The State of SEL Now: Essential

By Maurice J. Elias, PhD

Rutgers University, Academy for Social-Emotional Learning in Schools (

  • The social and emotional development of young people has been a concern of families, educators, and society at large since people first appeared on the earth; Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is not new at all. It is a term that captures essential skills that everyone needs for success in life. For example, having SEL means that we are able to acknowledge emotions in oneself and in others.
  • Manage and appropriately express strong emotions (not contain, suppress, or defuse them).
  • Take the perspective of diverse others and experience empathy and compassion.
  • Engage in the critical thinking, listening, reading, writing, and speaking skills needed for informed citizenship.
  • Collectively problem solve and use one’s collaboration skills; and
  • See oneself as a leader and change agent in one’s classrooms, schools, and communities—as well as in the wider world.

These skills are essential for just about every area of one’s life. Take the following examples:

  • All aspects of academic and civic life require taking others’ perspectives, both intellectually and emotionally.
  • Everyone must master emotional regulation skills that enable them to deal with their own discomfort and resist temptations to act impulsively.
  • SEL skills are necessary for the stages beyond college and career access: graduation and job advancement.
  • The workplaces of the present and future will be increasingly collaborative.
  • Managing the complex and ongoing challenges of civic life in a multicultural democracy requires the same degree of competency in social–emotional learning as we demand in reading and other traditional academic areas.
  • Advancing the cause of equity in all classrooms and schools and dismantling the underlying maintainers of racism and other forms of discrimination require a strong mastery of emotional awareness, empathy, compassion, perspective taking, problem solving, and communication skills (among other SEL abilities). A sense of positive purpose and an optimistic future-mindedness (among other positive character virtues) is also a necessary component.

If We Did Not Have Social and Emotional Life Skills, We Would Not Be Here

I recently spoke at the biennial conference of the European Network for Social and Emotional Competence (ENSEC). I mention this because we can sometimes lose sight of the fact that SEL is a worldwide issue, and in the world outside of the United States, the idea of SEL not being in schools makes as much sense as saying we don’t want oxygen in the air.

The state of SEL is that the skills needed for the tests of life—and not just a life of academic tests—are built into each of us. If we did not have these life skills, we would not be here. We would not have had the capacities to problem solve in the face of challenges, to pool our energies for cooperation, to manage our emotions when they threaten to get out of control, or to feel love and empathy for those close to us. We would not be able to organize around shared goals or build institutions—such as schools—to educate and prepare the next generation for their roles as adults. Finally, we would be even less inclined toward nonviolent conflict resolution than we appear to be now.

At the end of the day, SEL is what helps our most valued outcomes to happen. That’s why I am grateful that we have finally come around to understanding the state of SEL: It is essential. And therefore, efforts to systematically build SEL skills also are essential.

Books by Maurice J. Elias, PhD:  Social-Emotional Learning Lab: A Comprehensive SEL Resource Kit

Social Decision Making/Social Problem Solving (SDM/SPS)


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