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What is Social Emotional Learning?

There’s been a shift in how educators and child development experts think about the skills students need to be successful in school and in life. Some researchers now suggest that a child’s success or failure isn’t only determined by cognitive skills, as once thought; Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills, or those most related to character, including grit, optimism and self-awareness, are other important contributors to student success.

CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning) an organization based at the University of Illinois, defines Social Emotional Learning as: 

“Social and emotional learning is 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.”

Helping students build these skills is one component of City Year’s service. Last year, City Year saw a 72% increase in the number of students who were characterized as having strong Social Emotional Learning skills on the DESSA. [N=2,000]

SEL skills are categorized into seven categories by the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA), the national assessment City Year uses to track student progress in SEL skills.

  1. Self-Awareness: A child’s realistic understanding of his/her strengths and limitations and consistent desire for self-improvement.
  2. Self-Management: A child’s success in controlling his or her emotions and behaviors, to complete a task or succeed in a new or challenging situation.
  3.  Social Awareness: A child’s capacity to interact with others in a way that shows respect for their ideas and behaviors, recognizes her/his impact on them, and uses cooperation and tolerance in social situations.
  4. Relationship Skills: A child’s consistent performance of socially acceptable actions that promote and maintain positive connections with others.
  5. Goal-Directed Behavior: A child’s initiation of, and persistence in completing, tasks of varying difficulty.
  6. Personal Responsibility: A child’s tendency to be careful and reliable in his/her actions and in contributing to group efforts.
  7. Decision Making: A child’s approach to problem solving that involves learning from others and from her/his own previous experiences, using her/his values to guide her/his action, and accepting responsibility for her/his decisions.
  8. Optimistic Thinking: A child’s attitude of confidence, hopefulness, and positive thinking regarding herself/himself and her/his life situations in the past, present and future.   


In his 2012 book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that determine whether or not a student fails have less to do with intelligence, and more to do with character, including skills such as perseverance, curiosity, optimism and self-control.