Social Emotional Learning Competencies—What They Are and How To Teach Them

Many U.S. states include social and emotional learning standards in their administration. All these states implement the SEL standards differently, but not all schools teach the core SEL competencies.

Social and emotional learning needs to be present in schools so that students can develop social and emotional intelligence. It enables students to realize their potential by:

  • Seeking opportunities
  • Applying and sharpening their skills
  • Meeting new people through collaboration
  • Achieving their personal and academic goals

When students acquire social and emotional learning competencies in the classroom, and the school’s administration demonstrates them in their operation, the school culture is positive, and the entire community benefits.

If you want your students to be successful in college, choose their careers wisely, and use their voice and agency to thrive in life and contribute to society, teach them core SEL skills.

Let’s learn what social and emotional competencies are, why they matter in K-12 education, and how you can teach them to students consistently.

What Is Social and Emotional Learning?

Credit: Hal Gatewood

Social and emotional learning is the concept that supports the teaching of soft skills needed to raise students’ social and emotional intelligence. As health and financial literacy classes are essential for students’ growth, so are the activities that help them develop SEL skills. SEL enables students to succeed in their careers after high school.

Acquiring social and emotional competencies helps students be:

  • Aware of their skills, talents, and knowledge
  • Proud to know they can improve through effort
  • Able to find the root of their student anxiety and experience less stress as a result
  • Responsible decision-makers
  • Willing to learn about the world and integrate themselves into it
  • Empathic toward others in and outside their culture
  • Competent to take on leadership roles
  • Pleased to offer and accept help

Incorporating SEL into a school’s administration and its curriculum also contributes to the school’s equity and diversity. When everyone has common goals and is open to communication and collaboration, the school is a safe environment for its students.

One of the leading organizations in the country that promotes SEL in K-12 education is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. CASEL provides resources for educators, counselors, and school administrators to learn about SEL and implement its principles in schools. The organization partners with many states and connects experts and practitioners to help schools set SEL standards in their policy and educate their teachers on what SEL is and how to promote its competencies to students.

Social and Emotional Learning—Core Competencies

The SEL competencies are skills that students need to acquire during their education to develop social and emotional intelligence.

CASEL defined five social and emotional learning competencies:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Responsible decision-making
  4. Social awareness
  5. Relationship skills


Self-awareness represents the ability to recognize one’s:

  • Values
  • Skills and competence
  • Ambition
  • Influence on others
  • Thoughts
  • Emotions
  • Behavior

Even though it may seem easy to be self-aware, it takes time and conscious effort to acquire this competency. Many people aren’t aware of their inner desires and emotions that drive their reactions and behavior in different contexts.

Only truly self-aware people can teach the importance of self-awareness to others and set the example for how to achieve this competence. This is why it’s so important that not only teachers but everyone working in a school practices social and emotional intelligence. Only then can schools:

  • Include SEL activities in its classrooms
  • Demonstrate SEL competencies in their administration

When students know about self-awareness and try hard to achieve it, they benefit in many ways. For example, if they have social anxiety, recognizing that they are anxious because they are afraid of other people’s judgment and have the need to be liked by their peers helps them deal with it. Recognizing why their social anxiety acts up in school allows them to form healthy coping strategies to manage it.

Self-awareness also implies that students know what activities fulfill them and, based on that, they can set long-term career goals. Realizing what their strengths and passions are, they are motivated to seek those opportunities that reflect their interests and help them hone their talents. The experience they acquire helps them choose what colleges to apply to. 


Self-management is the ability to control one’s actions in different situations and environments.

Self-management is related to self-awareness. People who possess self-management skills can control their behavior because they are aware of the thoughts, emotions, and beliefs that drive that behavior.

Students who practice self-management can:

  • Link their thoughts and emotions to their behavior
  • Decide whether to act in a certain way rather than make impulsive choices
  • Empathize with others since they relate to what others are feeling
  • Be patient with others and with achieving their own goals

This competence also enables students to set clear objectives and be productive in achieving them. Since they know what they value and what ambitions they harbor, they are motivated to go through with their goals. Self-management—knowing how their behavior and habits impact them—helps students make plans and stick to them. They are not easily frustrated when they suffer a setback but remain focused and intent on fulfilling their goals.

