Social and Emotional Learning

Written by John Sailer, research associate at the National Association of Scholars.


In 1994, a group of education professionals met at the Fetzer Institute. They intended to address what every teacher knows: What happens outside the classroom affects how students perform inside the classroom. A student who lacks maturity, no matter how bright, will likely struggle academically. Students who lack self-control and take undue risks harm more than just their own education—they disrupt their classmates’ education too.

In light of these problems—the problems of “risky behavior” and “social-emotional competence deficits”—the Fetzer Group introduced the concept of “social and emotional learning” (SEL). They intended for the framework to be a comprehensive approach to students’ “non-academic” needs. The Fetzer Group, of course, built on earlier attempts to combine character education and an intelligent awareness of students’ circumstances outside the classroom. Proponents of SEL, however, argued that previous approaches failed to address the problem comprehensively. They suggested that schools and school districts should make SEL central to their missions.[1]

SEL denotes a combination of what was once called character education and life skills training. It aims to teach students to manage emotions, set goals, show concern for others, and develop good relationships. The Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning defines SEL using general language: “SEL programming involves implementing practices and policies that help children and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that can enhance personal development, establish satisfying interpersonal relationships, and lead to effective and ethical work and productivity.”[2]Similarly vague definitions abound in the SEL literature. Practically, the SEL model encourages schools to focus on students’ non-academic development—how they relate to their peers, how they respond to their emotions. Sometimes that means establishing “closing routines” at the end of class, so that students can reflect on what they’ve discussed. Sometimes it means scheduling homeroom or “advisory” periods, which allow teachers to discuss ‘life issues.’

SEL spread swiftly through America. Thousands of schools across the country and the world implemented SEL programming. All 50 states adopted preschool SEL standards.[3] But SEL’s ambiguous definition invited “concept creep” and the concept has come to justify ever more ideological activities. Schools and activists in 2021 promote a thoroughly politicized education through SEL programming, which consists of permissive disciplinary practices, a politically charged notion of equity, and student activism in the name of project-based learning.


The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the successor to the Fetzer Group, remains the primary organization devoted to SEL research, resources, and advocacy. CASEL provides both a framework for implementing SEL and a series of recommended practices. Moreover, CASEL has formed partnerships with 20 school districts in the US.[4] CASEL provides the SEL theory; the districts provide the practice and the case studies.

CASEL’s framework promotes five desired skills—or, to use the social-science jargon, “core competencies.” These are the “CASEL 5”: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.[5] Many of the collaborating districts advertise using the CASEL 5, often clarifying what these competencies look like in practice. For example, the Illinois State Board of Education lists hundreds of SEL “performance descriptors,” benchmarks which show what students should learn. For elementary grades, these include “Describe how various situations make you feel,” “Identify tools to manage time better,” and “Plan and implement with other students a service project in your community.”[6]

CASEL recommends yet another framework, the “SEL 3 Signature Practices,” to guide schools as they move from “core competencies” and “performance descriptors” to practice. These practices include “Welcoming Inclusion Activities,” “Engaging Strategies,” and “Optimistic Closures.”[7] A Welcoming Inclusion Activity might be an introduction game, such as a “Greeting Frenzy,” where students are told to greet every other student in the classroom. An Engaging Strategy might include “Socratic Seminars” or “turn-and-talks.”[8] An Optimistic Closure might include asking students what they learned at the end of the day. While these practices can be incorporated in any academic class, they are considered to be especially well-suited for homeroom or “advisory” meetings, daily class periods devoted entirely to students’ non-academic needs.  

That said, there is no single way to implement SEL. The CASEL website lists dozens of SEL programs developed by other organizations.[9] Many of CASEL’s partner school districts list the SEL 3 Signature Practices as just a part of their broader SEL programing. The Guilford County Schools SEL page, for example, provides a list of resources for high school students that includes Breathe Counting Mindfulness Practices for Tweens and Teens and Contemplative Reading.[10] CASEL defines SEL flexibly.

SEL’s flexibility facilitates its use to promote a politicized education.

SEL as a “Lever for Equity” and Transformative SEL

Schools and school districts increasingly emphasize a new theme in their SEL programming: equity. CASEL leads the charge. CASEL now touts the connections between SEL and equity:

While SEL alone will not solve longstanding and deep-seated inequities in the education system, it can help schools promote understanding, examine biases, reflect on and address the impact of racism, build cross-cultural relationships, and cultivate adult and student practices that close opportunity gaps and create a more inclusive school community. In doing so, schools can promote high-quality educational opportunities and outcomes for all students, irrespective of race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and other differences.

