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Social and Emotional Learning in Massachusetts

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This website is an introduction to Social and Emotional Learning in Massachusetts Public Schools. The Department commonly uses the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL's), definition of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions…It can help all young people and adults thrive personally and academically, develop and maintain positive relationships, become lifelong learners, and contribute to a more caring, just world. There are a range of other definitions for Social and Emotional Learning that are also viable.

Holistic Supports and Enrichment: Strengthening Social Emotional Competencies, Health & Safety are goals woven throughout the Department's five core strategies and the Commissioner's Our Way Forward 2019 report. Furthermore, Cultivating Safe and Healthy Learning Environments can help facilitate social emotional learning and is included in Commissioner Riley's Fiscal Year 2023 goals .

Several years ago (2016), the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) held a special meeting on Social and Emotional Learning to provide an opportunity for members to hear a number of key ideas, information, and examples from experts in research, policy, and practice, and have the opportunity to discuss the topic of SEL. More recently (September 2022) the Board heard a presentation about supporting students' mental health and wellness , which included discussion with representatives from two districts using Social Emotional Learning (SEL) & Mental Health Grant funding to support promising practices and challenges they continue to face during this school year.

This website includes information about the following topics. For more information about any of these resources, email .

SEL website sections

SEL Definitions and Approaches

The following descriptions of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) are from CASEL. They address five broad, interrelated areas of competence and provide examples for each: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These competencies can be taught and applied at various developmental stages from childhood to adulthood and across diverse cultural contexts, to articulate what is helpful to know and be able to do for academic success, school and civic engagement, health and wellness, and fulfilling careers. For more information, see CASEL's framework (in English or Spanish ).

Circle divided into five sections: Self Management, Self Awareness, Responsible Decision Making, Relationship Skills, Social Awareness

Five Core Competencies of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), with examples noted:

  • Self-Awareness: The abilities to understand one's own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. This includes capacities to recognize one's strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose.

    For example:
    • Integrating personal and social identities
    • Identifying personal, cultural, and linguistic assets
    • Identifying one's emotions
    • Demonstrating honesty and integrity
    • Linking feelings, values, and thoughts
    • Examining prejudices and biases
    • Experiencing self-efficacy
    • Having a growth mindset
    • Developing interests and a sense of purpose

  • Self-Management: The abilities to manage one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations. This includes the capacities to delay gratification, manage stress, and feel motivation & agency to accomplish personal/collective goals.

    For example:
    • Managing one's emotions
    • Identifying and using stress-management strategies
    • Exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation
    • Setting personal and collective goals
    • Using planning and organizational skills
    • Showing the courage to take initiative
    • Demonstrating personal and collective agency

  • Social Awareness: The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, & contexts. This includes the capacities to feel compassion for others, understand broader historical and social norms for behavior in different settings, and recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

    For example:
    • Taking others' perspectives
    • Recognizing strengths in others
    • Demonstrating empathy and compassion
    • Showing concern for the feelings of others
    • Understanding and expressing gratitude
    • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones
    • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities
    • Understanding the influences of organizations/systems on behavior

  • Relationship Skills: The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. This includes the capacities to communicate clearly, listen actively, cooperate, work collaboratively to problem solve and negotiate conflict constructively, navigate settings with differing social and cultural demands and opportunities, provide leadership, and seek or offer help when needed.

    For example:
    • Communicating effectively
    • Developing positive relationships
    • Demonstrating cultural competency
    • Practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving
    • Resolving conflicts constructively
    • Resisting negative social pressure
    • Showing leadership in groups
    • Seeking or offering support and help when needed
    • Standing up for the rights of others

  • Responsible Decision-Making: The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. This includes the capacities to consider ethical standards and safety concerns, and to evaluate the benefits and consequences of various actions for personal, social, and collective well-being.

