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Social Emotional Learning: what it is and why it matters

What’s the best way to teach Emotional Intelligence to kids? How can we help them develop self-awareness and empathy? And, how can we help them relate better to others?


Social Emotional Learning, or 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.’


(Denham, 1998; Saarni, 1999):

  • Developing emotional awareness – first of their own feelings, then emotions in others

  • Recognising, identifying, or perceiving emotions – as well as understanding what a feeling is, they’ll learn to grasp what facial expressions mean, body language, tone of voice, and so forth. They can attribute these to others, and eventually label these as 'happy', 'angry', 'sad'

  • Describing feelings – as well as naming emotions, they’ll learn how to use emotional vocabulary to convey how they feel

  • Empathising with others’ feelings – related to the above, this will at some point extend to feeling concern when others aren’t A-OK, or feeling sympathy for animals

  • Controlling and managing their emotions – learning (and applying the knowledge) about when it’s suitable to act or react when they feel something

  • Understanding what causes feelings – both in themselves and in others

  • Understanding emotion-behavior linkages – e.g. 'Dad kicked the wall because he’s mad'.


The evidence is clear that Social Emotional Learning does have a positive impact on students’ wellbeing and academic success. Recent reports show that teaching SEL increases academic outcomes by 13%.


There is a steady momentum building in Australia around the SEL movement with the goal to continue to build momentum to ensure all schools have an SEL framework embedded within their school to set children up for lifelong success. Many examples of strong SEL are emerging from schools and systems around Australia.


More in the next edition of e-PhoCuS.


Talitha Treasure

School Counsellor

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