This requires that SEL is implemented with an explicit goal of promoting educational equity.[11]

This new focus on equity came after CASEL released its 2018 issue brief on equity and SEL, which explained how schools can evaluate the CASEL 5 competencies through an “equity lens.”[12] The authors list potential “equity concerns” related to each “competency,” along with “potential opportunities” to promote equity. For instance, they warn that the self-awareness competency can be too closely tied to “Whiteness”:

Dominant U.S. cultural norms promote materialism or acquisitive individualism, an orientation associated with health problems and unethical behavior. These norms are even more problematic when wealth and Whiteness are conflated and uncritically accepted as indicators of success. This fosters a sense of White racial entitlement and dominance, as well as negative biases and stereotypes about people of color and those from low-income backgrounds.[13]

They warn that the social awareness competency is similarly flawed: “Students from diverse racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are often placed at risk by the dominant culture of schools.”[14]

The brief therefore proposes the concept of “Transformative SEL,” which is now promoted by both CASEL and many of its partner school districts.[15] Transformative SEL, as the 2018 Issue Brief puts it, “reflect[s] our interest in making explicit issues such as power, privilege, prejudice, discrimination, social justice, empowerment, and self determination in the field of SEL.”[16]

Transformative SEL contains two elements. First, it focuses on examining injustice and on changing systems with “justice-oriented civic engagement.”[17] This focus reorients SEL toward teaching a radical political agenda and promoting student activism. Second, it explicitly emphasizes group identities, above all race. Community building exercises, a hallmark of the SEL 3 Signature Practices, have been racialized: “although these programs and practices can create more inclusive classroom and school settings, it is necessary to explicitly consider issues of race/ethnicity and class to advance an equity-focused SEL agenda.”[18]

Implementing Transformative SEL

CASEL provides guidelines for schools to implement Transformative SEL. Its list of “Guiding Questions” that prompt educators to evaluate their SEL practices through the lens of equity.[19] Many of these questions explicitly encourage teachers to emphasize race, identity, injustice—and action.

In what ways does your identity (race/ethnicity, social class status, gender, language, learning abilities, strengths, interests, etc.) inform who you are as an educator?

In what ways have you taken action to impact change when you recognize inequity in your school? What factors (internal or external) have acted as an enabler or barrier to this agency?

What can what and how you teach center your students and elevate their lived experiences?

How do historic and systemic issues of inequity contribute to your understanding of the root causes of the problems you see?

How can you position yourself to co-construct solutions with students that support their personal and collective well-being?[20]

Elsewhere, CASEL is even more explicit about orienting SEL toward fostering group identity and promoting social justice activism. In March of 2021, CASEL released a brief describing what Transformative SEL “looks like in practice.”[21]The brief identifies three principles: “Centering Students’ Lived Experiences and Identities in SEL Instruction,” “Using SEL Discussions to Validate Student Experiences of Oppression,” and “SEL Instruction as a Space to Encourage Youth to Use their Voice for Social Justice.” The brief encourages using heavy-handed teaching to achieve these goals. One strategy is “Infusing broader social injustice issues into bread-and-butter SEL topics.” Another: “Recognizing youth as emerging social change agents.”

Subordinating Signature Initiatives

The architects of Transformative SEL have subordinated a wide range of SEL’s signature initiatives to social justice activism. Project-based Learning, which “may have the greatest purchase” as a student-centered pedagogy because it emphasizes “lived experience,” now allows students to create “collaborative” solutions to injustices.[22] Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), which requires students to find an issue, research some sort of solution to that issue, and “take action” to resolve the underlying problem, is “a potential driver of transformative SEL.”[23] Like-minded institutions have already prepared the way. UC Berkeley’s YPAR Hub lists projects perfect for Transformative SEL, such as “Identifying Oppression and Gender Bias in a School Dress Code.”[24] The YPAR Hub also links to Generation Citizen, a nonprofit devoted to action civics.[25]

CASEL now also associates Restorative Justice with Transformative SEL. An issue brief by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a financial supporter of CASEL, suggests that restorative justice is essential to equity in SEL. “Restorative justice practices (RJP),” the brief notes, “are designed to repair harm done to individuals and the community cooperatively. RJP integrates a problem-solving approach to school discipline that focuses on restitution, resolution, and reconciliation.”[26] A school that promotes “restorative justice” as a tool of Transformative SEL and equity, in other words, decreases school detention or suspensions, no matter how justly deserved or necessary to preserve a tranquil learning environment.

