Social and emotional learning in schools

Principals, teachers, and the public are increasingly recognising the importance of teaching social and emotional skills to students alongside academic skills. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is gaining increasing attention as one way of promoting the personal skills important for healthy functioning through school - and beyond.

What is social and emotional learning (SEL)?

According to the Collaborative for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (CASEL, 2014) in the United States, SEL involves teaching five competencies to students:

  • Self-awareness (recognising one's emotions);
  • Self-management (effectively managing one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviours);
  • Social awareness (taking the perspective of others);
  • Relationship skills (developing and maintaining high quality relationships); and
  • Responsible decision making (making constructive choices in behavioural and social interactions).

Importantly, SEL can be taught in various ways, such as embedding it in the curriculum, running a standalone program, or implementing it as a school-wide effort. In all cases, teachers play a central role in running SEL.

Why does it matter what teachers think of SEL?

Given the increasing interest in the influence of SEL on students, our research team has been interested in knowing whether SEL also impacts teachers. In particular, we wanted to look at teachers' beliefs about SEL.

We focus on teachers' beliefs because beliefs are what drive individuals' actions. Beliefs play a key role in what teachers do in the classroom—including their instructional practices, classroom management, and support provided to students.

In a recent study published in the journal Learning and Instruction (Collie, Shapka, Perry & Martin, 2015), we examined teachers' beliefs about SEL. Specifically, we asked teachers the following questions:

  • How comfortable are they teaching SEL in their classroom?
  • How committed are they to improving their own SEL skills?
  • How much school-wide and principal support do they receive for implementing SEL?

In particular, we were interested in how these three beliefs might combine for different teachers.

What did we find?

With a sample of over 1200 teachers, we found that the three beliefs could be grouped to identify different profiles or types of teachers.

Profile 1 – The SEL Thriver

The SEL Thriver was a teacher who felt comfortable teaching SEL, who wanted to further improve their skills in SEL, and who felt that SEL was well supported at the school. As the name suggests, this type of teacher was faring well with respect to SEL.

Profile 2 – The SEL Advocate

Much like the SEL Thriver, the SEL Advocate was a teacher who felt comfortable teaching SEL and who wanted to further improve their skills in teaching SEL. In contrast, however, the SEL Advocate reported low school-wide support for SEL. Thus, although the SEL Advocate had strong beliefs in SEL, they did not feel SEL was well supported at the school-level.

Profile 3 – The SEL Striver

The SEL Striver did not feel comfortable teaching SEL; however, much like the other two profiles, they were committed to improving their skills. Although they felt there was some support and promotion of SEL at their school, the SEL Striver lacked confidence in teaching SEL.

An important finding was that all teachers were committed to improving their SEL skills. Thus, teachers are keen to develop professionally in this area.

Links with teachers' wellbeing at school

Next, we wanted to see if the profiles impacted teachers' functioning at work. Our interest was on stress and job satisfaction - two factors that are central to teachers' healthy workplace functioning.

Not surprisingly, the results showed that the SEL Thriver was the least stressed and the most satisfied of the three groups. The SEL Advocate and the SEL Striver were satisfied at similar levels by their job.

Of particular interest was that the SEL Advocate was the most stressed of the three groups. In fact, this group was more stressed than the SEL Striver, who reported the lowest comfort teaching SEL.

What these results tell us is that a supportive school is very important for the development of teachers' SEL. The SEL Advocate had high levels of comfort, but low levels of support. In contrast, the SEL Striver had low comfort, but medium support. Thus, support for SEL seems highly important for teachers' wellbeing.

What does this mean for schools and school leadership?

Our results suggest that school-wide and executive support for SEL is crucial. When teachers do not feel supported in their attempts to teach SEL, this means they are more stressed and less satisfied with their work.

The school executive can foster school-wide support for SEL by:

  • Providing teachers with appropriate professional development and ongoing support in SEL;
  • Being committed to SEL and promoting effective social and emotional interactions among all members of the school community;
  • Making sure appropriate and sufficient resources are available for teachers to effectively implement SEL in their classrooms.

For more details on SEL, see the CASEL website. Kids Matter is also an Australian website with further information on SEL.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning [CASEL], (2014). Social and emotional learning core competencies. Retrieved from

Collie, R.J., Shapka, J.D., Perry, N.E., & Martin, A.J. (2015). Teachers' beliefs about social-emotional learning: Identifying teacher profiles and their relations with job stress and satisfaction. Learning and Instruction, 39, 148-157.