Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

SEL/MH Series, Post 1: Are Social and Emotional Learning and School Mental Health the Same or Different?

Recent federal, state, and local education efforts have increasingly focused on fostering the well-being of students (Mental Health America, 2020). Two approaches that have been at the forefront of this movement are social and emotional learning (SEL) and school mental health (SMH). While these concepts share a common goal of promoting students’ emotional and psychological growth, their methods and scopes are distinct. Inconsistent use of the terms “SEL” and “SMH” has led to some confusion among educators, policymakers, and families and may limit the positive potential of each approach. This blog explores both the overlap and distinctions between SEL and SMH, shedding light on how educators and stakeholders can effectively implement both to create a nurturing and supportive learning environment for students.

This blogpost is part of a three-part series exploring myths related to social and emotional learning (SEL) and mental health. This first post, authored by NCSSLE partners at the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, examines some common misconceptions about the relationships between SEL and mental health. The additional blogposts in this series examine whether SEL and mental health are the business of schools, and the misconception that SEL and mental health supports in schools are just for students.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

SEL refers to a structured approach designed to equip students with the essential life skills needed to thrive academically, emotionally, and socially. SEL programming typically focuses on five core competencies:

  1. Self-awareness: understanding one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts
  2. Self-management: regulating emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations to achieve goals and aspirations
  3. Social awareness: understanding the perspectives of and empathizing with others, including those from diverse backgrounds
  4. Relationship skills: establishing and maintaining healthy, supportive relationships and effectively navigating settings with diverse individuals and groups
  5. Responsible decision-making: making caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations

The primary objective of SEL is to enhance students’ social and emotional skills, leading to improved academic performance, reduced behavioral issues, and greater overall well-being. SEL programs often involve direct instruction, group discussions, role-playing, and other interactive strategies to facilitate the development of these specific skills (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL], n.d.)

School Mental Health (SMH)

SMH refers to providing comprehensive mental health services and supports to students. SMH services and supports are typically organized within a multitiered system of supports (MTSS), from Tier 1 universal mental health promotion initiatives for all students to Tier 3 targeted interventions for students showing impairment from a mental health condition (Hoover et al., 2019). SMH involves a collaborative effort among school staff, mental health professionals, families, and the community to promote positive mental health and to effectively identify and address mental health challenges. Comprehensive SMH efforts also assess and address the social and environmental factors that can influence mental health. SMH initiatives recognize that students’ mental health directly impacts their academic performance and overall quality of life.

Overlap Between SEL and SMH

Despite their differences, SEL and SMH share some common components:

  • Holistic approach: Both approaches adopt a holistic perspective, considering a student’s emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Both recognize that academic performance can be impacted by mental health and emotional struggles, and both aim to address these underlying issues.
  • Prevention orientation: Both approaches recognize the significance of prevention and early intervention. SEL is a proactive, strengths-based approach to support students’ social and emotional development. When it comes to mental health supports, by identifying emotional and mental health challenges in their early stages, educators and mental health professionals can provide timely support and prevent potential escalation of problems.
  • Emotion regulation: Both approaches aim to help students develop emotion-regulation skills, which are crucial for effectively managing stress, anxiety, and other emotions. Both encourage students to identify and manage their emotions constructively, fostering an environment conducive to learning and personal growth.
  • Positive school climate: Both approaches seek to create a positive and inclusive school climate. SEL instruction and SMH supports and services both contribute to learning environments where students feel safe, supported, and accepted.
  • Equity focus: SEL and SMH both have an intentional focus on promoting equitable and just school environments that support all young people. Both aim to increase the accessibility and equity of education and health.

Distinctions Between SEL and SMH

Because middle schools are building upon social and emotional competencies developed in elementary school and creating a foundation for high school SEL, it is important to align efforts across both the lower and upper grade levels. Middle school structures may vary across districts – for example, they may span 6th-8th grades or 7th-9th grades or be housed within K-8th grade buildings.

Regardless of the exact structure, middle schools are an important time of transition, and SEL can play a critical role in helping students navigate the many changes they experience when they’re leaving elementary schools and as they prepare for high school.

