What is Social and Emotional Learning Anyway?

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Episode 46│What is Social and Emotional Learning Anyway?

Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021

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Karen Van Ausdal

What life skills does your child need to thrive? There’s a lot of learning happening in schools that goes beyond academics. Karen Van Ausdal joined our hosts to talk about Social and Emotional Learning. She shares what Social and Emotional Learning looks like, why it’s important and how families can support.


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Helen Westmoreland: Welcome to today's episode, I'm Helen Westmoreland.

LaWanda Toney: And I'm LaWanda Toney and we're your co-hosts. COVID-19 has changed and continues to change how schools operate. In  our healthy minds miniseries, we talked about prioritizing wellness as we returned to school. Today, we're diving into Social Emotional Learning (also known as SEL). Schools are talking a lot about Social Emotional Learning lately, but do most families even know what it means? How do families feel about it?

Helen Westmoreland: That’s a great question LaWanda. A recent survey from the Fordham Institute and YouGov revealed that families do like the idea of Social Emotional Learning but not everyone loves the term itself. People get nervous when they think they’re child is going to come home with a letter grade in character development or get tested on their empathy. So we’re going to clear things up today—what is Social Emotional Learning and how can it help our kids thrive?   We are so fortunate and grateful to have with us today Karen Van Ausdal, the Senior Director of Practice at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, also known as CASEL.

At CASEL, Karen oversees its efforts to support and scale, social, emotional learning in school districts and partners across the country. Previously, she led the Office of Social and Emotional Learning in Chicago public schools. Karen began her career as an elementary school teacher. She is also the proud mom of a fifth and seventh. Welcome, Karen.

Karen VanAusdal: Thank you so much, I'm so pleased to be here and pleased that you're focusing on this topic, which is close to my heart and mind, so.

Helen Westmoreland: Oh, good. Okay. So let's start there. So, tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you interested in social and emotional learning, specifically.

Karen VanAusdal: I started as an elementary school teacher. I taught fourth and fifth grade and, I was teaching reading and math and really loved teaching, reading and math, but found myself very much focused on, how do those topics and how to school in general really, meet the holistic needs of young people? And I think I sort of thought I invented social emotional learning, so I realized that these are the things I care about, how are kids getting along with one another? How are they building a sense of themselves and their strengths and how are they learning to advocate for others and themselves and solve problems together?

So, all of that was really what I cared about and ended up being able to pursue that through a number of ways, working with schools and programs, and then have been with CASEL for about five years now.

Helen Westmoreland: Awesome.

LaWanda Toney: So, let's talk a little bit more about social emotional learning, because I don't know if our audience really understands what that means. Can you give us like the basics and what parents should know?

Karen VanAusdal: Yeah, great question. So when we talk about social, emotional learning, we are really talking about a process. And this is a process not just for young people for adults too, this is a lifelong process, really to build a set of skills and competencies. We really recognize five different domains that are part of social, emotional learning. So, we talk about self-awareness and self-management. We talk about social awareness and relationship building, and then we talk about responsible decision-making. We really want to build skills, like how do we solve problems? How do we identify our goals and work collectively towards goals? How do we build relationships that are successful and sustained?

And that happens through practice, and that also happens through building learning environments that support that. So we really work with schools to have sort of a broad view of social, emotional learning, and we look at it as also a part of what families are doing. It doesn't just happen in schools -- families and schools and communities all can be aligned and speaking from the same language and same vocabulary around social, emotional learning. And parents are really the first teachers of social, emotional learning, and have incredible knowledge that we can build on as, in schools as well.

LaWanda Toney: That's great. So, when we were in school, I don't know if they were calling it social emotional learning. Were we doing that, and what were we doing when we were in school?

Karen VanAusdal: I would imagine that, you were experiencing social, emotional learning, we experience it all the time. Right. We watched what our teachers were doing. We watch what adult role models are doing. We learn how they're interacting. Yeah. There's a sort of hidden curriculum that may not have been in your textbooks, but that is happening constantly in schools and classrooms. So, it may not have been called social, emotional learning at that time. But for about the last 25 years, we have been using that terminology of social, emotional learning.