Transformative SEL’s advocates impose these subordinations of the SEL curriculum most effectively by “equity” or “cultural competency” training sessions.[27] The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s issue brief notes that “Cultural competence can increase educators’ awareness of their privilege, implicit bias, and microaggressions, and support them in creating conditions where students and families feel a sense of belonging, support, respect, and safety.” [28]  Such training sessions have swiftly become ubiquitous in schools across the country.

Already schools around the country have embraced “SEL as a lever for equity” and adopted the Transformative SEL model.

Transformative SEL in Action

Equity Language

Six of CASEL’s twenty partner districts already explicitly incorporate CASEL’s vocabulary that connects equity and SEL. Several have only begun to incorporate equity language, and satisfy themselves by pointing out that SEL benefits all students and is thus “equitable.” The El Paso Independent School District’s SEL webpage notes that “SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities.”[29] The Austin Independent School District website asserts that SEL is “at the heart of equity-centered systems and structures” and touts how Transformative SEL “intentionally weaves in social justice and empowers students as co-creators of equitable solutions.”[30] Boston Public Schools (BPS) promises to “promote SEL as a lever for equity” and use Transformative SEL “to create safe, healthy, joyful, anti-racist, culturally and linguistically affirming environments.”[31]

Training Sessions

Many school districts now advance the goals of Transformative SEL by means of equity training sessions for both staff and students. These trainings vary in both substance and kind, but they all demonstrate the ideological transformation of SEL. Much of their content is overtly politicized.

The BPS Transformative SEL Action Guide lists five practices which “characterize Transformative SEL,” one of which mandates so-called antiracism training and reflection.[32]  It recommends schools allocate “time for educators to reflect on their identity and identify ways to leverage it for antiracist work.”[33]

The Austin Independent School District (ISD) promotes the merger of SEL and equity training for both students and faculty. Austin ISD’s SEL Implementation Guide states that one of the District’s five SEL priorities is to “Leverage the implementation of Social and Emotional Learning to advance Austin ISD’s commitment to cultural proficiency, inclusiveness, and equity.”[34] The District’s SEL department houses its Cultural Proficiency and Inclusiveness team, which provides a wide range of equity trainings.[35]

The Austin ISD’s website also notes that No Place For Hate, a special designation program run by the Anti-Defamation League, aligns with SEL goals.[36] Elsewhere on the website, the Austin ISD boasts of being the top No Place For Hate school district in the country. The No Place For Hate program calls for an explicit commitment to social justice.[37] Its resource guide lists various activity planning recommendations. One recommendation is to “Move on From Kindness. Schools Need to Foster Social Justice.”[38] The title of another recommendation: “Let’s Get it Right: Using Correct Pronouns and Names.”[39]

Other school districts promote material aligned with the goals of Transformative SEL. The Cleveland Metropolitan School District lists Facing History and Ourselves as one of its three “CMSD Supported SEL Curricula.”[40] CASEL itself recommends Facing History and Ourselves, and Facing History explicitly ties its practices to the CASEL 5 competencies. Facing History further claims that its pedagogy integrates civic education, teaching for equity and justice—and social and emotional academic development.[41] CASEL in turn notes approvingly that Facing History explicitly emphasizes on race and identity, as “a program designed to integrate issues of race/ethnicity into regular social studies and language arts instruction.”[42]

Action Civics

Many school districts promote action civics as a way to promote Transformative SEL. The Boston Public Schools Action Guide recommends action civics as “one opportunity for youth to contribute to positive community change”—and provides a link to the website of the action civics nonprofit Generation Citizen.[43] Facing History and Ourselves also lists action civics as one of its key practices.[44] Its From Reflection to Action Toolkit offers a template for a group social action project. After teachers give “an overview of the social action project at the start of the school year,” students are encouraged to reflect on and gather “information about issues—as well as types of and tools for activism.” The project follows the basic action civics framework: “Identify a problem,” “Come up with a solution,” “Identify action tools,” “DO SOMETHING.”[45]

Restorative Disciplinary Practices

CASEL partner districts frequently cite restorative disciplinary practices as an SEL tool. The Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) Office of Social & Emotional Learning, “in collaboration with the Embrace Restorative Justice in Schools Collaborative,” aligns “Restorative Practices and Social Emotional Learning.”[46] “Restorative discipline” eschews punishments as part of school discipline, with predictably disastrous results.[47]

