Benefits of SEL: Why the SEL Trend is Here to Stay

By Renée

October 8, 2021

5 pillars, benefits of SEL, emotional intelligence, self-management, social and emotional learning, STEAM

One of the newest trends in education is what’s called Social and Emotional Learning or SEL. It prioritizes teaching the so-called “soft skills” to children in order to build empathy, self-control, and emotional recognition. Since SEL began making its way into school curriculum around the country, I’ve heard parents share fears that this is a temporary fad that will be gone before their child sees any of the promised results such as improved academic performance and social relationships. My response to these concerns has always been the same; the benefits of social-emotional learning are proven by results from sound studies that show a significant increase to overall well-being throughout childhood lasting to adulthood.

The reasons for this are many and will be the main topic of discussion today, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that Social and Emotional Learning is not only trending in schools but also in business and science. It’s becoming more of a focus in many industries for a reason. Studies show that it’s actually more important for organizations to be composed of individuals with strong emotional and social skills than typical markers of intellect and performance such as GPA and IQ scores. We have a lot to unpack on this subject today so let’s not waste any time.


What is SEL?

Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL, is a framework for educators to teach children methods for managing difficult and complex emotions and interacting with each other in a respectful, constructive way. The benefits of social-emotional learning focus on improving a variety of important, but elusive skills. Like emotional intelligence, the skills that SEL focuses on are broken down into several pillars. They are: 

—Self-awareness: Recognizing emotions and how they impact behavior. Comparing self-evaluations to peer evaluations is critical to better understand our strengths and weaknesses and our ability to recognize them within ourselves.

—Self-management: Making your emotions, thoughts, and actions work for you in any given situation. Managing stress and difficult emotions. It’s not necessarily about controlling them as it is about learning to navigate and manage them constructively.

—Social awareness: The cross-section between empathy and ethics. Putting yourself in the shoes of another and being up to date on social trends and norms.

—Relationship skills: Listening skills, communication skills, and conflict resolution all coalesce into cultivating meaningful relationships for life.

—Responsible Decision-Making: Balancing all available information, ethics, consequences, and more before making decisions is one of the hardest parts of life, but one of the most necessary skills of a leader.

These skills have not been focused on for students to learn in traditional education. They are things that people in the past were left to figure out on their own. By standardizing a course of education and providing a space to learn these skills and make mistakes without huge consequences, kids can navigate what it means to be a conscious, more engaged person in the world and how they can set their own course in life.

benefits of SEL soft skills infographic

The Benefits of SEL

While some of this may sound too good to be true, academic and scientific research has provided the proof to go along with these claims. All this research points to both long term and short-term benefits of social-emotional learning education. SEL has been proven to help students in a variety of ways, but the specifics include:

—Academic success:

Studies from the CASEL institute and other research show an 11 percentile point increase in grades and better school attendance from kids who were educated with SEL. This is an astounding increase and suggests that the benefits of SEL may improve performance in STEM and STEAM tracks as well. In fact, a pilot study of a group of 25 preschoolers ages 3-5 shows a positive effect of SEL curriculum, when already being implemented, on STEM learning projects.

—Fewer behavioral problems:

These same studies and studies like them have shown that kids with SEL backgrounds were graded better on classroom behavior than kids from traditional education backgrounds. Other studies have shown 10% fewer psychological, behavioral, and substance abuse problems later in life from kids educated with SEL programs.

—Less emotional distress:

Because kids in SEL programs are taught self-care, self-awareness, and self-empathy, they are shown to have better attitudes about themselves compared to other students. Mental health is prioritized in SEL courses and students are given the tools to manage depression and anxiety, increasingly prevalent issues within young adults and teenagers. SEL programs, when implemented well, also give students a strong foundation for better coping with trauma than kids from traditional educational backgrounds.

—Positive social behavior:

SEL education was shown to lead to more positive outcomes in life such as less chance of being influenced by peers to engage in high risk behaviors, bullying or being bullied, incarceration, receiving public assistance, etc. It also helps reduce poverty and improves economic mobility.

