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Why SEL Is New Foundation of Education in a Rapidly Changing World

Education needs a foundation upon which our children build their academic lives. This is what social and emotional Learning provides.

Reading, writing, math, social studies, science. These five subjects have formed the traditional foundation of K-12 education in America for ages. If students learn them well, the story goes, they will fare well in the world.

But what if the world is different today than it was when we went to school? What if life is changing faster than we ever imagined? Education needs a more enduring foundation upon which our children build their academic lives. This is what social and emotional Learning, or SEL, provides.

Understanding ourselves

Positive Action SEL challenges students to be the best they can be by showing them not just how to study the world, but how to live in it, gaining knowledge from life experiences that they can’t get out of a textbook.

SEL focuses on self-awareness and self-management. In SEL classrooms, students reflect inwardly and discover the concept of “self” to become more effective independent learners. With a strong sense of self, they grow a strong sense of self-motivation, drive, and grit. 

Teaching students how to understand themselves is vital, but in today’s increasingly technologized world, the learning lives of even the youngest children are affected by global culture and expanding human diversity. If our students don’t know others — in particular, how to live, work, and play with others — high levels of academic achievement may not ensure their lifetime success and happiness. An understanding of self-concept provides the foundation for students to understand others.

That’s why SEL focuses on three other foundational competencies: social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Get along to go along

Instruction in social awareness helps children understand the dynamics of teams, groups, communities, and cultures. Without this foundational knowledge, children grow up in bubbles cut off from the wider world around them, unable to navigate the burgeoning diversity of an increasingly interconnected world.

SEL teaches students how to create and sustain healthy relationships across all racial, cultural, political, and socio-economic fault lines. If ever there was a time in our nation’s history when people needed to get along, that time is now, and SEL is the subject that teaches children how.


Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship skills are vital, as long as students use these skills to make good choices in their lives. Here again, SEL is the key because it focuses sharply on the essential life skill of responsible decision-making.

In one sense, our lives are the sum of the choices we make. If we want students to live good lives, then we need to teach them how to make good choices. In school, the most important choice students make is the choice to learn.

Even when children are very young — and certainly as they stretch into their tween and teen years — as each learning opportunity presents itself, they choose whether to learn or not. For most students, this choice is not a conscious one, but in SEL classrooms, students are taught to bring consciousness to the choices they make and awareness to the results they achieve — good and not-so-good — as a result of their actions.

Soft skills

To many people in our society, SEL seems like it’s all about so-called “soft” skills, as though these types of skills are not as powerful or valuable as skills students learn in reading and math. And yet, SEL programs have been shown, in randomized controlled studies, to contribute to significant academic gains in reading and math.

Soft skills are proving to be the most important skills students learn in school, and the keys to a great education in a rapidly changing world. As research in many areas is beginning to show, SEL is the foundation upon which all learning is built.

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