Shari Prest
ARK Associates

It is easy to consider children’s social and emotional well-being solely the responsibility of the home and community but as educational leaders know, schools play an important role in the development of those characteristics. Conversely, the healthy development of those characteristics plays an important role in the outcomes of schools.

Emotional Wellness refers to an awareness, understanding and acceptance of our feelings, and our ability to manage effectively through challenges and change. Consider the following: (as cited in The National Center for Emotional Wellness)

  • The United States spends more to treat mental disorders than any other disease or medical condition. (Health Affairs: The Washington Post)
  • ​Depression is now the leading cause of disability in the world (World Health Organization)
  • Suicide is the leading cause of injury death of Americans, surpassing automobile accidents. (American Journal of Public Health) 

Social wellness is defined as “one’s ability to interact with people around them. It involves using good communication skills, having meaningful relationships, respecting yourself and others, and creating a support system that includes family members and friends.” (Chobdee, 2014, cited by the American Counseling Association Hanna Rodrigues, May 31, 2016).

One might argue that social wellness and emotional wellness are the most powerful characteristics for a happy and meaningful life. The intersection of social and emotional wellness and public education is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).

“Broadly speaking, Social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to the process through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, behavioral, and character skills required to succeed in schooling, the workplace, relationships, and citizenship.” (Navigating SEL from the inside out, 2017, Stephanie Jones, Katharine Brush, Rebecca Bailey, Gretchen Brion-Meisels, Joseph McIntyre, Jennifer Kahn, Bryan Nelson, and Laura Stickle, Harvard Graduate School of Education with funding from the Wallace Foundation.)

Similarly described, “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning – CASEL, 2019)

More than two decades of research shows that Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) leads to increased academic achievement. According to a 2011 meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students, those who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11% gain in academic achievement. Additionally, studies show a decrease in dropout rates, problematic behaviors, drug use, teen pregnancy, mental health problems and criminal behavior among students that have SEL components integrated into their school and home experiences.

The building blocks of SEL follow:

Self-awareness. The discovery of strengths and limitations and students’ realistic sense of confidence, and optimism, supported by their commitment to growth.

Self-management. The ability to effectively manage stress, control impulses, and self-motivate to achieve goals.

Social awareness. The ability to understand and empathize with diverse perspectives.

Relationship skills. The development of communication skills along with an ability to cooperate and resolve conflicts.

Responsible decision-making. The capacity for critical thinking and ownership of behavior, ethical standards and social norms.

It can be argued that no other set of characteristics have greater influence on a student’s life-time satisfaction, success and social and civic contributions than those addressed through SEL. Therefore, it is crucial that schools integrate or add SEL elements when planning the delivery of curriculum and the development of the school culture.

Because of the ongoing financial strains experienced by public schools, It is advisable for schools and districts to “be sure that SEL and interventions they are interested in implementing are both evidence-based and can be supported by funding available through ESSA.” (Support Social and Emotional Learning – Rand Corporation Brief)

According to a study commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, three possible funding streams exist through ESSA.

  1. Title I: Improving the academic achievement of the disadvantaged student grants to states. This stream includes schoolwide assistance programs, targeted assistance programs, and school support and improvement activities.
  2. Title II: Preparing, training, and recruiting high-quality teachers, principals, or other school leaders.
  3. Title IV: 21st-Century Schools funding includes a variety of programs that include:

Part A: Student support and academic enrichment grants

Part B: 21st Century community learning centers, and

Part F: National activities offered outside the school day

The benefits of school support for SEL for students, schools and communities include the following:


  • More positive social behaviors and attitudes
  • Increased empathy
  • Improved ability to manage stress and depression
  • Improved classroom behavior
  • Better attitudes about themselves, others, and school
  • Fewer conduct problems


  • Higher academic achievement
  • Decreased high school dropout rates
  • Fewer arrests
  • Fewer mental health disorders

Recommendations for Educators and Policymakers: (adapted from Support Social and Emotional Learning – Rand corporation Brief)

  1. Incorporate SEL needs assessments to effectively target funding streams.
  2. Address local conditions to promote effective SEL implementation.
    • Professional development
    • School-wide culture
    • District and school policies
  3. Take advantage of Title IV flexibility if needs cannot be met by interventions with stronger evidence.
  4. Provide professional development and other supports to build educators’ capacity to gather and use evidence of intervention effectiveness.
  5. Consider a variety of SEL programs and strategies when designing approaches to improve students’ social and emotional competencies.
  6. Continue to improve measurement of social and emotional competencies.

“Well-being is a combination of feeling good as well as actually having meaning, good relationships and accomplishments.” – Martin Seligman, psychologist, author

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