Distance Learning has made crystal clear something I’ve been saying for a long time: everything educators hope to accomplish with students, their parents, staff, and schools ought to pass through the door of healthy relationships, which is an important aspect of Social-Emotional Learning. Let me explain.

Several teachers have asked me, “what can we do now to reach our students who aren’t logging in or turning in any of their assignments?” I’ll tell you what I’ve told them: 

If you did not have healthy relationships with your students before schools transitioned to do distance learning, then it unlikely you will be able to reach your disengaged students now. They won't believe you.

Relationships between teachers and their students are the real foundation upon which education is built. For a school culture to be healthy, the relationships at that school must be strong. That is, in order for students to succeed in school, and graduate prepared to succeed at work and in life, you should strive wholeheartedly to develop the social and emotional dimensions of your relationships with them. 

What is the Definition of Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

In 1994, a group of educators, researchers, and child advocates met in Kalamazoo, MI, at the Fetzer Institute, to discuss effective strategies to help families, educators, and community members to raise and educate children to become 

  • Critical thinkers
  • Culturally informed 
  • Lifelong learners
  • Positive family members 
  • Good neighbors 
  • Involved citizens 
  • Productive workers

They also wanted to find ways to prevent and reduce health, mental health, and behavior problems. 

The Fetzer Group introduced the term “social-emotional learning” as a conceptual framework to help them achieve those goals of educating the whole child.

A few years later, in 1997, the people who attended that earlier meeting also launched the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), an organization that aims to help establish evidence-based SEL as an essential part of preschool through high school education.  

Social-Emotional Learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that can enhance personal development, establish satisfying interpersonal relationships, and lead to effective and ethical work and productivity (Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich, and Gullotta 2015, 6).

Social-Emotional Learning is generally broken down into 5 categories:

1. Self-Awareness.

This involves understanding your emotions, personal goals, and values.  The core competencies of self-awareness enable you to:  

  • Identify and describe how you feel.
  • Accurately assess your own strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Have a positive self-concept.
  • Possess a growth mindset.
  • Have confidence in your abilities to succeed in specific situations or accomplish tasks.

2. Self-Management 

This involves you having skills and attitudes to control how you feel and behave. In order to be effective at managing yourself, you must have the ability to:

  • Set and achieve positive goals.
  • Organize your time and resources to achieve those goals. 
  • Motivate yourself to achieve your goals.
  • Discipline yourself to persevere even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Control your impulses rather than letting them control you. 
  • Manage your stress in healthy ways.

3. Social-Awareness 

This involves your ability to see and understand the people and situations around you. To have social-awareness, you:

  • Can see things the way other people see them.
  • Feel and show compassion for people when they experience pain.
  • Appreciate personal, ethnic, and cultural differences.
  • Respect others even if you do not agree with them.
  • You are aware of the social norms for behavior and speech.
  • You know about resources and support in your family, school, and community.

4. Relationship Skills 

This competence involves you being able to start and sustain healthy and mutually-rewarding relationships with other people. It also helps you with conflict resolution. Relationship skills also help you speak and behave according to norms that are socially acceptable. Healthy relationship-building skills help you to:

  • Establish and maintain positive relationships
  • Start and sustain conversations.
  • Listen to others attentively.
  • Communicate clearly.
  • Resist pressure from others to do something wrong.
  • Handle disagreements without becoming violent or destructive. 
  • Seek and offer help when needed.
  • Work well with others to achieve a common goal. 

5. Responsible Decision-Making 

This competence involves your ability to make choices about how you should behave and interact with others in different situations based on your consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, realistic evaluations of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of yourself and others. 

To be able to make responsible decisions:

  • You can identify problems.
  • You can solve problems. 
  • You can analyze situations.
  • You can evaluate behaviors and situations.
  • You can reflect on your behavior.
  • You can choose the best course for yourself and others.

What about the L of SEL? 

You might be asking, “the above 5 categories cover the social and emotional parts of SEL, but what about the L?”  To develop the attitude, knowledge, and skills we just covered is going to take a lot of time and effort. That is, learning those things is a process. (Weissberg, Durlak, Domitrovich, and Gullotta 2015, 6-7). 

What are the benefits of SEL for Students?

Research shows that when your students develop self-awareness, can self-manage, understand their social surroundings, can start and grow healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions, they will have the academic performance, emotional competencies necessary to succeed in school, and graduate prepared to succeed at work and in life. Also, SEL can also improve school climate. Simply put, SEL skills are fundamental to success. 

Why We Need Social-Emotional Learning More than Ever

Growing up, I lacked self-awarenessself-management skills, and social-awareness tooI lacked the ability to build healthy relationships, and I won't even get into all of the things I did that grew out of my inability to make responsible decisions

What's my point?

Many of your students lack these SEL skills too!

Why is that important for you to understand?

I used to be a child who was very “distant,” even when I did go to school. So I understand personally why so many students today are completely disengaged; and, it’s not just because of the difficulty of their situations at home.

To be sure, some students are disengaged because their parents don’t care (or, because of work and other stresses, don’t have the strength or time to care) about their education. However, many of your students have nothing externally keeping them from logging in or completing their school work.  

Furthermore, some students don’t have an internet connection or a computer on which to do their work, but, again, there is nothing that is keeping many of them from completing their packets. After overseeing the digital/virtual learning process of two of my children for the last couple of months, I actually think completing schoolwork via packets is less of a hassle. 

To be completely honest, the rigor of the work being assigned is not the reason many of your underperforming, impoverished students refuse to log in. Many of them are not logging in or turning in their work because the way distance learning is being done- it is often disintegrated, disconnected, and filled with a deluge of busy-ness. Students (and parents) are having to navigate multiple platforms, classes, teacher emails DAILY!).  

If you want more of your students to log in and complete their assignments, they need self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making skills.

Ideally, someone at home should be teaching those things to them, but, as you probably know, that is not happening for many students. They have not been taught several of the core competencies necessary for success. They have not been in learning environments that have taught them emotional intelligence, impulse control, problem-solving, and other SEL skills.  

Because of that, SEL skills must come from someone. Why can't it be you, their teacher?

I put together a nice document to help you empower your students some SEL skills. You can download it at the bottom of this page. 

Even if you have to try teach your students these skills from afar, your return on investment will be worth it. 


  • Social-Emotional Learning is Fundamental to educating students today.
  • SEL is usually broken down into 5 categories.
  • Many of your students lack SEL skills
  • SEL can position your students to flourish in school and life.


If you want help your students become self-aware, self-managing, socially-aware, relationally-healthy people who know how to make responsible decisions, I created a two-page document for you called, "Tips to Help Your Students Develop SEL Skills."

It will help you to:

  • Remember the 5 categories of SEL so you can use them in your planning and interactions with your students.
  • Empower you to educate the whole child. 
  • Become an even more amazing teacher (you're already awesome because you are still reading this!). 

Free Download: Tips to Help You Empower Your Students with SEL Skills