    For example:
    • Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness
    • Identifying solutions for personal and social problems
    • Learning to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, facts
    • Anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one's actions
    • Recognizing how critical thinking skills are useful both inside & outside of school
    • Reflecting on one's role to promote personal, family, and community well-being
    • Evaluating personal, interpersonal, community, and institutional impacts

SEL & Equity

This country has a long and devastating history, perpetual struggle, and continued experience with institutional racism against Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC); and this is compounded by additional forms of oppression and inequity (often intersecting) based on ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and more. In order to work towards disrupting inequities and building equitable schools and educational institutions, it is imperative for all working in education to proactively engage in professional development and collaborative learning around issues of equity, including racial equity; culturally responsive and sustaining practices; and Social and Emotional Learning.

Strengthening students' and adults' social-emotional competencies can provide an opportunity to acknowledge and buffer trauma experienced by multiple forms of oppression and systemic inequities; strengthen a sense of positive self-worth and social awareness in connection to race, color, sex, gender identity, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation; and contribute towards dismantling systemic racism and other forms of inequity. With this in mind, educators can continually learn about goals, interests, and experiences of students and their families, and support the development of social-emotional competencies, including sharing examples and illustrations, that are congruent with the social and cultural experiences of their students. In addition to contributing to academic success, SEL programs can also support the development of students' sense of autonomy, agency, and social justice.

As CASEL notes, Transformative SEL can be a process whereby young people and adults build strong, respectful, and lasting relationships that facilitate co-learning to critically examine root causes of inequity, and to develop collaborative solutions that lead to personal, community and societal well-being.

The importance of a culturally responsive approach to SEL has been a recurrent theme in conversations with Massachusetts educators and with colleagues across the country. Department staff had heard the caution that SEL instruction that is not culturally responsive can risk perpetuating or exacerbating current inequities and becoming a source of acculturative stress for students who are not members of the dominant group. On a more optimistic note, Massachusetts educators have described the power of leveraging a culturally responsive SEL pedagogy to better engage and strengthen skills with students from all backgrounds, and to more effectively work together to dismantle racism and other forms of systemic inequities. In response to this theme, the Department offers guidance and reflective tools found in Culturally Responsive Social-Emotional Competency Development . We are deeply grateful to our educators across Massachusetts, and the country, whose contributions were instrumental to the development of this guidance document.

Four Strategies that help Strengthen Social and Emotional Competencies

CASEL has identified four general approaches to SEL instruction in schools and other learning environments:

  • Free-standing lessons that provide explicit, step-by step instructions to teach students social and emotional competencies across the five core competency clusters;
  • General teaching practices that create classroom and school-wide conditions that facilitate and support social and emotional development in students;
  • Integration of skill instruction and practices that support SEL within the context of an academic curriculum; and
  • Guidance to administrators and school leaders on how to facilitate SEL as a school-wide initiative.

Developing SEL Competencies — a tiered approach

Many schools have been working to implement multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to meet students' academic, social-emotional, and behavioral needs. In line with this, DESE updated its MTSS Blueprint to incorporate a tiered approach to SEL. In a tiered approach, educators provide high quality SEL instruction (free-standing as well as integrated into other subjects) and general practices that support universal SEL, to help all students develop SEL core competencies (tier one). Educators and support staff also use data to inform when additional efforts are needed, and provide (or help access) supplemental supports based on individual students' social and emotional needs and strengths (tier two). Additionally, more intensive supports are provided for individual student needs that are more urgent and/or intensive (tier three). Tier one SEL will generally occur in whole-school, whole-class settings, while tier two and three supports may be provided through targeted group instruction, embedded within a classroom setting, in individualized work with students, in counseling sessions, or in other settings as appropriate.

Similarly, a school and district-level tiered approach can be helpful for strengthening adult social-emotional leadership skills and competency development, e.g., offering professional learning and support for all adults' competency development, and more focused and intensive learning, coaching, and supports where helpful in ways that are equity-focused, and proactive as well as responsive. The role of adults is critical in numerous ways, including but not limited to modeling skills; selecting and implementing evidence-based culturally responsive practices and approaches; using competencies to build relationships and enhance supports and understanding of students, staff, and families; reflecting on biases and taking productive actions towards dismantling systemic inequities and advancing equity, including racial equity; and continually strengthening competencies that help adults be able to more effectively help students develop skills.

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Last Updated: April 24, 2024

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