Committee for Children Blog

Three Misperceptions about SEL


The potential inclusion of an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that incorporates both a definition and a specified funding source for social-emotional learning (SEL) has me thinking about SEL often. Foremost in my mind is how to clear up misconceptions about what SEL really is. Talking with senatorial staff on the Hill, friends, and family members about the hopes for federal legislation changes and the importance of SEL for social and academic success both in school and in life, I learned that SEL is not widely understood.

This common understanding is important because social and emotional skills are critical for successfully navigating many aspects of our lives, whether we are a fulfilling the role of a parent, teacher, human resources coordinator, colleague, supervisor, friend, spouse, or significant other. Given the relevancy of SEL to most everyone, I hope to increase knowledge and to address some questions and misperceptions about SEL with this blog.

These are three common assumptions I often hear about SEL and my response to each:

  • Aren’t SEL skills the same as non-academic skills?
    • These words are often used interchangeably. However, the term “non-academic” is so broad that it could refer to anything from learning how to throw a football to learning how to use a cell phone.
    • Social-emotional learning is the process through which adults and children develop social and emotional competencies in five areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making (; Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, Bruce, & Hariharan, 2013, p. 16).
    • SEL increases student engagement in learning
      • Research shows that the lack of social-emotional skills is correlated with student disengagement with learning (Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, Bruce, & Hariharan, 2013, p. 24 and p. 50, n. 79).
    • Teachers believe SEL is important for academic success
      • Results from a recent national survey of teachers showed that 77% of teachers believe teaching SEL will increase standardized test scores and overall academic performance (Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, Bruce, & Hariharan, 2013, p. 22).
      • Boosting academic performance is the key goal teachers aim to achieve with their students in teaching SEL (Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, Bruce, & Hariharan, 2013, p. 23).
  • SEL is not related to academic performance…SEL interferes with academic performance.
    • SEL is associated with student achievement
      • A recent meta-analysis “of 213 school-based, universal social and emotional learning (SEL) programs involving 270,034 kindergarten through high school students… [showed that] compared to controls, SEL participants demonstrated significantly improved social and emotional skills, attitudes, behavior, and academic performance that reflected an 11-percentile-point gain in achievement” (Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B., 2011).
  • Children naturally have these skills so we do not need to teach them.
    • Teachers overwhelmingly believe SEL should be an important part of students’ in-school experience; 95% believe social-emotional skills are teachable (Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, Bruce, & Hariharan, 2013, p. 15).
    • Children posses varying levels of skills, socially, emotionally, and academically. If skills are fostered through modeling, teaching, practicing, and reinforcing, they are more likely to develop and be used.


Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432. Retrieved from:

Civic Enterprises, Bridgeland, 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. Chicago: Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Retrieved from: