Q&A For Parents: What Does SEL Mean Anyway? | Deborah Farmer-Kris | 3 Min Read

“I don’t like dealing with all the social and emotional drama of middle school,” a first-year teacher vented to me 20 years ago. “I just want to teach science!”

“I hear you,” I told him. “But think of it this way: you aren’t teaching science, you are teaching kids. If we spend time meeting their social and emotional needs, they will be better science students. It’s really hard to focus on the periodic table when your stress response is on high alert.”

Since that time, the term SEL has become a much more ubiquitous part of schools’ language, programs, and teacher training. That said, there are a lot of educational acronyms out there, and parents can’t be expected to know them all! So here’s a quick primer on what schools mean by Social and Emotional Learning.

Good schools recognize that kids bring their whole, complex selves to the classroom. A child’s background, culture, emotional development, and relationship skills will influence how they interact with others, how they perceive themselves, and how they learn. Social and emotional learning is designed to help kids become better at recognizing, expressing, and regulating their emotions — and this, in turn, helps them build stronger relationships with others. 

These skills also lay the foundation for life-long character development. It’s easier to be brave if we have had practice working through our fears. It’s easier to be compassionate when we have learned how to imagine how others might be feeling. And it’s easier to be responsible when we understand our unique role in helping our classrooms, families and communities thrive. 

S: What are Social Skills?

Kids start developing social skills in infancy. Babies look to caregivers for social cues as they learn how to interact with the world. In their preschool years, kids develop a theory of mind — learning that the people they meet have needs and likes and dislikes that are distinct from their own. As they grow older, children and teens develop more sophisticated social skills including perspective-taking, empathy, friendship skills, listening skills, social problem-solving strategies, and civic engagement.

E: What Are Emotional Skills?

My favorite distillation of the key emotional skills comes from Marc Brackett, Director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and creator of the RULER approach. Here is how he describes them in his book “Permission to Feel’”: 

  • R: RECOGNIZE our own emotions and those of…
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Deborah Farmer Kris

A writer, teacher, parent, and child development expert, Deborah Farmer Kris writes regularly for PBS KIDS for Parents and NPR’s MindShift; her work has been featured several times in The Washington Post; and she is the author of the All the Time picture book series (coming out in 2022) focused on social-emotional growth. A popular speaker, Deborah has a B.A. in English, a B.S. in Education, and an M.Ed. in Counseling Psychology. Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris, contact her at [email protected], or visit her website: Parenthood365 (https://www.parenthood365.com/)