Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an essential part of all students’ education across all grade levels. But what does that look like at different developmental stages, and how can SEL best support students’ learning and development across PreK-12th grade? SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.
By paying attention to students’ developmental needs, educators can create supportive learning environments and coordinate practices across classrooms, schools, families, and communities to enhance all students’ social, emotional, and academic learning.
This blogpost is part of a three-part series that will address how to promote SEL in elementary, middle, and high schools. In this post, we share an overview of how students develop social and emotional competencies in their elementary years and offer strategies for promoting SEL in elementary classrooms, schools, in partnership with families and communities, and in alignment with middle and high schools.
Students’ social and emotional competencies in elementary school
When children enter elementary school, they bring many social and emotional competencies already developed at home and through their early childhood experiences. Through rich learning experiences, elementary schools can build on these strengths and support students in enhancing their self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills.
An important developmental task for early elementary children is learning to understand and discuss their emotions and thoughts. This awareness helps them continually strengthen their ability to regulate their emotions and focus their attention. Young children are also growing their abilities to understand different perspectives and show empathy for others.
In later elementary years, children build upon these competencies to begin forming a clearer sense of who they are, defining goals and plans, and navigating challenges more independently. Students are also starting to become more aware of different social norms as they build stronger friendships and bonds. They are developing their problem-solving strategies, learning how their actions can impact others, and beginning to understand how they can take actions to address bigger issues in their schools or communities.
Based on an understanding of how students develop and coordinate these competencies together, many districts and states have established learning standards to help articulate what students should know and be able to do at different grade bands. For example, currently all 50 states have standards for Early Childhood Education and a growing number have standards for K-12 (details on the standards by state). Below are a few examples from state and district SEL standards at the elementary school level; click each link to see the full set of standards.
- Washington State Early Learning and Development Guidelines Birth through 3rd Grade: Identify the importance of being a member of one’s cultural group(s).
- New York State SEL Standard for late elementary: Describe personal strengths/skills and interests that one wants to develop.
- Wisconsin SEL Competencies for 1st-3rd grade: Learners will begin to be able to, with adult guidance, focus their attention by demonstrating a variety of strategies to tolerate distractions.
- Michigan SEL Competencies for 3rd-5th grade: Identify resources that help them achieve their goals, i.e., home, school, and community support
- Florida Early Learning & Developmental Standards for Kindergarten: Develop sense of identity and belonging through play.
- Illinois SEL Standards late elementary benchmark: Identify differences among and contributions of various social and cultural groups.
- Tennessee K-12 Social and Personal Competencies Grade K-2 indicator: Identify multiple types of relationships they have with others.
- North Dakota SEL Goals for Grades 3-5: Analyze social situations at home, school and in the community.
Responsible decision making:
- Austin Independent School District SEL Standards K-2 skills: Stand up for a friend/peer and let others know when a person is being treated unfairly.
- Cleveland Metropolitan School District SEL benchmark for 5th grade: Plan and implement a service project in your community.
Promoting students’ SEL in elementary school
During elementary school, social and emotional competencies can be intentionally taught and applied through learning experiences that are shaped around students’ developmental needs and built on their unique strengths. It is also important to foster engaging and culturally affirming learning environments that support and challenge all students at the appropriate levels.
Implementing an evidence-based program that aligns with local elementary SEL standards is the best way to ensure all students have consistent opportunities to learn and practice social and emotional competencies. SEL programs can span classroom-based instruction, schoolwide practices, family engagement, and community partnerships. Look for programs that offer sequenced and connected activities that build upon developmentally appropriate skills, engage students in active forms of learning, focus specific time and attention on skills development, and are explicit in defining the social and emotional skills they attempt to promote. (Review evidence based elementary SEL programs.)
SEL programs are best supported when the practices and principles of SEL are infused across all classrooms, integrated schoolwide, and in partnership with families and communities:
In classrooms, SEL can be promoted in a variety of ways, including through explicit instruction, integration throughout academic curriculum, instructional strategies that offer opportunities to practice social and emotional skills, and through the classroom relationships and overall climate. For example, teachers in early elementary grades might use read-aloud stories to give students an opportunity to discuss characters’ emotions and how those emotions affected others. (See additional examples of SEL in elementary English Language Arts and Math.)
Schoolwide, students also have opportunities to develop and apply social and emotional competencies in the lunchroom, hallways, and during recess. It is essential that programs, practices, and policies that students experience align with and reinforce SEL. This includes making sure that all student supports for behaviors and academics are aligned with SEL goals. For example, consider whether behavior expectations for moving through the hallway offer students opportunities to practice social awareness and relationship skills. See how one elementary school in Chicago Public Schools creates a schoolwide approach to SEL.
Because elementary students are constantly learning from how adults model social and emotional competencies, it is also important to support all of the adults who interact with students in developing skills for promoting students’ SEL, as well their own strategies for managing stress, building relationships, and solving problems.
Families are children’s first teachers and play a big role in elementary students’ lives. That is why it is especially important for elementary schools to partner closely with parents and caregivers to inform SEL goals and plans that are responsive to their children’s unique strengths, needs, and cultural and linguistic background. Elementary educators can build relationships with families by sending positive notes home about students’ academic or SEL growth, asking families to share their expertise about how their students learn best, and inviting families to participate in SEL learning opportunities in the classroom or during family events. (See additional strategies for partnering with families around SEL, and how Washington State Early Learning and Development Guidelines Birth through 3rd Grade incorporate the roles of families.)
Community Partnerships offer continued learning and relationship-building opportunities through extracurricular activities, mentoring, tutoring, etc. When schools and community partners create shared language and coordinate on SEL strategies, they can create a more seamless learning experience for students. For example, Dallas began a collaboration between the school district, park district, and nonprofit organizations focused on supporting SEL across in-school and out-of-school time. Through this partnership, they developed an out-of-school time SEL curriculum aligned with the district’s elementary SEL goals.
Aligning elementary SEL to middle school and high school SEL
Strong social and emotional skills in early childhood and early elementary years can lead to positive long-term outcomes, including higher graduation rates in high school and college. To maximize the benefits, it is important to consider how elementary school SEL opportunities will prepare them for middle and high school, when they will likely experience more academic challenges, deeper peer relationships, and new frustrations and opportunities.
Potential next steps for elementary school teams:
- Review district or state SEL standards or learning goals to map out how students’ SEL opportunities can progress from PreK-12th grade.
- Review any SEL programs and practices used in the middle and high schools and how well they build upon SEL opportunities in elementary school. Bring together elementary SEL leaders with middle and high school SEL leaders to plan alignment.
- Align elementary SEL practices to the district’s long-term vision or graduate profile.
- 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 elementary SEL goals and continuously improve implementation.
By attending to students’ developmental needs and aligning to long-term goals, elementary schools can create a strong foundation for student’s SEL throughout their educational experience and lives.
This blog was authored by Justina Schlund from NCSSLE partner CASEL.