LaWanda Toney: Okay. That's helpful.

Karen VanAusdal: Yeah.

Helen Westmoreland: I know. Cause I'm with you LaWanda, I was like, I don't remember this being taught when I was in school. Why do you think Karen there's so much more attention on social emotional learning now, and schools are saying we have to call it this. We have to create programs and practices? Why has that shift happened? Or am I right, that there has been a shift?

Karen VanAusdal: You're absolutely right. I think we just know a lot more now about how learning happens and what that really means for young people. I think We understand the science of learning in a way that learning happens in relationship. Right? We have many years of research to say that that is true, but we also have many years of research around social, emotional learning in particular, that when you focus on social, emotional learning in schools, you are certainly building that set of skills with young people, and we are seeing incredible growth in academics, too, among schools that really take a high quality SEL program or practice and put it into place with fidelity.

So it's not just impacting those social emotional skills. It's also impacting those academic skills, which I think has led people to really investing in that. And, you know, you're seeing long-term outcomes for adults too, in terms of having healthier relationships, having successful careers, staying away from needing supports and staying away from more problematic behaviors over time. So there's long-term effects as well.

LaWanda Toney: Karen, what kind of social, emotional learning practices are you seeing across the country? Can you give us some examples?

Karen VanAusdal: So we at CASEL are really lucky to work with a number of school districts across the country, and many of those have been working with us for many years. So I think for them, they are talking about building social, emotional into the priorities and the strategies of their school districts saying that, our vision or our mission as a school or as a district is to not only build young people who are proficient in math and reading, but build people who are shaping a better world. Who are able to get along with one another, who are prioritizing their overall wellness. So we are seeing districts do that in all sorts of ways. Districts may have time or they are explicitly teaching social emotional learning, built into their curriculum. They may have an evidence-based program that they are using, that is really allowing young people to practice those skills.

But then you're also seeing, if you have a science teacher who certainly has their science content objectives, but they may also have their SEL objectives around, how did you work together in a team to do that lab? How did you advocate when you were having trouble to say, actually I need help with this, or and we have states and districts that actually have SEL standards put in place now, just like they have, here's what we expect a first grader to be able to do a ninth grader, to be able to do, around math or literacy. We also have some guidance around social emotional learning and they're building it into the climates that they're building both for their adults and for their students to say, you know, are we making sure that every student is valued, is seen and heard in this building every day that they have an adult that they can connect with. So, all of those types of practices are coming, coming alive in our schools and especially in the last year and a half, I think have even been more of an area of focus for schools.

Helen Westmoreland: Totally. I think it's interesting you shared that because what I hear you saying, Karen is like, in some ways, it might be pulled out as something separate, but in other ways it might just be part of the everyday practice of schools. And I think as a parent, like sometimes it's hard to know what your kid is really doing in school, right? What are some things parents could ask their kids or should be looking for to know if social and emotional learning is really being prioritized in their kid's classroom.

Karen VanAusdal: I think there are a few things. So one, there may be a shared set of agreements or norms that a school has that. I think in a best practice, young people would have had a voice in saying here's co crafting that and families may have had a voice in co crafting, you know, what is our shared vision? What is our shared set of agreements about how we interact with one another in this school? So you may see that.

You may see actual time set aside in your schedule to say, here's our classroom morning meeting, or our classroom afternoon meeting where we are explicitly prioritizing community building, relationship building, having space for every young person to have a voice in our classroom. You may see young people having choice in their academic pursuits as well. And you may not think of that immediately as social emotional learning, but that is absolutely part of social emotional learning is having that choice and having some say in the ways that they are approaching problems, you may even see practices like project-based learning. You may have heard of, or problem-based learning or community service learning.

All of those, I would say are very closely aligned to social emotional learning, because they are allowing young people to practice those social emotional skills as they practice those academic skills. And you may even see like a graduate profile that identifies, here at this school, here's what we want all of our graduates to walk away with. if you ask the typical parent, what do you want your students to walk away from this school with? Yes, there will certainly be some academic growth pieces to that, but there will also be a huge SEL component to, what we hope for our young people to walk away with.

