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Sonoma Family Life Magazine

What’s Social Emotional Learning?

By Pam Moore

“More Goldfish!” my five-year-old demands.

I summon all my patience. “Can you try that again?”

“I’m hungry!”

I take a long blink. “Honey? Can you—”

Her face is still beet red, but her body has relaxed. She takes a deep breath, and then slowly blows the air through her pursed lips. This is the “birthday cake” breathing she learned in kindergarten.

“Mom, can I please have more Goldfish?”

My daughter attends a public school where her teacher is one of a handful of educators integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) into the classroom. 

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, SEL is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” SEL is based on five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. 

With a growing body of research supporting SEL as a driver of academic performance, emotional well-being, and positive school culture, its rising popularity is not surprising.

A 2011 meta-analysis showed students who participated in school-based SEL demonstrated significant improvements in social and emotional skills and behaviors and an 11 percentile increase in academic performance. A 2017 study showed that in addition to increased academic performance, children who engaged in school-based SEL showed higher graduation rates and safer sexual behavior, even 18 years post-intervention. 

While school districts are starting to adopt SEL, it’s not the norm. If your child’s school has yet to embrace it, Jennifer Miller, SEL expert, offers tips for parents.

Create a Plan Miller recommends creating a Family Emotional Safety Plan, so when emotional disaster strikes, you’re ready. It can be as simple as “When mom is angry, she’ll say ‘I need five minutes’ and then she’ll go in her room and shut the door while she cools down.” Explaining the plan in advance precludes your child from anxiously wondering, “‘Why is she leaving me?,’ compounding [their] upset with fear,” says Miller. 

Make a Pledge While family arguments are natural, they’re not always healthy. According to Miller, data support specific types of fighting. While particular words, attitudes, and actions can leave emotional scars, others strengthen relationships. Miller’s Fighting Fair Family Pledge sets boundaries on language and actions to avoid (e.g. criticizing, blaming, name-calling), while offering effective alternatives (like taking responsibility and focusing on solutions).

Use Challenges as Learning Opportunities Miller says when faced with parenting challenges, it’s crucial to ask, “What skill does my child need to learn?” While being clear about what behaviors are unacceptable, we must teach our kids how to engage in the practices we do want to see. For example, if your child continually takes her younger sister’s doll, instead of repeatedly telling her not to, Miller encourages parents to use this situation as a teachable moment. “You might say, ‘You really want to play with your sister’s doll. Let’s see if there are ways we can play that keep everyone happy and also give you a chance with the doll. Hmmm, what could we do?!’ Get your child involved.” You can also have your child teach the behavior to a toy to make the lesson more fun. 

As a parent, I see the benefits of SEL daily. I see it when my daughter chooses deep breaths over screaming when I brush her hair, when she asks her little sister to take turns, and when she tells herself, “I can do it” before attempting the monkey bars. I see it when she says, “Oops. Mistake. I’ll take a deep breath and try again.”

In my daughter’s class, SEL isn’t a separate lesson. Her teacher, Donna Young, infuses it into the classroom culture. Young crouches to make eye contact while greeting each child by name. Throughout the day, the class does calming breathing exercises together. Young strives to model self-regulation. When she falls short, she tells her students what she was feeling, what she did, and what she’ll do differently next time. “This just reinforces that everyone makes mistakes…and it’s okay.”

SEL skills aren’t just beneficial for kids. Young wishes she knew about SEL when her kids were growing up. “If I had had the knowledge and self-awareness that I have now, I would have parented in a different way. I believe I would have had more compassion for myself and my mistakes as a parent of young children.”  

Find more of Pam Moore’s writing at