(Re)Discovering Social Emotional Learning

At a recent national conference, I happened upon several sessions dedicated to Social Emotional Learning (SEL)—a framework that supports self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

As I read research-based handouts, listened to keynote speakers, watched videos, and participated in enthusiastic round-robin discussions, I couldn’t help but wonder why the participants were so in awe of and eager to embrace something that I thought was a well-established philosophy.

Although packaged differently, SEL is much like the philosophy that middle level educators have practiced, supported, and This We Believed for decades! I was caught between the excitement of jumping on the bandwagon with these conference colleagues and wanting to stand up and shout, “Hey, wait a minute! How come no one listened when we shared similar beliefs about advisory, teaming, and interdisciplinary projects 20 years ago?”

As breakout sessions ended, I pushed my way to the front of the room to chat with the presenters, shake hands with facilitators, and declare, “You’re speaking my language!” Many of the presenters nodded in agreement with my sentiments; however, one particular keynoter’s eyes lit up when I told him I was a middle level teacher. He knew why this topic was near and dear to my heart because he too “got it” when it came to supporting and nurturing early adolescents through SEL.

I had found another kindred spirit in Ed Dunkelblau of the Institute for Emotionally Intelligent Learning (www.teacheq.com). A statement on the institute’s website illustrates the alignment between SEL and middle level philosophy: “[SEL] is at the heart of a child’s academic, personal, social and civic development.” These words echoed This We Believe and Turning Points! In today’s test-frenzied, tunnel-vision, data-focused educational world where teachers cry out “I teach children, not numbers!” I felt validated by the SEL movement that’s now being embraced by broader education circles.

I left the conference with a renewed sense of responsibility to reinforce the tenets of middle level beliefs and the practices endorsed by SEL, and to help educators who believe in bridging the gap between the two like-minded frameworks.

SEL and Middle Level

Here are the five competencies of SEL as presented by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (www.casel.org). They should sound familiar to middle grades educators.

1. Self-awareness is the ability to recognize our emotions and thoughts and understand how they affect our behavior. Self-awareness also means being able to assess our own strengths and limitations. Young adolescents usually are eager to share their assets but much more reserved when it comes to exposing their weaknesses or sharing their innermost thoughts and emotions.

2. Self-management means regulating our behaviors, emotions, and actions on a regular basis. The ability to self-manage ties directly to setting and achieving goals—personal and academic. To most young adolescents, the future seems far away and goal-setting difficult; however, learning how to set goals teaches them about achievement, failure, and perseverance in a friendly environment.

3. Social awareness introduces the ability to understand various perspectives, recognize social and ethical norms, and have empathy for others. Working cooperatively in heterogeneous/flexible grouping promotes divergent thinking and tolerance among learners. Advisory plays a critical role here and enables teachers to offer a variety of activities that support social awareness in the here and now, as well as for future opportunities and environments.

4. Relationship skills encourage students to use the understanding they acquired through social awareness. By honing their relationship skills, students become cooperative, effective communicators who do not judge others. Collaborative activities in the classroom help strengthen relationship skills.

5. Responsible decision making helps learners shape their character and reputation through the personal and social choices they make. By weighing the pros and cons of various situations, students are able to determine the best course of action. Role playing, small-group problem solving, and personal reflections help students process short- and long-term decision making.

I left the conference hungry for more literature and resources that support the SEL movement and its connections to middle level philosophy. Initially, I was irritated by the fact that SEL seemed to garner more attention than the long-standing best practices of middle school practitioners; however, the bottom line is if it’s good for kids, it needs to be done, regardless of how we get there. I am excited to promote the new and renewed practices!

Sandy Cameli is coordinator of teacher induction and mentoring for West Hawaii Schools. drcameli808@gmail.com

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2014.


  1. I really liked this article’s discussion of the five competencies focused on in social-emotional learning. I am preparing to become a middle school teacher and several of my classes have talked about the importance of teaching social-emotional skills to students during this time in their lives. I thought it was already a huge this that everyone thought about and focused on in their curriculum. This article made me realize how radical it can be to focus on social-emotional skills with students.