LaWanda Toney: So, how do you know if your school has these guidelines or it is incorporated in the curriculum? How do you ask and who do you ask?

Karen VanAusdal: I think you would see it a number of places, you know, as a parent, you would hopefully see it in your district vision and mission, and the practices they're doing in terms of prioritizing. A lot of districts actually have an SEL team. So you may.

Helen Westmoreland: I see that in job descriptions.

Karen VanAusdal: Yeah, absolutely. We are seeing more and more SEL coordinators, SEL directors at a district level, a small districts, large districts all over, which is really incredible to see. And then at a school level, you will often see a school climate team or a SEL or social emotional learning team that is helping to lead that work. So that is certainly a question you can ask or something you may see. When I go in for parent teacher conferences, I certainly ask, what are the ways that you are attending to the social, emotional development of students here, and what does that look like for you as a teacher and for you as a principal?

So I would not shy away from asking those questions and most teachers will, will be able to speak very clearly to what that looks like in their classroom.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah, great. Good to know.

Helen Westmoreland: We hear a lot from parents that one of their concerns is frequently around bullying, and so I just want you to check one of my assumptions. Is it fair to say that if you feel your school has a bullying problem, that they may not have a strong enough approach to socio-emotional learning? Like, is that a fair equation? And is that the potential solution, If you're in a school where bullying is a problem, too?

Karen VanAusdal: I think, the research would agree with you on a number of ways that when you're talking about bullying, a lot of that does have to do with an overall school, culture and climate and the peer to peer relationships. And we talk about upstanding, right? So our kids are learning about being an upstander. What does that mean to be an upstander and speak when we think wrong is occurring and how are we building that into our climate? So that's the expectation. So, I do think if bullying is a concern that certainly talking about, well, what are you doing proactively in terms of building that positive climate, allowing young people to practice how to resolve conflicts in meaningful ways.

And then, also having layers of support for students who may need more. I think there are things that should be happening for every student every day. And then there are some students who will need more supports to build those social, emotional competencies. So do you have. Small groups that you can support students with. Do you have partners outside of your school that can support students as well? So that's part of what we look for in an SEL centered school.

LaWanda Toney: Have you seen any differences in SEL approaches depending on demographics, or neighborhoods, or parts of the country. Is there a division?

Karen VanAusdal: We work with districts of all sizes and demographic backgrounds as CASEL, so, you know, we started our work with a group of mainly large urban school districts doing SEL, but we, more and more in these past years I've been working with rural communities with suburban communities. I think, if you look at the data across the country, everyone is saying, we know these skills matter. The majority of folks are saying, yes, we want to see more of this in our schools. We are seeing the question how do we begin and how do we get started as a teacher and as a principal.

But, we are seeing this across the country. We emphasize that these are skills that are for all students. It is not just for some students. It is not about compliance. It is not about just fixing students. This is about building competencies for lifelong success, that all students need.

Helen Westmoreland: Hmm. That's good to know, cause I do think sometimes, especially as a parent, you hear things that are happening in the education system, and your like, where did that idea come from? Is that right? Like, is that for everyone? Is that for, you know, depending on the day, right? It might be technology in the classroom or this other thing, and, but what I hear you saying is that this has actually been around a long time and we just have more research and practice, around it now. But, that it's also not specific to a certain demographic, that all communities are benefit from this work and are engaged in this work and are defining this work. Is that fair to say too?

Karen VanAusdal: Absolutely. Yeah, and defining it for their community, which I think. What we recommend in terms of process for social emotional learning is really engaging with parents and engaging with young people to make sure that SEL is culturally relevant to make sure that SEL is meeting the needs and is resonating for the students in a meaningful way. And that may not look identical in every space, but the priority for the work is there in every space.

LaWanda Toney: I have a question about what parents can do at home. If we're trying to reinforce some of the components of SEL, social emotional learning at home, what can we do?