Both school districts and CASEL point to the implementation of restorative practices as evidence for the success of SEL. But CASEL’s guide to implementing restorative practices includes no way of assessing whether they actually have a positive effect on school discipline; it measures success by how well restorative practices have been implemented, not by any consideration of whether they should have been implemented.[48]

Conclusion and Recommendations

Social and Emotional Learning, both as a general goal and as a detailed teaching framework, has become ubiquitous in America’s schools. Many administrators and teachers implement SEL practices without ever explicitly acknowledging the framework. Many teachers conduct Socratic Seminars and introduction activities on their own initiative. Some critics question the value of all such SEL programming.[49] Those objections are worth exploring, but an evaluation of SEL in general is beyond the scope of this brief.

Whatever the value of the original form of SEL, educators increasingly have remodeled SEL, now avowedly Transformative, to promote highly politicized instruction. This instruction includes training students in political activism, implementing restorative disciplinary policies, and promoting politically charged curricula—all in the name of social and emotional wellbeing. 

NAS therefore offers the following recommendations to parents and policymakers.

Demand transparency in all SEL training and curricula. Social and emotional learning remains a general framework, and it aims at general goals, which are open to a wide variety of interpretations. As a framework for schools, it includes goals such as “social awareness” and “responsible decision-making.” A CASEL employee describes SEL as “a lifelong process of learning how to better understand ourselves, connect with others, and work together to achieve goals and support our communities.”[50] Such terms are susceptible to concept creep. Does “responsible decision-making” simply denote good discipline—or the decision to rally for a political cause? Does “social awareness” mean elementary compassion for one’s peers—or does it involve substantive political commitments? Too many schools, districts, and curriculum developers offer substantive and politically biased answers to these questions. Parents should demand transparency from their schools so they can know what is being taught to their children in the name of SEL.

Reassess the value of SEL programming. No American school confines itself to purely academic instruction. Schools inevitably teach broader life skills. Some schools take a unified approach to that training, which strikes many as sensible. This was the original intent of SEL programming, and it remains the intent of much SEL practice. Parents, however, might rightly question whether every program designed to foster “responsible decision making” and “social awareness” actually achieve those goals, and whether such programs constitute a productive use of school hours. Teachers, school leaders, and policymakers often think of schools as a tool to solve problems that are ultimately not problems of education. Policymakers should be mindful of this tendency. School is a place for learning, not a cure-all for our societal woes. They should also consider how a more robust family policy might solve many of the problems the schools categorize as “social and emotional health.” But this is a matter for legislators to address, not for school personnel.

Ban action civics in non-academic settings. Advocates for Transformative SEL frequently tout highly politicized action civics pedagogies such as youth participatory action research and other forms of project-based learning. Action civics therefore has spread from the academic to the para-academic, from social studies classes to schools’ SEL homerooms and “advisories.” The Civics Alliance already has recommended that policymakers ban action civics from social studies classes.[51] That ban should ensure that action civics does not find another home in SEL programming.

[1] J. A. Durlak, C. E. Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, and T. P. Gullotta, “Social and Emotional Learning: Past, Present, and Future,” p. 5. In J. A. Durlak, C. E. Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, and T. P. Gullotta, eds., Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning: Research and Practice (New York: The Guilford Press, 2015).

[2] Durlak, et al., “Social and Emotional Learning.” p. 6.

[3] Durlak, et al., “Social and Emotional Learning.” p. 4.

[4] Collaborating Districts Initiative, CASEL,

[5] What Is the CASEL Framework?, CASEL,

[6] Performance Descriptors Social Emotional Learning: Grades 1-5, Illinois State Board of Education,

[7] Social and Emotion Learning 3 Signature Practices Playbook, CASEL,

[8] And see Socratic Seminar, Facing History & Ourselves,; Turning Around a Turn and Talk, The Thinker Builder,

[9] View All Programs, CASEL,

[10] High School Resources, Social Emotional Learning and Character Education, Guilford County Schools,; Breath-Counting Mindfulness Practice Overview for Tweens and Teens, Greater Good in Education,; Contemplative Reading, Greater Good in Education,

[11] Equity and SEL, CASEL,; and see Equity Connections to SEL Competences, CASEL,; Equity Considerations for SEL Implementation, CASEL,; and Equity Resources, CASEL,

[12] Robert J. Jagers, Deborah Rivas-Drake, and Teresa Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning: A Cultural Analysis (2018),

[13] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, p. 4.

