Social Emotional Learning: Hallmarks Of Skill Development

By: Michael C. Selbst, Ph.D., BCBA-D
Behavior Therapy Associates & HI-STEP
Co-Author of POWER-Solving Curriculum

“Mom and Dad, can Emma come over to play?”
“Do you want to play together at recess?”
“Can I ride bikes with Noah?”
“We want to go the movies later, is that okay?”
“I’m meeting my friend for lunch. See you later.”

For many families and within many schools, these are familiar questions and comments heard among people trying to engage in typical social interactions; however, individuals with weaknesses in social emotional learning (SEL) commonly have difficulties with social awareness, understanding social cues, perspective taking, social initiation, social problem-solving, anger management, reciprocal conversation, and play skills.

Such deficits may result in trouble developing and maintaining friendships, avoidance of interactions, anxiety and depression, and difficulties across multiple settings. Additionally, SEL is critical for successful transitioning to adulthood, independence, and employment. We know that employers often value SEL as much, if not more, than the job skills, and such SEL skills are important for job interviews, showing up at work, navigating challenges, and managing daily workplace responsibilities,

The long-term impact of SEL is dramatic (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015), including statistically significant associations among SEL skills measured when children were in kindergarten and critical outcomes for success in adulthood. These include mental health, education, employment, criminal activity, and substance use.

So how do we begin to teach SEL? Fortunately, like reading and math, SEL can be taught through direct instruction. There needs to be a systematic plan at the heart of successful programming, one which includes:

  • Targeting specific skills
  • Setting aside time to teach
  • Using a 3-D approach (discuss the skill, demonstrate the skill, do the skill through practice)
  • Noticing and reinforcing appropriate social skills (praising the behavior: “Great job asking your friends to play!”)
  • Fostering generalization through sharing strategies with all adults working with the individual (family members, staff, employer, job coach)
  • Monitoring progress

Direct instruction / teaching of SEL can include whole-class or small-group instruction, pull-out social skills groups, lunch bunches, dyad work, morning meetings, etc. It can also be embedded throughout the day, priming students prior to activities / transitions, incidental teaching, within specials areas, supports during lunch and recess, vocational training, and within small or large group activities. The day should begin with SEL components, including greeting students on and off the bus and upon entering the school building and classroom, and ensuring that they feel safe, cared for, and comfortable.

The SEL plan needs to be monitored, with results analyzed and shared. Everyone involved should share success stories, receive updates, and continue collaborating.

Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It is important to help people experience success, engage in meaningful life activities, and feel valued and important. Ultimately, the recipe for successful SEL requires a plan adhering to evidence-based approaches, careful blending of teamwork, and sustained efforts. Together we can make a difference.

Looking for social skill solutions? Select guides and workbooks from the POWER-Solving Social Skills Curriculum are on sale now through August 20th!

Michael C. Selbst, Ph.D., BCBA-D is Director of Behavior Therapy Associates in Somerset, New Jersey. He is a Licensed Psychologist and a Certified School Psychologist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Dr. Selbst is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Doctoral Level. He has co-founded and is the Executive Director of HI-STEP® Summer Social Skills Program. He has co-authored Behavior Problems Resource Kit: Forms and Procedures for Identification, Measurement and Intervention; and co-authored (with Dr. Steven Gordon) the POWER-Solving® Social Skills Curriculum: Stepping Stones to Solving Life’s Everyday Social Problems.


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