Committee for Children Blog

Building Student Engagement Through SEL

child studying SEL

By Tricia Maas and Kaylynn Blosser

In March 2020, most children in the United States were thrust into remote learning environments without ever having received explicit instruction to build skills like time management, goal setting, and problem-solving. As a result, many teachers, parents, and children have experienced frustration this year as kids have attempted to navigate unfamiliar, more independent instructional environments without the skills to do so.

But as is true of so many challenges, kids’ experiences with learning remotely in 2020 have been instructional: these experiences have illuminated the importance of skills that, previously, were too often ignored. These skills are rooted in five social-emotional competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Social-emotional competencies are vital to kids’ short- and long-term success—not just during the pandemic, but after it, too. Educators can nurture these skills by providing children explicit opportunities for social-emotional learning (SEL).

  1. Self-Awareness. Self-awareness helps students recognize their strengths, limitations, and the goals they want to accomplish.1 It bolsters a student’s sense of who they are and what they can achieve. Educators can help support students’ self-awareness by helping them recognize their strengths and nurturing growth mindsets.2
  2. Self-Management. Regulating emotions, thoughts, and behaviors, delaying gratification, goal setting, and self-motivation are all aspects of self-management. Educators can help students develop self-management skills by creating structures for and helping kids practice personal goal setting, celebrating students’ progress, and helping students use stress-management techniques.3
  3. Social Awareness. Social awareness is cultivated through practicing perspective-taking, empathy, and compassion toward others. The time away from the classroom this year has been isolating for many students and has often limited their opportunities to practice social skills. Educators can support students’ social awareness by modeling empathy and compassion in their teaching and helping coach students through perspective-taking during conflicts.
  4. Relationship Skills. Relationship skills help students communicate effectively, learn from others, and foster teamwork and collaboration.4 In remote and hybrid learning models, where casual conversation is scare, it’s especially important for teachers to nurture relationships and students’ relationship skills. Teachers can do this by providing students with explicit instruction around how to build and maintain relationships while working together.
  5. Responsible Decision-Making. When students make responsible decisions, they leverage other social-emotional competencies to identify problems, consider a wide set of possible solutions and how those solutions may affect others, then select the best option.5 Educators can help students develop these skills by teaching the skills explicitly and modeling them.6 They can also create opportunities for students to practice these skills and provide students with clear scaffolds and guides as they do so.

It’s unclear how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. It has been a painful time, but we should learn from it what we can. By intentionally and explicitly cultivating students’ social-emotional competencies, educators can support students in ways that set them up for success. SEL increases the likelihood of students’ social and academic engagement during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.


1. CASEL. (n.d.). SEL: What are the core competence areas and where are they promoted?

2. Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Praise for intelligence can undermine children’s motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(1), 33–52.

3. Dweck, C. S., Walton, G. M., & Cohen, G. L. (2014). Academic tenacity: Mindsets and skills that promote long-term learning. Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

4. Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Guffey, S., & Higgins-D’Alessandro, A. (2013). A review of school climate research. Review of Educational Research83(3), 357–85.

5. Oberle, E., Domitrovich, C. E., Meyers, D. C., & Weissberg, R. P. (2016). Establishing systemic social and emotional learning approaches in schools: A framework for schoolwide implementation. Cambridge Journal of Education46(3), 277–297.

6. Jennings, P. A., & Greenberg, M. T. (2009). The prosocial classroom: Teacher social and emotional competence in relation to student and classroom outcomes. Review of Educational Research79(1), 491–525.