Committee for Children Blog

Grit, Growth Mindset, Mindfulness: Are These Trending Topics of SEL?

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Social-emotional learning (SEL) is trending in education. The last 15 years of research has shown the many benefits to teaching SEL, such as reductions in violence and truancy and gains in academic test scores. Increasing numbers of schools, districts, and community organizations are incorporating and prioritizing SEL as a valued and necessary piece of their work in preparing the whole person for success in multiple aspects of life, including PreK-12, college, and career. 

I have eagerly waited a long time for this moment, after 20 years of seeing how teaching and supporting SEL helps youth navigate life’s daily situations more easily. Yet, I also feel nervous excitement. Why? Mainly because this topic has expanded rapidly in the last few years and despite good intentions, understanding of SEL is varied and often misunderstood to the point that many programs and topics are being classified as SEL even when they are not. The delicate balance between SEL research (what we know) and practice (what we do) will be lost if we are not careful. 

To provide further example, let’s consider how leading experts define SEL and explore how it relates to the trending educational topics of grit, growth mindset, and mindfulness. The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” CASEL identifies 5 core competencies of SEL: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills and social awareness.

Grit, growth mindset, and mindfulness are all elements of SEL by this definition:

  • Grit is a disposition, so it is more of an attitude than a skill or knowledge. It entails setting and achieving goals, which is one component of SEL. It is most aligned with the core competencies of self-management and responsible decision-making.
  • Growth mindset is defined as a belief or attitude. It requires self-awareness in seeing one’s control over the present and future, and could lead to responsible decision making.
  • Mindfulness is considered a skill that requires self-awareness and self-management. Practicing mindfulness could lead to better emotion management and responsible decision making.

They also fall short of SEL in some categories. Grit, growth mindset or mindfulness, in themselves, do not encompass all aspects of SEL. They do not address empathy, and they are more focused on the self than on maintaining positive relationships with others.  SEL requires knowledge, attitudes, and skills, whereas each of these topics addresses only one of those areas. There are still questions about whether grit, growth mindset, and mindfulness can be taught. 

These examples show that although the link between SEL and other trending topics is not straightforward, taking the time to consider these relationships can ensure more systematic implementation of SEL supports. SEL is broad and encompasses many elements, so when determining needs and deciding what and how to implement, be thoughtful in reviewing how each topic or program aligns with the definition to safeguard purposeful implementation. Ensure you are meeting all aspects of SEL and not duplicating efforts in some facets while forgetting others.

In spite of my trepidation, I am looking forward to how the SEL movement unfolds and integrates with other education trends. This work has already begun and I expect we will soon hear more from organizations such as the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, who is already working on a unified, integrated vision of SEL and Academics.