Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies


Seeing the forest despite the trees.

Our nation’s educational focus continues to zero in on “achievement” as defined by test scores in specific academic areas and the resulting gaps therein. This hyper focus exacerbates our nearly systematic blind eye related to learning for living and cultivating life long learners. As a result, policies that increase the stakes of standardized assessments necessitate schools increase the amount of time spent on basic skills — reading and math, primarily — to the exclusion of a broad range of other skills, experiences, and competencies. In effect, we see a couple of trees, but miss the forest, or big picture ecology, of learning.

However, research suggests there are programs that have the dual benefits of both raising achievement and increasing student well being. It is in this realm where we learn to think about education in terms of the forest, despite our hyper focus on the trees.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is such an example. CASEL (Collaborative For Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) is the leading organization working to build demand and capacity for SEL. Their work ranges from network building to conducting research to policy advocacy. Below is a graphic (source here) illustrating what they define as the core competencies for SEL.


Additionally, they published a meta-analysis of research titled, “The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning” (download it here). The meta-analysis concluded:

The reviews indicate that SEL programs:

  • Are effective in both school and after-school settings and for students with and without behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Are effective for racially and ethnically diverse students from urban, rural, and suburban settings across the K-12 grade range.
  • Improve students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, connection to school, and positive social behavior; and reduce conduct problems and emotional distress.
  • Improve students’ achievement test scores by 11 percentile points.

It all demonstrates that we must think more holistically about students, learning, and the ecology of education. Simply working to improve math and reading test achievement falls far short of ensuring that our students are healthy, safe, engaged, challenged, and supported in the ways that matter most to their long term personal “achievement.”

Special thanks to Jackie Gerstein, whose post “Video Games and Social Emotional Learning” first pointed us to this chart.

This is a part of an ongoing series exploring components of our Transformational Learning Model. This piece relates to Academic Access, Curriculum Frame, Curriculum Goals, and Student Support.

Photo Credit: Today is a good day via Compfight cc



  1. Great post on social and emotional learning. Unfortunately, you created a distraction from the topic by suggesting a false dichotomy between an environment that supports social and emotional learning and one that supports accountability measures. NCLB rules call for a minimum standard for all students in basic math and literacy. As such, it is the floor, not the ceiling for educational objectives. Ironically, many schools that are particularly good at preparing students academically, using testing scores and other proxies such as college completion, also have good reputations on intangibles. Children who are left in the basement academically are guaranteed struggles in other areas as well. Being well-educated academically is an important contributor to maturity, sound decision-making, and robust coping strategies for life. We are need both.

    • Thanks for the comment, Kathleen. I appreciate the push back.

      I should clarify that this post is not in opposition to accountability, though I do take issue with the gravity given to high stakes assessment batteries. The challenge is that we might be talking about a chicken and egg tension rather than a dichotomous one (though, perhaps I did not make that clear enough in my post). The communities that are largely able to meet the proxy needs as well as the academic needs are often representative of both ethnic majorities and socio-economic stability. That does not mean those are requisite for success in schools, I think it does mean we need to rethink how we approach meeting the basic needs of students who enter schools in our most impoverished communities. (Here I think of Maslow’s hierarchy.)

      In the recent piece in the NYTimes, “The Secret to Fixing Bad Schools” (, the author explores the turn around at Union City schools and writes, “Wherever I went, these schools felt less like impersonal institutions than the simulacrum of an extended family.” It is this that I feel we need to tap more into for all of our schools, especially those in urban and rural environments where poverty is rampant.

      How do we first and foremost make our schools safe havens for students — emotionally, physically, socially, and academically — especially in communities where instability and a lack of safety are pervasive? Of course academics are important, but before they can succeed at reading, writing and arithmetic, the students must sense that they are cared for, deeply and truly, by the adults there. If the focus is primarily on accountability, I think we miss the opportunity to create co-collaborative environments where students feel the school reflects their hopes, dreams, and affinities. In many communities, these students need to know that school supports their well-being in totality, and academics is but one piece of that.

      That said, I very much agree with you: we are in need of both well rounded academics and factors that contribute to whole child maturity. If I made those sound dichotomous, my apologies. Cheers.

  2. Make that…We ALL need both.

  3. What this post points to need not be as complicated sounding as Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies. We are simply discussing values. Our current focus on achievement is emphasizing the value of education as a means to and end; education is only as useful as it gets me something. This is not to say that we should not have accountability measures or not encourage achievement, but we must seriously reflect upon the values that are being instilled through this process. Education ought to encourage values of reflection, critical thinking, and empathy which are all different ways of expressing the competencies given in the above chart. We must reflect upon what we expect an educational experience to affect. Values are inculcated through education whether or not we are intentional about it so we need to be intentional.

    • I agree, Ryan, on a number of your points. 1. Whenever we discuss education (or really any topic for that matter) we are talking about values. 2. Values are communicated even when we try to make education value free (or in the case of teacher evaluation, “value added”). And too many of the values we currently communicate with high stakes assessments run counter to the values we intend them to.

      The trick is in establishing and communicating the demarcations between values we as a society support vs. ones we do not, and understanding what those value translate to in both policy and practice. You mention the values of reflection, critical thinking, and empathy as being essential ones to encourage. I could not agree more. The purpose behind this graphic, or any such values organizer, is really about making concrete what is largely abstract and offering multiple access points for a shared rethinking of what we consider the purpose of education. Would be nice for Mark Twain’s quip — I never let schooling get in the way of my education — to be historical rather than timeless.

      This chart is simply a way to reframe the debate, and hopefully add another grain of sand in shifting the paradigm toward transformational learning practices. Much appreciation for the comment. Cheers.


  1. […] Social Emotional Learning Core Competencies ~ Rethinking…* the definition of academic success. via Q.E.D. Foundation, published February 11, 2013. […]

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