Karen VanAusdal: One is getting familiar and our hope is that there is a two way communication between schools and parents about the language of SEL, so that you can have a bit of a shared vocabulary across home and school, around social emotional learning. You may have first graders who are practicing belly breathing as a way to calm down if they're having a problem. So, if we can do that at home and reinforce that, and then they have that skill when they're at school and starting to have those conversations is really important.

I think parents can ask, what are you learning around, all of those social, emotional competencies that we talked about? And even creating little dinnertime rituals of sharing, here's a part of the day where I feel like I helped someone or here's a part of a day where I felt like I was not comfortable at school and having those conversations so that we can create partnership across home and school for social, emotional learning is important.

For many of us who had young people at home this past year, we had a front row seat to understanding our students as learners. So sharing that knowledge with schools and making sure that we are also modeling the sort of relationship and advocacy that we want our young people to take on as well.

LaWanda Toney: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Helen Westmoreland: So I'm going to totally ask you my personal question. I can't get my child to breathe when she has a meltdown, she's young, right. But she gets so mad. I'll be like let's breathe together. Let's breathe with me. And I am like, is it because she's too young? Is there a specific way I should be asking her to regulate her emotions that is beyond what I'm doing now.

Karen VanAusdal: You're bringing back memories.

Helen Westmoreland: And she'll be like, I don't want to breathe. I'm like, who are you?

Karen VanAusdal: My son was the same way. My daughter was all about it. So I worked for her. My son didn't work for him. Finally I was doing that for a little while and said, well, you know what helps you calm down? Right. I just asked the question   can you remember a time when you got really frustrated and you were able to calm yourself down? And for my son, he decided it was eating. He's like, well, I feel better when I eat something. So all right, let me work for you.

Helen Westmoreland: My child would be like watching TV, you know?

Karen VanAusdal: I think it's having those conversations and, you know, maybe whatever it is, it TV may not always be possible eating may not always be possible. Maybe we try that once or twice and just practicing having that power over yourself, to say like, oh great. I can make a choice here, do I want to react this way? Or do I worry on or react this way? And I have some tools in my tool belt that will help me to do that. And they shift developmentally for sure. But I think helping students to feel like, oh right. I, I can make some choices here, even in very small ways.

Helen Westmoreland: So I don't have to keep pushing the breathing. I could go on, move on.

Karen VanAusdal: You can try something else, I think.

Helen Westmoreland: That's the only one I know.

LaWanda Toney: Helen, you have to let us know when you ask her what she says. I really am curious, my son, he, he can do the breathing, he has done that. But he really likes music. So when he's feeling frustrated, he'll turn on the songs that he likes and then he'll just need some time by himself and then he'll come back around, right?

Karen VanAusdal: That's fantastic. right.

LaWanda Toney: So maybe, it's music.

Helen Westmoreland: I know that is a good one. Am I right Karen, that self-management part of that is being motivated to complete like your tasks? Because, I think especially after this past year, plus like parents are feeling, for some kids they are really unmotivated around learning. How does that fit in with socio-emotional learning and what are some tools that folks could do either at school or at home around some of that?

Karen VanAusdal: Such a good point. Yeah. And I think that gets right back to this notion that we can't separate learning from social emotional development, right. That they are intertwined and you cannot separate those two. Right, and it is about that motivation. And it is about that sense, we've been talking a lot about, you know, how do young people at school feel a sense of identity, a sense of agency and a sense of belonging?

Our hope is that at the beginning of a school year, teachers are having individual conversations with young people to get at some of that information. And what does, it's not going to be the same thing that motivates every student by any means. But, if we have some of that knowledge for students at the beginning of the year, we can start to build some practices around that and some space to say, hey, it matters to me what you care about and what your tendencies are as a learner.

And parents can do the same thing, have the same conversation and students to identify what their big visions are, what their big goals are and help them to talk about how that connects to the day to day of school, which may certainly have been challenging. It's always for some students, particularly in the last year and a half.

LaWanda Toney: I wanted to ask a question about some of the case studies you may have at CASEL, are there any examples that may pop up in your head that will give people a vision of what social emotional learning could look like in its optimum space or situation?

