Social emotional learning (SEL) is more important than ever for today’s students, thanks in no small part to the COVID-19 pandemic. But students will also need to master SEL competencies in order to succeed in the workplace.

Whether they’ll be in the physical or virtual classroom, educators across the country tell us they plan to prioritize SEL this year – and for good reason. The upheaval of the pandemic has caused students to feel stress, anxiety, and a lack of community. As they head back to school, they’ll need supports to bolster their overall well-being and, sadly, to manage the impacts of what can only be called trauma. In the long run, pandemic aside, students will also need to master SEL competencies in order to succeed in the workplace.

In the coming weeks, we’ll share a series of articles with resources that teachers, school counselors, and parents can add to their SEL toolboxes. And, since SEL is a lifelong process, we’ll also share a series of articles featuring self-care resources for college students and adults. We’re kicking off the first series with a conversation about SEL that we recently had with Kuder faculty member Dr. Daniel Gutierrez and his colleague Jennifer Niles.

Dr. Gutierrez is the Vera W. Barkley associate professor of education in the counselor education program at William & Mary. His research focuses on issues related to preventing mental health and substance use disorders. Niles is a first-year doctoral student of counselor education at William & Mary whose clinical experience is in elementary school counseling, social emotional learning support, and with children and families in child welfare. Her research interests include school counseling and mindfulness practices.

Let’s start with the basics. What is SEL?

DG: The concept is probably best defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). They describe it as being the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

JN: CASEL also divides SEL into five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. Within each of the competencies, students learn critical skills to more deeply understand themselves and others. When students practice interactions with others, build relationships, identify emotions, and engage in self-reflection and goal setting, they are in the process of social emotional learning.

DG: We like to think of SEL as the skills and competencies that go beyond academics that help individuals live happy, healthy, and successful lives.

What are some of the benefits of SEL?

JN: Evidence suggests that SEL interventions and education can support students’ academic development, mitigate behavior issues, strengthen mental health, and equip students with coping skills. Benefits from SEL programming reach beyond high school and into adulthood.

DG: There is lots of research to support that SEL contributes to better academics – on average, we see that SEL is associated with students scoring 11 points higher on standardized achievement tests, having fewer problems with behavior, lower use of drugs, better relationships, and just overall better attitudes. With adults, we see significant association with them being less likely to engage in criminal activity, engage in less substance use, thrive more at work and in school.

Should social and emotional learning and employability skills be prioritized in schools? If so, why?

JN: The more students practice social, emotional, and employability skills, the more effective workers they will become. Children and adolescents are social beings, and the school setting is their first practice with elements of the world of work. Students are learning about work practices including, but not limited to, responsibility, accountability, and organization. In my experience as a school counselor, I discovered that students across grade levels loved learning about careers, career opportunities, and their own career interests. SEL and career-related programming can help students make the connection between their responsibilities at school and their futures in work.

DG: We also are seeing that jobs that require SEL are far outpacing the growth of other job markets. We see books being released like Daniel Goleman’s latest text on the attributes of successful leaders and they always point to the benefits of social and emotional intelligence. Major companies are catching on to this and we see them [conducting] employee training around emotional intelligence and looking for candidates that demonstrate these SEL skills.

Can schools help equip students with the SEL skills employers are seeking? If so, how?

JN: School communities are a natural environment for students to learn the socioemotional skills necessary for the world of work. SEL education can occur in lessons specifically targeted for SEL content, such as steps for goal-setting, as one example. Additionally, opportunities for practice can be woven throughout daily instruction. Educators can include opportunities for self-reflection by encouraging students to learn or write about personal strengths, talents, and interests.

Simple mindfulness practices, such as breath-awareness or naming emotions can help students to become more aware of their reactions and behaviors, and subsequently facilitate effective decision making. Utilizing group work or pair-and-share activities throughout the day gives students opportunities for effective interactions with their peers, such as conflict-resolution, giving and receiving feedback, and problem-solving.

In what ways can SEL help students be college and career ready?

DG: A major benefit of SEL is continued resilience and the development of problem solving skills, critical thinking, and self-awareness. These are critical skills for college and career. Employers are looking for problem solvers, critical thinkers, innovative leaders, and individuals who have social and emotional intelligence. They need employees who can deal with the stress of changing and challenging markets (especially true during a pandemic). SEL helps with understanding relationships, which further helps with teamwork and cohesion around the workplace. These are invaluable skills.

In terms of college life, the same applies, but I would add that college life is especially stressful these days. Our research has continually shown that SEL helps with preventing stress and facilitating self-care. By preparing students with SEL we prepare them to manage the stress of college life. Additionally, self-awareness and self-clarity helps them to focus and deal with the challenging decisions they have to make while in college. So, ultimately, SEL helps these college students prevent unhealthy behaviors while in college and promotes healthy behavior.

In what ways does Kuder Navigator® support SEL competencies?

JN: There is a great deal of natural overlap between SEL and the tasks Kuder offers for students throughout the Navigator system. For instance, a step like “taking and reviewing the results of the Kuder Career Interest Assessment®” directly connects to the CASEL competency of self-awareness, within which students are gaining accurate self-perception, recognizing their strengths, and growing their self-confidence. When students work through Navigator’s tasks of planning for education or work, they are simultaneously working through CASEL’s competency of responsible decision making: analyzing situations, evaluating, reflecting, and then making informed decisions based on the information they’ve gathered throughout their exploration in Navigator.

DG: Kuder is really an SEL program in many ways. The core of the program is self-clarity, critical thinking, and envisioning a better future. As Kuder says, dream big and plan accordingly. That’s what SEL is about, too. Kuder offers tools that help individuals clarify what they want and then helps them practice making informed decisions with this information. This helps the user practice SEL and develop new SEL strategies.