—Keeping Pace:

The benefits of SEL and emotional intelligence have both been known for years and their impact is no secret anymore. Receiving an education in these soft skills means kids will be better able to keep up with this global trend. High school and higher education prioritize these skills in their applicants and the professional world looks for them in interviews.  

benefits of SEL little boy graduation cap

IQ Doesn’t Matter as Much as You Might Think

The benefits of SEL sound great, but why should it take time away from the subjects that “really matter?”

This is not an uncommon thing to hear from skeptical parents who believe their child’s GPA and IQ are what will primarily get them into Harvard, and therefore, should be the main focal point. For many, this was the prevailing mode of thought for so many years that it’s hard to break free from this way of thinking. But for people who have studied the most successful, prominent, and influential people in society, the answer is clear; IQ matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. Not only is it not a very good marker of practical intelligence, but it also isn’t a great indicator of success in life. 

Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, now a professor of Human Development in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, states, “Looking at everyday modern life, a practical intelligence example might be, nailing a job interview based not only on your resume but on your ability to navigate a tense situation, communicate effectively, and influence the people you’re talking to.” 

This article from Nautilus analyzed IQ levels from successful people throughout the 20th century and found that while people with high IQ’s often had good jobs, the most successful and intelligent people had fairly typical IQ levels. Many of the winners of the Nobel prize for physics, a notoriously difficult subject, did not have impressive IQ’s and were not members of MENSA and organization that requires a high IQ threshold for entry. It goes into much further detail, but the overwhelming evidence points to IQ alone not being a good indicator for success. 

This idea is further supported by Yale’s research. It claims that IQ does not equip people with skills they need to succeed in life such as critical thinking skills, cognitive biases, and real-world judgments. Nobody is saying that IQ isn’t important, but until very recently it was considered the primary marker of intelligence, which is simply not true. EQ is supposed to be the counterbalance to IQ. It measures the immeasurable through rigorous evaluations. All this goes to show that IQ is becoming less important in the eyes of many and many are refocusing on achieving a balance between EQ and IQ, including places of higher education.


A Positive Trend 

Evidence of the true lasting benefits of social-emotional intelligence won’t come from me or anyone else publishing articles about it on the Internet, it will come from institutions of higher education leaning away from focusing on an applicant’s demonstration of high IQ and gravitating more towards focusing on an applicant’s demonstration of high EQ. 

Already, in the last decade or so, we’ve seen colleges and universities across the country consider applicants’ SAT and ACT scores (a traditional marker of IQ and intellectual performance) as less important than other markers of intellectual potential. Some schools prefer the omission of standardized test scores altogether and instead consider the candidate’s interviews, essays, amount of extracurriculars the applicant participated in, and anything else that gives them the whole picture. There is no longer one score or number you can count on getting you into Ivy-league universities across the country.  

And based on the evidence, it’s hard to deny the benefits of Social and Emotional Learning in our schools and beyond is anything other than a necessary, positive trend. Basically, it’s a trend towards greater Health and Wellness, in general, in our schools, families, businesses and communities. In the scenario with admissions to colleges and universities, it has the potential to alleviate the socio-economic barrier to higher education that the ACT/SAT’s often acted as and  is a push towards considering the entirety of a person’s personality, rather than requiring them to reach certain thresholds that not everyone can reach. The goals of this undertaking are noble and are trying to make the system more transparent and inclusive, rather than making more barriers to entry.


I hope this article and others like it have proven the value of SEL, not just now but well into the future. Although the roots of SEL are as old as ancient Greece, it’s only in the last few decades that the long-term effects of its benefits have been researched and no doubt about it, we’ll hear more about past, current and future studies in the coming years. I find it to be very exciting and now I want to hear from you all. What do you think about SEL? How do you think IQ and EQ match up? And do you see SEL trending into the future as well? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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