[14] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, p. 6.

[15] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, p. 3; How Does SEL Support Educational Equity and Excellence?, CASEL,

[16] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, p. 3.

[17] SEL and Civic Learning, CASEL,

[18] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, p. 10.

[19] Guiding Questions for Educators: Promote Equity using SEL in your School, CASEL,

[20] Guiding Questions for Educators: Promote Equity using SEL in your School, CASEL,

[21] Deborah Rivas-Drake, Enid Rosario-Ramos, Gina McGovern, & Robert J. Jagers, Rising Up Together: Spotlighting Transformative SEL in Practice with Latinx Youth (March 2021), CASEL,

[22] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, pp. 12-13.

[23] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, p. 12.

[24] YPAR Hub, University of California Berkeley,; San Francisco: Student Leadership in The San Francisco School Identifying Oppression and Gender Bias in a School Dress Code, YPAR Hub,

[25] New York: Generation Citizen, YPAR Hub,; Generation Citizen,; Thomas K. Lindsay and Lucy Vander Laan, “‘Action Civics,’ ‘New Civics,’ ‘Civic Engagement,’ and ‘Project-Based Civics’: Advances in Civic Education?” (Texas Public Policy Foundation, 2020), pp. 13-15,; David Randall, Learning for Self-Government A K–12 Civics Report Card (Pioneer Institute and NAS: 2022), pp. 13-15,

[26] D. N. Simmons, M. A. Brackett, and N. Adler, Applying an Equity Lens to Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2018), p. 7,

[27] E.g., “Participants understand the ways in which confidence informs Social Emotional Learning (SEL) developmental learning cycles of students.” Building Confidence for Parents, Equity Workshop Tracks,

[28] Simmons, Brackett, and Adler, Applying an Equity Lens, p. 8.

[29] What is SEL?, El Paso Independent School District,

[30] SEL and CP&I, Austin Independent School Group,

[31] Social Emotional Learning & Instruction, Boston Public Schools,

[32] Rennie Center, “What is Transformative SEL?”, Transformative SEL Action Guide,

[33] Rennie Center, “What is Transformative SEL?”

[34] Social and Emotional Learning Implementation Guide (Austin Independent School District), p. 11,

[35] SEL and CP&I, Austin Independent School Group,; Implementation in Austin ISD, Austin Independent School Group, and Emotional Learning Implementation Guide, p. 7.

[36] No Place For Hate, Austin Independent School District,;

[37] No Place For Hate, Anti-Defamation League,; John Sailer, “No Place For Hate,” Minding the Campus, February 24, 2022.

[38] No Place For Hate Coordinator Handbook & Resource Guide 2021-2022 (Anti-Defamation League), pp. 20-22.

[39] No Place For Hate Coordinator Handbook, pp. 24-25.

[40] CMSD Supported SEL Curricula, Cleveland Metropolitan School District,

[41] Facing History and Ourselves, CASEL,; Our Approach, Facing History & Ourselves,

[42] Jagers, Rivas-Drake, and Borowski, Equity & Social And Emotional Learning, p. 11.

[43] Rennie Center, Back-to-School Blueprint: Planning for a Brighter Future After COVID-19: Rebuilding Community, p. 26,

[44] Facing History’s Approach to Civic Education, Facing History & Ourselves,

[45] From Reflection to Action: A Choosing to Participate Toolkit (Facing History & Ourselves) p. 98,

[46] Chicago Public Schools Restorative Practices Guide and Toolkit, p. 13, Office of Social and Emotional Learning, Chicago Public Schools,

[47] Vince Bielski, “Racially Sensitive ‘Restorative’ School Discipline Isn’t Behaving Very Well,” February 2, 2022, RealClearInvestigations

[48] Restorative Practices and SEL Alignment, Guide to Schoolwide SEL, CASEL,

[49] Anna Miller, Idaho Freedom Foundation: “Social-Emotional Learning, Part 1: The New Age Nanny State,” June 28, 2021,; “Social-Emotional Learning, Part 2: How SEL Became a Vehicle for Critical Race Theory,” June 30, 3021,; “Social-Emotional Learning, Part 3: How Did This Happen in a State Like Idaho?” July 16, 2021,

[50] Justina Schlund, “Social & emotional learning is all the rage; here are 5 smart ways to cover it,” Phi Delta Kappan, May 5, 2021,

[51] Partisanship Out of Civics Act,