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A Foundation of SEL Supports and Strengthens Academic Learning

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Social and emotional learning (SEL) has been shown to have a positive impact on students’ academic performance. By learning social and emotional skills, students develop positive attitudes that help them believe in themselves and in others. Because the competencies that fall under the umbrella of social and emotional learning are interrelated, it is often seen as one big concept. However, taking a closer look at the social and emotional competencies separately can provide insight into how SEL supports and strengthens academic learning.

How Social and Emotional Skills Support Academic Learning

Creating a positive learning community begins with students knowing each other and practicing cooperation, understanding, and empathy. By developing social skills, students learn to form positive relationships, including the ability to cooperate and to make productive contributions to a community. We know that cognitive growth occurs through social interaction, and the fostering of trusting and collaborative social relationships with teachers, classmates, parents, and caregivers will contribute to student academic achievement. In addition, establishing positive relationships with others will help students feel more comfortable attempting a new task or when challenged by academic work.

By identifying and understanding a variety of emotions, students will learn how they impact thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes. Attaining emotional competency skills allows students to manage emotions so they remain focused and calm, even when experiencing negative feelings. Self-regulation—the ability to control and manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—is also linked to academic achievement. Self-regulation can reduce misbehavior, which allows for more teaching and learning. When students have the skills to maintain a positive attitude, they are more likely to believe in themselves and in others.

Leverage a Foundation of SEL to Foster Academic Learning

Having a foundation of social and emotional skill development creates the conditions for academic success and lifelong learning. Building strong, positive relationships within a supportive, predictable, and safe environment will lead to feelings of belonging and significance. When students feel welcomed and accepted in their classroom, and make positive contributions to their community, they are more likely to risk making a mistake knowing that they will be allowed to reflect and try again.

Positive learning can result from mistake-making if students feel confident in themselves, and when they are supported and encouraged by teachers and peers. One approach to creating a positive learning opportunity from a student’s mistake-making is to leverage the natural learning cycle.

The natural learning cycle is a process of learning through experience and reflection. This cycle is referred to as “natural” because it reflects what we all spontaneously do when teaching ourselves something we really want to learn. For example, riding a bicycle, greeting a friend, cooking a new recipe, engaging in a friendly conversation—all of these are usually learned by following the brain’s natural path when teaching ourselves something we want to learn. When we are in a natural learning cycle, we are actively engaged in exploring and synthesizing information. The result is deeper learning and a lasting change in both knowledge and behavior.

The three-part structure of the natural learning cycle is grounded in how our brains are wired to learn from experience and it is already a familiar process: It begins with a goal, followed by experimenting and testing out ideas, and ends with reflecting on the outcome. The three phases allow for the purposeful inquiry and engagement needed for academic and social-emotional success. It also means that students become stakeholders in their own learning.

Successfully using the natural learning cycle with students begins with careful, strategic planning. Social and emotional learning can be used to lay the foundation for the positive academic learning that develops from using the natural learning cycle.

Foster Positive Relationships

Building and maintaining positive relationships with students is key for the successful use of the natural learning cycle. Forming meaningful relationships can be accomplished by learning about students’ personal goals, interests, and happenings in their lives. Students who feel a connection with their teacher have increased trust and emotional safety, which can lead to greater academic engagement.

Create an Optimal Learning Environment

Just as important is making sure the learning environment will support the natural learning cycle. Students need to learn and practice routines and guidelines, and understand that following these will help ensure success

Set some guidelines for behavior. Students become invested when they see how classroom rules can help them achieve their goals. Brainstorming positive behaviors pro-actively sets a tone of cooperation and responsibility.

Practice reflection. Begin practicing reflection with students prior to leveraging the natural learning cycle. This can be quick and informal. For example, after recess, you might ask, “On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being awesome, it was so much fun, and 1 being horrible, it wasn’t fun at all, how did recess go for you today?” Students respond by holding up the number of fingers that corresponds with their reflections about recess.

Teach and model essential routines and skills. Clear, simple, and well-practiced routines create a calm, predictable, and comfortable environment for students to do their best work. Taking the time first to model, teach, and practice routines and skills allows students to see the rules in action, and to effectively learn what a positive behavior looks like, sounds like, and feels like.

Social and emotional learning are two sets of interrelated competencies that can lead students to greater success with their academic learning. Laying the foundation with social and emotional learning allows students to feel a sense of belonging and significance. This will lead to students feeling more confident, which promotes students to take risks in learning and then feel comfortable if they make a mistake and need to try again. These foundational social-emotional skills, along with creating a positive classroom learning environment, set the stage for leveraging the natural learning cycle for academic growth.


Kristen Vincent is the Assistant Director of Marketing for Center for Responsive Schools, and has over 20 years of experience working in education. She is the author of Make Learning Meaningful: How to Leverage the Brain’s Natural Learning Cycle in K–8 Classrooms, and co-author of Closing Circles: 50 Activities for Ending the Day in a Positive Way and The Joyful Classroom: Practical Ways to Engage and Challenge Elementary Students.

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