SEL in Schools: Why I Want My Children to Learn More Than Academics


SEL – What is it? For parents, this may be a new acronym around school.  For educators, it is likely a familiar term but not necessarily understood. SEL or Social Emotional Learning has become a hot topic in schools, but has also faced some criticism. For some, it is viewed as a ‘buzzword’ or ‘bandwagon’ or something light and fluffy.

The new curriculum in BC focuses on much more than academic skills.  We now teach competencies rather than just curriculum. This means less memorizing, and more skill building.  Ideally students will develop the core competencies and transfer these skills into all aspects of their life.  These are the core competencies.


So – why have schools made this shift? Why are SEL skills so important?  A child’s ability to self regulate in kindergarten is a better predictor of their success in adulthood than their academic achievement in grade school.  Schools that teach SEL see an improvement in social emotional skills AND an average of 11% increase in a student’s academic performance.  Basically, when we teach kids how to recognize and manage their emotions and care for themselves and others, they are happier children and end up doing better at school.

How can we teach SEL?

SEL skills do not need to be taught as a separate unit – they can be woven into the natural school day.  A wonderful new teacher, and an old student of mine, Lyndsay James,  recently created a blog and PDF files to show how you can teach SEL and address competencies through reading: For other great SEL ideas follow Lyndsay on Twitter at @sd36msjames.  This video shows how SEL can be taught through math: CASEL (Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning) gives great ideas for schools and districts to launch SEL at all levels. 

In Maple Ridge, surveys done at the school and district level have indicated that SEL is the #1 area teachers hope to learn more about to help improve their practice.  As a parent, it’s also what matters most to me.  Yes, I want my children to read and write – but more importantly, I want them to grow up as compassionate, caring and well adjusted individuals who have the skills to manage successful relationships in life.  I would rather my children become happy adults who forget some facts than mathematicians who struggle to relate.

Does SEL belong in schools?

When my own son asked me what SEL is, I went into a two minute speech about everything other than academic content that you learn in schools (managing emotion, working with others, developing friendships, being compassionate, resolving conflict etc).  He looked at me puzzled and said “Isn’t that what parents teach us?”  Yes – in most homes it is – but we now know that 1 in 3 children in BC begin kindergarten ranked as vulnerable in at least one area (health and well being, communication, language / cognitive ability, social competence and emotional maturity) as reported by the Early Years Developmental Index.  It takes a village to raise children. When schools and parents work together teaching SEL skills, we create strong communities of tomorrow.

What if Schools Do Not Teach SEL?

According to UBC professor and SEL expert, Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, SEL is a bit like breathing.  We do it no matter what.  The choice is really whether we want to do it well and intentionally, or if we want to do it in a haphazard way.  Children look up to adults as their role models to learn how to manage emotions.  They will learn no matter what- it’s up to us to decide what kind of example we want to be.  In the Maple Ridge / Pitt Meadows School District we have teamed up with Dr. Schonert-Reichl and graduate student Molly Lawlor to help make SEL a core competent of learning throughout our district.

How can we teach SEL successfully?

Where can schools start?  Some very basic starting points include:

  • Take care of the adults in the building.  Reducing the stress on teachers impacts the learning environment of kids.
  • Start each day with soft starts – say hello, give choice, allow people to check in and get ready for learning.  Programs such as the Zones of Regulation help students identify where they are at and what they need to do to self regulate.
  • Give choice in all lessons.  When students have choice they are able to connect with their learning.  Happy learners achieve more.
  • Remember that all assessment impacts a student’s self worth.  How do you like to receive feedback?  We can all remember moments of shame where we hid our test results or dreaded sharing the news with our parents.  As educators,  how can we help children identify their strengths and find positive ways to challenge their learning?
  • Create a sense of belonging in the staff room, with the parent community, in each class, each school and each district.  When we create a culture of care we set the foundation for learning to occur.

Why Does SEL Matter? 

Simply put, because this is real life.  Schools need to educate the heart and the mind.  When we blend academics and social emotional learning we get happy well adjusted compassionate humans – and this world could use a little more of that.








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