What is Social Emotional Learning?

“Soft skills,” or non-cognitive skills, have received a lot of attention over recent years as more and more educators have come to understand how critical these competencies are to students’ success. But understanding what these competencies are, exactly, can be confusing since there are so many terms that describe these skills. Social and emotional learning (SEL), grit, growth mindset, resilience, personalized competencies – these are just a few of the terms being used to describe the non-cognitive factors linked to student success. Learn more about what these terms mean and how they are interrelated.


The Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a thought leader in K-12 education and has brought about much consensus around what SEL means and how to define the competencies included under this umbrella term. CASEL defines SEL as “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.” Further, SEL includes the following competencies that can be effectively taught and developed in a school setting:

  • self-awareness
  • self-management
  • social awareness
  • relationships skills
  • and responsible decision-making

Each of these competencies is rooted in research, and research has demonstrated that they can be developed in a school setting. SEL can be taught in a variety of ways, including:

  • direct instruction through SEL curriculum
  • integration into core curriculum such as reading and math
  • school or district-wide initiatives and practices that promote an SEL climate and culture

Click here to learn more about SEL.


Grit is a term coined by researcher Angela Duckworth and has received a great deal of attention in schools. According to the Character Lab website, grit is “the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals (https://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/motivation). Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions.” Duckworth and her colleagues have conducted numerous studies on grit and have found this construct to be predictive of academic achievement and graduation rates. Click here to learn more about grit

Growth Mindset

For over 30 years, Carol Dweck and a team of researchers have been examining students’ attitudes about failure and their likeliness to bounce back after failure. Dweck coined the term “growth mindset” to describe a positive set of beliefs around learning and intelligence. Her extensive research has demonstrated that when students believe they can get smarter by putting in hard work, they generally put in the extra effort needed to achieve success. Click here to learn more about growth mindset.


Resilience is a term that refers to the ability to succeed in school despite adverse conditions such as poverty, family background, or abuse. Resilience is closely related to SEL, and research shows that students with high resilience tend to have high intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy, prosocial behaviors, a greater ability to manage stress and anxiety, and reduced negative behaviors such as disruptive behavior and aggression. Resilience can be effectively taught in a classroom setting, and all students can benefit from programming that fosters resilience. Click here to learn more about resilience.

Personalized Competencies

A relatively new framework, personalized competencies are related to a personalized learning framework, which tailors the methods, objectives, and content of instruction to meet each individual student’s needs, interests, and preferences. Personal competencies are “an ever-evolving accumulation of related capabilities that facilitate learning and other forms of goal attainment.” Four personal competencies are particularly relevant within a school setting; the categories include: cognitive, metacognitive, motivational, and social/emotional. Teachers can build these competencies in their students through direct instruction, school culture, and instructional practices. Click here to learn more about personalized competencies.

There are a variety of frameworks that measure and teach the non-cognitive factors research has shown to be critical to students’ success. Much work has been done to demonstrate the importance of building these skills in students, yet more work is needed to build collaboration and consensus around these constructs and develop state standards and implementation guidelines in schools.

Learn more about the DESSA Comprehensive System, a standardized, strength-based assessment rooted in resiliency theory and the five SEL competencies defined by CASEL, by speaking to our SEL advisors today.