Helen Westmoreland: The ideal, what the new school year can look like?

Karen VanAusdal: I love that. And this is a moment where people are really re-envisioning what schools can look like. We have a school guide that helps to lay out, what does it really look like when a school is committed to SEL from soup to nuts in terms of everything they are doing, but I think we really laid out a set of indicators that we would hope to see when we walk into a school. And I think one is some explicit attention to SEL. So, are we actually investing time and supports for SEL and teaching SEL? Are we integrating it into our academic instruction so that, math and social studies also are including some time to reflect on our SEL learning?

Are we intentionally building a climate around SEL? So both for adults and for students, I think we're seeing some schools, that they may have a circle time for young people, but they're also doing circles for their adults and building in relationship building time into their staff meetings. I mean, adults really need that right now and always need that. And then our young people having some active choice and really being leaders in what they're learning and how their school is being designed. And then, one piece we may not have really touched on, is also data, right? So how are you collecting data from families from young people that helps you to understand what the social, emotional experiences of school, as well as the academic experience, and then shifting your practice, right? So you've got that data, what are you going to do about it?

Helen Westmoreland: And when you say data, shine some light on that. Right? Cause I think there are a lot of parents out there and, and in our first season we had Learning Heroes on our show, who had done some great work on social, emotional learning and parent mindsets on that, and I really was struck by their research that like parents are really concerned if you start testing around these skills. When you say data, can you tell us what you mean by that?

Karen VanAusdal: I think probably lowercase D, data is what I'm talking about. Right. But there are a number of surveys and tools that do just get a, get a sense. You may have a school climate survey, a lot of districts have a school climate survey that your students.

Helen Westmoreland: So like, what students say themselves?

Karen VanAusdal: Yeah. How are you feeling? Do you feel like you're connected to teachers? Do you feel like you're challenged in your classes? Do you feel like you get a choice in what you're learning is your learning relevant to you, all those type of questions get to that sort of school climate piece. And there are tools that help you understand, also how are you building those social, emotional competencies that they are evaluative. They are meant to be what we call formative. Right, they help you understand where students are and shift your instruction, but they are not meant as an evaluative piece. So those tools are available. But it may also just be those two minute check-ins that you're doing with students. And how do you as a staff, take a moment to say, hey, here's what we heard. We heard students want more project-based learning. So how are we going to respond to that as a staff?

LaWanda Toney: We're trying to talk you to death. Karen. I am so sorry it's so good and interesting. And just shedding a light and it's just perfect timing with kids going back to school. Everything that they've gone through. It's just super important to have this top of mind. So we have one last question for you out of everything we've discussed. What's one thing families should walk away with from today's episode?

Karen VanAusdal: If I had to say one thing, I think just knowing that you are the foremost expert on your young person and you have incredible power to affect how school happens and to be a voice for saying that the social emotional development of your young person matters, kids should feel a sense of belonging. They should feel a sense of, their full identity being welcomed and recognized in school. And I hope that parents will feel a partnership with their schools and if they don't then, reach out to somebody in that school so that we can begin to build that partnership.

Helen Westmoreland: Excellent. Well, this has been an incredible conversation. Thank you so much, Karen, for shining a light on this.

Karen VanAusdal: Thank you and good luck with your return to school as well.

Helen Westmoreland: I know, I know all around.

LaWanda Toney: Karen, are there any resources, or social media handles that you want to share with our listeners today?

Karen VanAusdal: So the CASEL website, which is just www.casel.org has a lot of resources. There are some articles around school family partnerships. There is a roadmap in particular for schools returning after this sort of multiple layers of pandemics we've been in, in the last year and a half. And, there's also a SEL discussion series for parents and caregivers, which I'll make sure you all have the link to where we have caregivers talking with one another about SEL and their own parenting. And, we have some guided discussions that schools and parents can use and start on their own.

LaWanda Toney: Thank you, and to our listeners, thank you for joining us. Don't forget to visit our apple podcast page and leave a rating and review. Your reviews and ratings, help others find our show, and we appreciate hearing from you! And as always for more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com. Thanks for listening and join us next time.