Responsible Decision-Making

Credit: Eliott Reyna

Responsible decision-making is a crucial soft skill high school students need to develop. Being able to make responsible decisions means that students will consider the consequences of their actions before they act. They will take into account the ethics, social norms, and feelings of others rather than do anything impulsively.

Of course, decision-making goes beyond just thinking before saying or doing something on social occasions. Students should learn to make wise choices so they can work on themselves, pursue the opportunities that are right for them, and avoid actions that don’t benefit them. For example, when teens experience severe depression, they:

Being self-aware and knowing how to make responsible decisions enables students who go through depressive episodes to seek help. They think ahead and make choices that will prevent negative outcomes.

When you teach high school students how to make responsible decisions, go through every part of the decision-making process with them. Check out the table below to see what parts the decision-making process consists of and the examples of each as seen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Decision-Making Process

Decision-Making in “Hamlet”

Identifying the problem

Hamlet’s father was slain, and the prince needs to avenge him

Considering alternatives

Hamlet can take his own life, check the validity of the ghost’s claim, go into exile like Claudius wants, or avenge his father

Forming a plan

Claudius needs to die

Implementing the plan

Murdering Claudius in a duel

Evaluating the outcome

Insecurity and procrastination proved tragic for Hamlet and many people around him, but Horatio is there to draw the moral of the story

Decision-making is also a skill that’s highly desired in job candidates and enables your students to be valued employees and become leaders and business owners one day.

Social Awareness

Teaching students social awareness helps them understand the world they live in. Social awareness represents the knowledge about the social norms that drive people’s needs and behaviors.

This competence also encompasses the understanding of world cultures. Students learn the cultural make-up of people who come from all backgrounds and can understand their values, beliefs, and social behavior.

Social awareness helps your students to:

  • Be humane
  • Interact with the world around them
  • Understand nonverbal communication
  • Communicate with people of the same and different cultures effectively
  • Respect and empathize with others even when they can’t relate to them
  • Develop a positive attitude toward people
  • Network in professional environments

Relationship Skills

Credit: Eliott Reyna

Students need to form strong relationship skills to achieve success and happiness. 

Relationship skills enable students to share, understand other people’s needs, and work in a team with their peers. 

When you encourage students to achieve this SEL competency, they learn to:

  • Ask for help when they need it
  • Offer help to others even when it’s not asked for directly
  • Resolve conflicts
  • Communicate their ideas clearly
  • Listen attentively without interrupting people
  • Avoid projecting their beliefs onto their interlocutors
  • Accept others even when they can’t get along with them
  • Form strong relationships at school and in life

How To Teach the Components of Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom

The most effective way you can ensure students develop social and emotional intelligence is by demonstrating it with your behavior, classroom rules, and classroom practices. That said, it is as important to teach students what SEL competencies are and help them develop those skills through activities.

Here are some ideas for classroom activities you can do to encourage students to develop social and emotional learning competencies:

  1. Define what SEL competencies are
  2. Have reading sessions
  3. Encourage students to journal
  4. Promote growth mindset
  5. Instruct students to set goals and track their progress
  6. Include teamwork activities

Define What SEL Competencies Are

For your students to develop social and emotional intelligence, they need to put in conscious effort into acquiring SEL competencies. Only by making sure your students understand what SEL is and how it benefits them can you enable them to truly achieve self-awareness, self-management, or relationship skills.

Dedicate lessons to explaining to students all SEL competencies and why it’s so important that they develop them. Use as many real-life examples as you can and invite your students to come forth and share their understanding of the theory.

You should also make it plain to your students that you will do activities that support SEL standards regularly so they know what to expect.

For students to adopt some core SEL values, you need to demonstrate the values through examples but also use visual reminders. Create a set of rules and put it on a poster you can hang in your classroom. Here are several examples for the classroom rules that reflect SEL competencies:

  1. Don’t interrupt others when they speak
  2. Think twice before you say something offensive
  3. Put yourself in the shoes of others when a conflict arises
  4. Let others contribute to a teamwork project
  5. Figure out why you are feeling stressed or anxious and ask for advice

Have a Reading Session

Credit: Sarah Noltner

If you are looking for fun ways to teach reading, here’s an amazing idea. Let your students tell you what fiction novels they love. Determine what piece is the most popular in your class and instruct all students to read it. When everyone is familiar with the work, your students need to analyze and discuss the characters’ arcs and their: 

  • Motives
  • Needs
  • Inner and interpersonal conflicts
  • Decision-making strategies

When you go through some of the main characters’ struggles, emotions, and thought processes, instruct your students to reflect on them by writing an essay. The paper should be personal, and your students must elaborate on the aspects of the characters they relate to. For example, if a character struggles to express their emotions in words, a student with the same tendency should reflect on that in their essay. They can write about where they believe the struggle comes from and whether they can learn something from the character. 

