The Importance of SEL in Therapy

By Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC | April 2, 2020

Our highly stressful world requires children and adolescents to cope with a wide array of negative emotions, and not everyone has the tools to do so. When children learn how to manage and reduce their stress, they achieve better outcomes in school and avoid the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is one model used to improve the mental health and behavior of children and adolescents.

Table of Contents

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-emotional learning is the process through which children develop and practice their social and emotional skills. Social-emotional learning skills are those we use to cope healthily with negative emotions, create long-term goals and make decisions. SEL also facilitates the building of relationships and empathy. The purpose of social-emotional learning activities is to help children identify their feelings and develop an understanding of how those feelings influence their behavior.

When children have strong social-emotional skills, it prepares them better to effectively handle the challenges and stressors in everyday life. The skills acquired through SEL are lifelong, helping children and teens grow into mentally healthier adults.

SEL is an approach integrated into many schools. A recent national survey revealed school principals are almost unanimously committed to implementing social-emotional learning activities in and out of the classroom.

There is a similar program developed by Emory University called Social, Emotional and Ethical Learning (SEE). SEE Learning represents an enhancement of SEL, adding a focus on ethical discernment and resilience and built on trauma-informed practice.

How to Assess Social-Emotional Learning

There is a multitude of official assessments available to measure the effectiveness of SEL. The RAND Education Assessment Finder lists more than 200 tests that gauge intrapersonal, interpersonal and cognitive competencies, while the SEL Assessment Guide provides advice on selecting the most appropriate evaluations for a social-emotional learning curriculum.
5 social emotional competencies chart

What Are the 5 Social-Emotional Learning Competencies?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified five core competencies of SEL, contained in the SEL competencies wheel. Social-emotional learning programs should emphasize the following skills.

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a child’s ability to understand their thoughts and feelings, and connect them to behaviors. Skills under this competency include:

  • Identifying emotions
  • Developing self-perception
  • Improving self-confidence
  • Recognizing one’s strengths

This slice of the SEL competencies chart also includes self-efficacy, which is the belief in one’s ability to succeed in particular situations or accomplish a task.

2. Self-Management


Self-management is a child’s ability to regulate emotions and actions in a variety of environments. It also includes the ability to create and work toward personal goals. Skills for this competency include:

  • Stress management
  • Self-discipline
  • Executive function
  • Self-regulation

3. Decision-Making

This competency is about making responsible choices and taking responsibility for the outcomes, whether the consequences are positive or negative. Skills include:

  • Problem identification
  • Situational analysis
  • Problem-solving
  • Reflection

4. Social Awareness

Social awareness is the ability to see from other people’s perspectives and have empathy for others. The skills involved in social awareness include:

  • Empathizing
  • Appreciating interpersonal differences
  • Respecting others

5. Relationship Skills

Competency in this area allows children to create and maintain healthy relationships with others, as well as to derive positive meaning from these relationships. Skills include:

  • Clear communication
  • Listening
  • Cooperation
  • Conflict resolution
  • Mutual support

What Are the Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning?

How do social-emotional learning programs help children and adolescents? Those who participate in such programs receive the following three SEL benefits.

  • Reduced behavioral issues: When children can self-regulate, they create fewer disruptions and are less aggressive in school, as well as at home.
  • Fewer emotional problems: Children who participate in SEL programs are less likely to experience depression, anxiety and stress due to improved emotional resilience.
  • Improved social behavior: Learning empathy and compassion in addition to self-regulation helps children get along better with peers, teachers, parents and others.

SEL also has a profound impact on children’s ability to process and cope with trauma. Estimates suggest that up to 43% of children and teens experience at least one traumatic event. Up to 15% of girls and up to 6% of boys then go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which can lead to a variety of other mental health problems later in life, such as anxiety, depression and suicidal ideations.

The social and emotional competencies learned in an SEL program can help children repair the damage done by chronic stress from trauma, in addition to improving responses to everyday stressors and disappointments.

How Does Social-Emotional Learning Help Students Academically?

One major study on the long-term outcomes of SEL revealed that it has an immense impact on students’ academic achievement. Improved behavior in the classroom, better ability to manage depressive symptoms and stress and positive attitudes about school led to a gain of 11 percentile-points in academic achievement, compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs.

SEL gives students the emotional tools they need to regulate their behavior in the classroom and overcome obstacles in the learning process. The long-term study involved rating kindergarten students on an SEL scale of one to five. For each point children scored, they were:

  • 54% likelier to earn a high school diploma
  • Twice as likely to earn a college degree
  • 46% likelier to be fully employed by age 25

The academic benefits of SEL programs have far-reaching effects on a child’s quality of life later on.

How to Measure Growth in Social-Emotional Learning

How can you tell if a child’s social-emotional learning activities are having an impact? Aside from formal assessments performed in a school setting, you can identify growth in SEL by changes in your child, including:

  • Greater academic engagement
  • More stable friendships
  • Increased expressions of emotion
  • Better homework management
  • Setting and working toward goals
  • Healthier responses to stress

When SEL is working, your child will begin to display more and more of the skills indicated by the SEL competencies chart. As a result, he or she will be happier and more resilient.

Where Can My Child Go to Receive Compassion-Driven SEL Therapy?

Contact Us

Hillside Atlanta is Georgia’s leading provider of mental and behavioral health services for children and teens. The goal of our SEL and SEE Learning program is to provide youth with the tools they need to improve their mental health and achieve success in relationships, academics and all other areas of life.

Our treatment types include dialectical behavioral therapy, play therapy, horticulture therapy, animal-assisted therapy and recreational therapy — all of which support the development of SEL competencies. If your child is struggling with mental health or behavioral issues, Hillside can help. Contact us online with your questions, and we will provide the answers and information you need about SEL and how to get started with our program.


  • Gaan Akers, LPC, NCC

    Director of Clinical Education & Outreach - Gaan has been working with children, adolescents, and families for over 10 years in various settings. In her current role, she provides education and training for mental health professionals, parents, and the community. She lives in Atlanta with her husband. In her free time, she enjoys reading, hiking, climbing, and cooking. She is a donut aficionado and a national park enthusiast!

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