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The Case for Social-Emotional Learning, According to the CDC

  • 4 Min Read

Youth mental health is in decline. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, social-emotional learning could help.


Research over the past decade-plus has shown that youth mental health is in decline. It’s difficult to pinpoint one specific reason. Social media, loneliness, COVID-19; researchers believe all of these are contributors to worsening mental health among our kids. And that’s just to name a few.

With so many contributing factors, there’s no single answer to helping kids improve their state of mental well-being. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) in the classroom can help. In this blog, we’ll discuss what SEL is, what the research says about it and how to implement it in your school district.

What Is SEL and What Does the CDC Say About It?

Social-emotional learning—sometimes referred to as social and emotional learning—has garnered a lot of attention in the media over the past couple of years. But what is it, exactly?

Put simply, SEL is a behavioral framework that school districts and teachers can incorporate in the classroom to help kids cultivate their interpersonal skills and manage their emotions. CASEL, a leading voice for the implementation of SEL, outlines five core competencies. They are:

  • self-management
  • responsible decision-making
  • relationship skills
  • social awareness
  • self-awareness

These competencies are fostered in school but aren’t designated subjects. Rather, teachers teach elements of each in different lessons to improve students’ skills.

The CDC has been advocating for social-emotional learning for years. In 2019, based on a study on youth mental health, the organization said that it was important schools provide programs that were “known to support adolescents’ mental health.” Among its recommendations were programs that specifically promote SEL, and especially those that focus on the five competencies listed above.

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Then, in 2021, the CDC did an updated study on youth mental health that found that more youth were experiencing difficult emotions and/or suicidal thoughts. The organization echoed the same finding, noting that “school districts can implement schoolwide programs such as those focused on social and emotional learning, professional development for staff to improve classroom management, and strategies to foster relationships between students, their families and school staff.”

Why Is Mental Health Important for Students?

Student mental health is important for a variety of reasons. The CDC report noted that worse mental health led students to feel less connected at school, and that more students had seriously considered or attempted suicide. The number of students reporting poor mental health had increased by 40% from 2009 to 2019. The latest data suggests that number has gone up another 10% throughout the pandemic.

The main reason this matters is obvious: More of our children are unhappy and more are exhibiting suicidal behaviors.

There are other reasons this matters, too. Students who are living with mental health issues are more likely to underperform in school. A study of 1,700 students from ages 3 to 20, published in Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, found that “mental health problems in early childhood and adolescence increase the risk for poor academic performance, indicating the need for awareness and treatment to provide fair opportunities to education.”

Without proper mental health support, our students aren’t getting sufficient chances to reach their academic potential.

Why Is Social-Emotional Learning Important?

“Efforts to improve connectedness to schools, peers, and family are critical to protecting the mental health and well-being of youths.” That’s according to the CDC’s report on youth mental health; the same sentiment is echoed in its dedicated page for adolescent health. The latter also notes that adults who had a strong sense of connectedness in their youth were between 48% and 66% less likely to experience mental health issues or violence or use substances.

The prosocial skills that SEL improves help foster stronger connections. A 2011 meta-analysis cited on the CASEL website found that students in SEL programs “showed improved classroom behavior … and better attitudes about themselves, others and school.” Self-confidence and better attitudes toward one another result in stronger relationships among classmates and an environment of positivity rather than one of put-downs.

Implementing SEL in Your District

There are many tangible ways that you can implement social-emotional learning in your district. The important thing to remember is that each learning stakeholder has, well, a stake. Here are five steps that districts can take to implement SEL in classrooms:

  1. Professional development: Train teachers to deliver SEL instruction in the classroom (it also has significant benefits for them).
  2. Partnerships: Engage the members of a learning community—think families, teachers, school districts—to help share the responsibility of SEL with educators. It also helps students get a broader SEL experience.
  3. Diverse classrooms: Create a culturally responsive environment for students and educators alike by leveraging the students’ community contexts in their lessons.
  4. Corrective strategies: Provide a foundation for positive long-term outcomes by helping teachers to manage challenging behaviors without reprimanding students.
  5. Student voice: Allow students the opportunity to be their own advocates when appropriate. Students are stakeholders in their own learning and must be active partners in long-term planning.

Explore Free Online SEL Resources

There are hundreds of resources to help you get started with your SEL journey. That includes our very own D2L Masterclass on social-emotional learning. Register now and take the course for free.

Written by:

Chase Banger
Chase Banger

Chase Banger is a Content Marketing Specialist at D2L. An award-winning journalist and former communications specialist, he has a passion for helping people through education.

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Table of Contents
  1. What Is SEL and What Does the CDC Say About It?
  2. Why Is Mental Health Important for Students?
  3. Why Is Social-Emotional Learning Important?
  4. Implementing SEL in Your District
  5. Explore Free Online SEL Resources