social and emotional learning


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As professors dedicated to improving our teaching, we often grapple with the challenge of limited time to influence our students’ learning experiences. As experts in our fields, we bear the responsibility of not only imparting knowledge and fostering critical thinking but also cultivating a supportive classroom community and addressing students’ “soft skills.” Recognizing the significance of these additional components, I delved into research to explore the benefits of integrating social and emotional learning (SEL) into my lessons. The profound impact I discovered convinced me to gradually incorporate SEL components into both online and in-person classes, resulting in a transformed classroom climate and enhanced student learning. In this article, I hope to share how effortless and valuable it can be for you to embark on a similar journey with your students.

The importance of SEL in higher education

Initially, I considered social and emotional skills to be the domain of elementary and secondary teachers, thinking that as a college instructor I needed to focus primarily on content coverage. But I came to understand that SEL encompasses a process through which learners at all levels, including adults, acquire and apply the necessary knowledge and skills to understand and manage emotions, set goals, demonstrate empathy, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (CASEL, n.d.).

While SEL has long found favor in K–12 education, its application in higher education is on the rise, with emerging research highlighting its positive impacts. Conley (2015) argues that incorporating SEL competencies in learning leads to various positive outcomes within and beyond the course. These outcomes encompass improved academic performance, higher retention rates, success in the workforce, positive interpersonal relationships, and enhanced mental health and overall well-being. Recent studies have also shown that SEL implementation can help overcome barriers in working with international students (Yeh et al., 2021). Furthermore, SEL teaching strategies have demonstrated increased interest and motivation in earth science classes and improvements in the classroom environment (Biber, 2020; Elmi, 2020).

According to CASEL, a leading organization for SEL, the five core competencies of SEL are self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills. To integrate SEL into my classroom, I began by targeting these competencies and implementing readily accessible practices. These practices included conducting regular check-ins with students (self-awareness), facilitating goal setting and progress reflection (self-management), providing opportunities for paired interviews (relationship skills), using field-based scenarios (responsible decision making), and cultivating a growth mindset and fostering a sense of belonging (social awareness). The results were consistently positive, not only benefiting my students but also transforming the classroom environment into a welcoming, relaxed, and enjoyable space.

Strategies for incorporating SEL competencies in teaching

To help you integrate social and emotional activities into your classroom routine, Table 1 below provides several ideas and specific strategies for each SEL competency (some of which you may be doing already).

SEL CompetencyGeneral IdeasSpecific Strategies
  • Implement mindfulness exercises and reflective writing prompts.
  • Encourage students to identify their strengths and areas for growth.
  • Facilitate self-assessments and self-reflection on learning progress
  • Incorporate check-in poll questions like, “On a scale of 1–5, how are you emotionally coping with your school-life balance?”
  • Use existing surveys (e.g., Dweck’s mindset survey, self-efficacy surveys) that can assist students with self-reflection.
  • Teach time management and organization skills.
  • Provide opportunities for setting and tracking goals.
  • Foster strategies for stress management and emotional regulation.
  • Provide students with a clear checklist of assignments and their corresponding due dates.
  • Have students set goals and encourage them to reflect on their progress.
Relationship skills
  • Facilitate collaborative group work and team-building exercises.
  • Promote effective communication and conflict resolution strategies.
  • Create opportunities for peer mentoring and community engagement.
  • Use icebreakers and community-building activities.
  • Incorporate online tools such as Google Jamboard, Padlet, and Flip to enhance collaboration.
Social awareness
  • Encourage active listening and empathy-building activities.
  • Create safe spaces and activities such as introductions, discussions and projects that allow students to express themselves authentically.
  • Incorporate diverse perspectives through guest speakers, literature, or multimedia.
  • Discuss social issues and global challenges to foster understanding.
Responsible decision making  
  • Promote analysis of consequences and consideration of diverse perspectives.
  • Engage students in ethical discussions and case studies.
  • Teach and model decision-making models.
  • Present real-world scenarios for problem solving and critical thinking.
  • Facilitate role-playing exercises to simulate decision-making skills in a safe environment.
Table 1. General ideas and specific strategies for incorporating more SEL elements in teaching


By integrating SEL into our teaching practices, we invest in our students’ holistic growth, leading to a transformed classroom climate and improved learning outcomes. The incorporation of social and emotional activities does not demand significant time commitments but offers substantial benefits for our students’ academic, personal, and professional development. As professors, we must seize the opportunity to create inclusive, supportive learning environments where our students can thrive academically and develop essential life skills. Time spent on SEL is truly time well spent.


Biber, D. (2020). Social emotional learning for a college classroom. College Teaching, 68(1), 49–52.

CASEL. (n.d.). Fundamentals of SEL. Retrieved June 1, 2023, from

Conley, C. S. (2015). SEL in higher education. In J. A. Durlak, C. E. Domitrovich, R. P. Weissberg, & T. P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of social and emotional learning: Research and practice (pp. 197–212). The Guilford Press.

Elmi, C. (2020). Integrating social emotional learning strategies in higher education. European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education, 10(3), 848–858.

Yeh, E., Sharma, R., Jaiswal-Oliver, M., & Wan, G. (2021). Culturally responsive social emotional learning for international students: Professional development for higher education. Journal of International Students, 12(1), 19–41.

David Pratt, PhD, is an associate professor of teacher education at Purdue University Northwest. He specializes in preparing K–12 preservice teachers for effective uses of assessment and educational technology. He has won several teaching awards and serves as a peer coach for faculty through Purdue Northwest’s Center for Faculty Excellence.