This reading and writing exercise helps your students practice self-awareness, learn about conflict management, and empathize with others. 

Encourage Students To Journal

Regular journaling is the best way for students to reflect on their thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Encourage students to keep a journal by elaborating on the benefits of the process. Tell students that journaling helps them:

  • Become aware of their thoughts and emotions
  • Find the cause of their stress and anxiety
  • Realize why they behave the way they do in different situations
  • Recognize and pursue the activities that lift their mood 

Even though you can’t ask students to share their entries with you, you can have a classroom discussion on journaling. Instruct everyone to share their experience by asking what keeping a journal taught them about themselves.

Promote Growth Mindset in Your Classroom

Growth mindset activities for high school students encourage social and emotional development. When your students have a growth mindset, they:

  • Know they can improve their skills and knowledge through effort and experience
  • Seek opportunities for learning actively and independently
  • Can stay positive even when they feel the world around them is collapsing
  • Take responsibility for their happiness and achievements
  • Look up to peers who thrive instead of harboring jealousy toward them
  • Are motivated to achieve their goals
  • Embrace challenges that teach them new skills

Teach your students that their mindset isn’t static. When you do, make sure you do growth mindset activities in the classroom to help them develop a positive outlook on self-growth and learning.

Instruct Students To Set Goals and Track Their Progress

Setting goals regularly is a healthy habit that promotes both the development of a growth mindset and social and emotional learning competencies.

Encourage your students to start putting their responsibilities on paper or write them electronically. Students should start small and set goals that they accomplish regularly, like doing physical exercises, studying for a test, or writing a school paper.

The main part of the activity is that students track their progress. Tell them to note any struggles they had, whether they procrastinated and why, and what goals were the easiest and the hardest for them to achieve.

This activity creates the habit of setting goals. Students benefit from always having a goal they need to achieve through effort. It teaches them the importance of finding motivation and having ambitions. The habit also helps your students realize what their work style is, what distracts them, and how they can avoid stressors when performing responsibilities.

Organize Teamwork Projects Regularly

Successful cooperation is a key component of social awareness and relationship skills. Help your students develop strong teamwork skills by instructing them on how to set shared goals and contribute to achieving them. 

By including teamwork activities in your classroom frequently, you teach students the importance of:

  • Listening to others
  • Using their voice and agency to be heard and understood
  • Taking on the role of the leader and guiding others
  • Helping each other when a common goal needs to be accomplished
  • Accepting others even when they don’t like them personally

What Is a Social and Emotional Learning Wheel?


CASEL created a social and emotional learning framework to help schools implement SEL standards in their classrooms and administration and through partnerships. The framework is represented as a wheel to demonstrate that SEL has five core competencies and takes place in different settings.

Check out the table below to see the different contexts in which SEL needs to be present for the concept to take root in a school’s district:

Settings in Which SEL Is Present

What Schools Do


Teachers educate students about SEL and include activities that develop social and emotional intelligence in the curriculum


All members of a school district contribute toward implementing SEL standards by forming plans, meeting to discuss progress regularly, and reflecting the five competencies in their own behavior

Family and caregivers

Schools involve families and caregivers in the plan to teach students SEL competencies. Families build on the momentum by promoting the SEL values and competencies at home


Schools partner with organizations from the community to give students opportunities to develop social and emotional intelligence through real-life experiences. Community partners also offer additional support and resources to schools and students

Do You Have Any Tips for Teaching Social and Emotional Learning Competencies?

High school students need to acquire social and emotional learning competencies to:

  • Develop a growth mindset toward learning
  • Apply their skills inside and outside of school
  • Find their place in the world through forming multicultural relationships and realizing their personal and academic goals

If you agree with us, we invite you to share your tips for encouraging students to acquire SEL skills. Tell us how you believe schools can further help students develop socially and emotionally, and we’ll share your ideas with our readers.

Let’s all contribute to creating a positive school culture and helping students achieve inner happiness and thrive socially and academically.