Social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to the process through which individuals learn and apply a set of social, emotional, behavioral, and character skills required to succeed in schooling, the workplace, relationships, and citizenship. Different disciplines have produced a great many frameworks and organizational systems that describe and define social and emotional skills. Frameworks vary in the type of construct they aim to describe—from skills, behaviors, and attitudes to traits, strengths, and abilities. Those that focus on skills and competencies typically organize them into three categories. For example, Jones and Bouffard (2012) conceptualize skills as cognitive skills (e.g., executive function and self-regulation, problem solving), emotional skills (e.g., labeling, understanding, and regulating emotions), and social and interpersonal skills (e.g., perspective taking, conflict resolution).

Decades of research in SEL demonstrates that social, emotional, and cognitive skills are linked to outcomes in both the short and long term, including learning, health, and general wellbeing. SEL research is grounded in three primary types of evidence, including (1) correlational evidence in which students are tracked over time and correlations among variables are examined; (2) multi-program studies and randomized trials of individual programs; and (3) studies focusing on variation in effects. Together, these three types of evidence provide a solid and consistent body of information about the impacts of social and emotional skills on later life outcomes, as well as how to develop and support individual students in classroom and school contexts.

Social and emotional skills grow, and are fostered, in rich and supportive relationships and settings. Schools play a central role in social, emotional, and academic development. Given the substantial amount of time children spend in school interacting with peers and adults, early childhood educational settings and schools are a primary and critical context for intentionally and rigorously building and cultivating social and emotional skills. There now exists an array of tested interventions, programs, and approaches designed to cultivate social and emotional skills in rich and supportive classroom and school contexts. SEL programs in schools typically target a set of developmentally appropriate skills through teacher-led classrooms lessons using a variety of activities including direct instruction, breathing exercises, songs, and skill-building games. Innovations in SEL practice include efforts to identify evidence-based prevention kernels. Kernels are thought to represent the underlying “active ingredients” of a program or intervention, or the hypothesized core practices that generate changes in outcomes. Some researchers are beginning to identify and independently test social and emotional learning strategies, which may represent a promising alternative or supplement to traditional SEL programs.