Social and Emotional Learning: A Framework for Promoting Mental Health and Reducing Risk Behavior in Children and Youth

Article excerpt

Both parents and educators want young people to succeed in their academic, personal, and social lives. They want young people to have the motivation and ability to achieve; to establish positive relationships with their peers and adults; to adapt to the complex demands of growth and development; to contribute to their peer group, family, school, and community; and to make responsible decisions that enhance their health and avoid risky behaviors. To help young people accomplish these tasks, schools are increasingly challenged to offer more than basic instruction in the traditional academic areas. In response, many schools have adopted programs targeting one or more categories of problem behaviors such as violence, drug use, risky sexual behaviors, or early school withdrawal.

When schools adopt multiple programs to address these social and health issues, they face several implementation difficulties. Multiple programs tend to be poorly coordinated, and thus compete among themselves and with lessons in core learning areas for scarce instructional time and school resources. Often they are of short duration and, because they typically remain on the margins of schools' established routines, they are not likely to be sustained from year to year.[1] Finally, these programs frequently lack the environmental supports at home and school, such as modeling and reinforcement of healthy norms and behaviors by teachers and parents, that enable children to maintain what they have learned in the classroom. As a result of these weaknesses, some educators regard these programs as fads that will soon be replaced by yet another ad hoc program to address the next perceived crisis.[2]

Because the problem behaviors that these programs target often occur together in clusters, share many of the same risk and protective factors, and can be addressed by similar strategies,[3] there is growing national support for a comprehensive, coordinated approach to the prevention of risk and promotion of positive youth development.[4,5] Such comprehensive initiatives typically target multiple outcomes, are multiyear in duration, coordinate school-based efforts with those in families and the larger community, and include environmental supports so children have opportunities to practice positive behaviors and receive consistent reinforcement.[6]

Social and emotional learning (SEL) programs provide systematic classroom instruction that enhances children's capacities to recognize and manage their emotions, appreciate the perspectives of others, establish prosocial goals and solve problems, and use a variety of interpersonal skills to effectively and ethically handle developmentally relevant tasks. SEL programs also establish environments that support, reinforce, and extend this instruction so that what children learn in the classroom is generalized to their lives outside the classroom. SEL programs aim to foster the development of students who are knowledgeable, responsible, and caring,[7] thereby contributing to their academic success, healthy growth and development, ability to maintain positive relationships, and motivation to contribute to their communities.

Hundreds of programs are available to help educators prevent problem behaviors and promote children's health and character development. In order to make wise choices among this large field, educators need assistance in identifying both the elements of quality programs and the programs that incorporate these elements. To address this need, the Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has developed a framework of key SEL competencies (skills, attitudes, and values essential to the social and emotional development of young people) and identified program features critical to the effective enhancement of these competencies. The primary purpose of this paper is to describe these key elements of quality programs, which research, theory, and best educational practice suggest are essential to enhance children's social and emotional learning. …