-efficacy, self-regulation, positive identity, physical health conscience behaviors, and pro-social involvement just to name a few.  

In our best attempt as educators to meet the developmental needs of all children, more than 150 different youth development programs4 emerged. Many of the pioneering programs were based on fragmented initiatives and were applied as a series of short-term solutions to much larger problems. Those initial programs only contained one or more of 15 different SEL constructs. Unfortunately, capturing the data identifying which students needed what supports was laborious, rudimentary, fragmented, and insufficient. In addition, many programs were poorly supported and ineffectively implemented. In other words, school systems were resource poor and overwhelmed. 

Today, a widely accepted definition of SEL is provided by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL)5, which defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” This definition synthesizes the many concepts SEL intends to address and is captured in an organized framework that includes five competence domains: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

What should SEL look like in a K-12 environment? 

SEL should be explicit and sufficiently linked to the overall mission of schools. High-performing school systems adopt, contextualize, and implement evidence-based programs that align with an SEL framework as one component of their educational program. In order for an SEL program to succeed, it must be:  

  1. Applied through an ESSA-compliant, multi-tiered system on supports (MTSS) 
  2. Closely linked to the curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices 
  3. Strongly emphasized by the superintendent, board of education, and school-level leaders 
  4. Adequately supported with meaningful professional learning 
  5. Monitored, evaluated, and adapted to meet the ever-changing needs of diverse communities 
  6. Supported by sophisticated technology solutions that seamlessly manage information in ways that can capture and report on emerging threats to student success 

Why is SEL an important factor in student achievement? 

While there are many factors that have a positive effect on student achievement, instructional quality6 7 8 followed closely by access to the curriculum9 10 appear near the top. However, the research is clear that there are other factors that substantially contribute to student success and achievement—including a culture of learning, a feeling of connectedness, and a positive relationship with school staff. Each of these factors can be summarized as outcomes of SEL, and they align with the competence domains found in the CASEL framework. More importantly, many of the factors associated with SEL are necessary for teachers to teach well and for students to learn.  

There are many good examples of how the SEL competence domains support quality teaching and a high-level of student achievement. One example that illustrates how instructional quality, SEL, and achievement are linked is when teachers use instructional strategies that emphasize personalized learning. In doing so, teachers design lessons that inspire their students to persist and motivate them to succeed academically11.  In other words, students are displaying behaviors related to self-management—one of the competence domains explicit within the SEL framework. 

Why is SEL an important factor in whole child development? 

While policy and pressure to improve U.S. schools have placed a spotlight clearly on educator quality and increasing student achievement as measured by test scores, failing to balance academic achievement and other growth and development outcomes for children is somewhat short sighted. Today’s schools serve diverse communities. Students come to school with wide-ranging abilities for a variety of reasons. Some are academically and socially successful, while others struggle. The cognitive development and academic performance of students are dependent upon the psychological side of learning.12  

If we pay attention to our teachers—the experts on the front lines—they agree that an SEL framework supports whole child development and complements student achievement. To illustrate, in the report13, The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning can empower Children and Transform Schools, teachers report that they understand, value, and endorse SEL for all students. Teachers believe SEL helps students achieve in school, work, and life. 

Finding a meaningful and manageable balance between cognitive development and SEL skills seems to be in the best interest of all students. Promoting social and emotional development includes: 

  1. Adopting and implementing an SEL framework connected to the curriculum and applied through direct instruction and other opportunities that engage students in school activities. 
  2. Linking SEL to school and district goals. 
  3. Providing human, financial, and technology resources to strengthen a culture founded on whole child development.  
  4. Enhancing the skills of staff through evidence-based professional learning. 

It’s clear that SEL skills are linked to school and life success and are relevant for both students and teachers 14. When students feel socially and emotionally confident, they are more likely to positively adapt to adverse circumstances, persist in the face of challenges, build meaningful relationships, and less likely to disrupt the learning experiences of others.

Why are some SEL programs unsuccessful? 

Schools have been burdened with promising prevention and promotion programs intended to address the SEL and diverse academic needs of their students. Unfortunately, many programs are either insufficient by design, underutilized by teachers, or fail altogether due to poor planning and implementation. Teacher and school-level leaders will cite time, opportunity, and resource allocation as to why the program failed.  

Even though school systems often support the purchase and use of education technology, the collecting, sorting, and reporting of student information is still woefully inadequate. Many school systems still use several one-dimensional software programs. Teachers, counselors, as well as school and district leaders will spend a great deal of time and energy trying to measure some aspect of student performance using these outdated software programs. Then they waste more time triangulating results from several different data sets to make the best judgements possible about how students performed and what supports they need moving forward. 

How does Schoology help educators address students’ SEL needs? 

The ability to make more informed decisions using data and analytics are changing the way educators can impact their students’ social, emotional, and behavioral learning needs. Schoology Learning goes further than any LMS to help educators turn data into tangible results at the course, school, and district levels, making it possible for K-12 leaders to think and function more efficiently to serve the academic and SEL needs of all students. These edtech tools empower educators to successfully manage the complexity of teaching and learning at all levels of the school system in an organized and mindful manner, while leaders can quickly and accurately pull information together about schools, classrooms, and individual students to help them make informed decisions based on analytics and trends. 

About Dr. Tony Davis 
Dr. Tony Davis is a 28-year veteran of public education. He has served in roles from teacher to education leader and taught graduate courses in teacher and leader certification programs for Regis University. Tony brings 10 years of consulting experience to the PowerSchool team as a former Consulting Director for McREL International, a private non-profit education research company located in Denver, Colorado. While there, his work focused on the design, development, and implementation of research-based systems to strengthen education leadership, instructional quality, and talent development. Tony has led multifaceted projects for state, regional, and local education agencies across the nation that included leadership and learning consortium’s and executive leadership coaching. He has co-authored and led the development, validation, and implementation of teacher and leader evaluation systems used by school systems and state agencies across the United States. 


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2A Supportive School for Every Student: How Massachusetts Districts are Bringing Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Health Supports to Schools and Classrooms (June, 2019). Retrieved from

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13Bridgeland, J., Bruce, M., & Hariharan, A. (2013). The Missing Piece: A National Teacher Survey on How Social and Emotional Learning Can Empower Children and Transform Schools. A Report for CASEL. Civic Enterprises.

14Jennings, P.A., & Greenberg, M.T. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research, 79(1), 491-525.

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