Potential next steps for middle school teams:

  • Develop a middle school graduate profile that aligns with the districtwide vision or high school graduate profile.
  • Review existing SEL programs and practices from feeder elementary schools and consider how middle school SEL efforts can reinforce and extend what students have already learned. If multiple elementary schools are feeding into the middle school, bring all schools together to discuss how best to align SEL practices and develop shared language.
  • Review existing SEL programs and practices at the high school level. Speak with high school leaders to identify what strengths and needs they see, and how middle school SEL can support students in the transition to high school.
  • Identify aligned sources of implementation and outcome data - such as school or classroom climate measures, social and emotional competence assessments, behavior, and attendance data -- that will help measure progress toward middle school SEL goals and continuously improve implementation.

By attending to students’ developmental needs and aligning to long-term goals, middle schools can ensure all students have opportunities to celebrate their strengths, build upon their social and emotional competencies, and feel supported by their relationships and environments. 

Overlap Between SEL and SMH

Although SEL and SMH share similarities, they have distinct purposes and approaches:

Scope of Focus:

  • SEL is primarily concerned with equipping students with social and emotional skills, such as self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship-building skills. It is often integrated into the school curriculum and classroom activities, aiming to enhance overall social and emotional skills and positive behaviors among students.
  • SMH, on the other hand, encompasses a broader range of mental health services and interventions. In addition to promoting mental health literacy for all students, SMH includes mental health prevention for students at risk for mental health challenges as well as more intensive support, counseling, and therapeutic services for students who are experiencing mental health challenges, such as anxiety, depression, trauma, or other disorders.
  • SMH often includes collaborative partnerships with mental health professionals and agencies who are school based and/or in the local community working closely with the school.


  • SEL is typically integrated into the school’s policies, routines, and academic curriculum. Educators, with training and support, incorporate SEL practices into lessons and classroom activities, allowing students to develop social and emotional skills within their learning environment. Teaching SEL competencies to all students can be a universal approach within an MTSS framework.
  • Universal SMH practices, such as mental health literacy or positive behavior promotion, may be implemented by any person in a school setting, including educators and peers. However, SMH services often involve trained mental health professionals, such as school counselors, psychologists, or social workers. These professionals work directly with students who may need individual or group counseling, assessments, or specialized interventions to address specific mental health concerns.


  • The primary goal of SEL is to foster the social and emotional skills of all students, promoting a positive classroom climate, healthy relationships, and overall emotional well-being.
  • The central goal of SMH is to promote the mental health of all students and to provide targeted support and intervention for students who are struggling with mental health issues, helping them cope with challenges, improve their mental health, and ultimately, enhance their overall academic and personal functioning.

Strategies and Examples

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) partners with school districts across the United States as part of its Collaborating Districts Initiative to embed SEL into schools. See CASEL’s District Resource Center to identify strategies and learn from examples in the field. The site offers a priority-setting questionnaire to assess your district’s approach to SEL and which activities to focus on, as well as a Guide to Schoolwide SEL to help schools build on their SEL practices and programs.

The mission of the National Center for School Mental Health (NCSMH) is to strengthen policies and programs in SMH to improve learning and promote success for America’s youth. The NCSMH Resource Center provides examples of how states/territories, districts, and schools build and sustain comprehensive SMH systems that offer a multitiered system of mental health supports in partnership with families and communities. The NCSMH School Health Assessment and Performance Evaluation (SHAPE) System offers districts and schools a free online platform to engage in continuous quality improvement for their SMH systems.


Both SEL and SMH are vital components of a comprehensive approach to fostering positive school climate and nurturing the well-being of students. While SEL focuses on developing social and emotional skills in all students, SMH promotes mental health for all students, supports students at risk for mental health challenges, and provides individualized support and targeted interventions for students facing mental health challenges. By recognizing and understanding the overlap and distinctions between SEL and SMH, educators and mental health professionals can collaborate effectively to create a nurturing and supportive environment that empowers students to thrive academically and emotionally.


This blog post was developed by Dr. Sharon Hoover and Dr. Nancy Lever of the National Center for School Mental Health with input from Erin Wofford.

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