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Can Social-Emotional Learning be Standards-Based?

Updated: Jul 6, 2019

The following post is organized into five distinct sections, each marked by one of the following questions:

How do we know states are even interested in SEL?

How does a state even begin writing standards for Social-Emotional Learning?

With so much research developing about SEL, how can schools possible keep up?

Ok, but does the need for SEL require that it be "standards-based"?

How I begin exploring the core of a standards-based SEL Framework?


How do we know states are even interested in SEL?

Two states have developed and approved SEL standards to be utilized in classrooms. The first is Illinois and the second is Ohio. Other states have been working on developing guildelines, benchmarks, and visions for state-wide SEL frameworks but only two so far have approved and implemented grade-level SEL standards.

The Illinois Board of Education approved an initiative to address Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) which preceded the State of Illinois’ Children’s Mental Health Act of 2003.

Illinois published two sets of SEL standards - grades 1-5 and grades 6-12. These performance standards detail the skills students are expected to develop according to a particular range of grade-levels. Strategies and posters are provided to assist in the implementation of these standards in classrooms. Each "stage" of these SEL performance stages has various amounts of observable skills and expectations. These SEL standards can be found on Illinois' State Board of Education website but no official assessments or means of reporting SEL growth is available (at least not as easily as finding the standards if they do exist). According to their website:

These standards have been developed in accordance with Section 15(a) of Public Act 93-0495. This Act calls upon the Illinois State Board of Education to "develop and implement a plan to incorporate social and emotional development standards as part of the Illinois Learning Standards." The Illinois State Board of Education partners with Illinois Classrooms in Action to provide a wide variety of resources, including social emotional learning competencies organized by grade band.

Fast-forward about ten years for a visit to the state of Ohio. This state has recently approved SEL state standards for elementary, middle, and high school. This is not their first SEL accomplishment. In 2012, Ohio adopted the Early Learning and Development Standards for children birth to kindergarten. In 2015, Ohio extended this to include kindergarten through third grade. In 2018, they began developing social and emotional learning standards for kindergarten through grade twelve. Last month, Ohio has approved their state's K-12 SEL standards for K-12 classrooms. Nevertheless, this is only the second state that has approved and begun implementing a standards-based approach to Social-Emotional Learning (SEL).

Several states have developed standards for a more broad look at what is generally expected of students with regard to their social and emotional development. Many of these states organize their SEL standards into grade-level ranges with statements that develop across those ranges. For example, Washington State has SEL benchmarks that can be found here. According to their website, the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) was directed by the Washington State Legislature "to convene a Social Emotional Learning Benchmarks workgroup to recommend comprehensive standards and benchmarks." In 2016, learning modules began to be developed and by 2017 began work on best practices for implementing grade-level SEL indicators.

Clearly, more states are steadily developing their own vision for a standards-based approach to Social-Emotional Learning, but that doesn't address the question of whether we should be moving in this direction.

How does a state even begin writing standards for Social-Emotional Learning?

States in the process of developing SEL standards are relying most heavily on the research coming out of The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) which defined SEL more than two decades ago. CASEL defines SEL as:

the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

From this definition, two decades of research continues to support the need for developing and integrating more explicit social and emotional learning education systems across the country.

There are five SEL competencies that are targeted in CASEL's research. Although states are writing their own standards to address their state's particular needs according to the professionals and constituents of their state, all states address at least these five competencies:

  • Self-Awareness.

  • Self-Management.

  • Responsible Decision Making.

  • Social Awareness.

  • Relationship Skills.

Each core competency is then broken into even more specific topics.


  • Identifying emotions

  • Accurate self-perception

  • Recognizing strengths

  • Self-confidence

  • Self-efficacy


  • Impulse control

  • Stress management

  • Self-discipline

  • Self-motivation

  • Goal-setting

  • Organizational skills


  • Perspective-taking

  • Empathy

  • Appreciating diversity

  • Respect for others

Relationship Skills:

  • Communication

  • Social engagement

  • Relationship-building

  • Teamwork

Responsible Decision-Making

  • Identifying problems

  • Analyzing situations

  • Solving problems

  • Evaluating

  • Reflecting

  • Ethical responsibility

The importance of these skills is rarely argued but it is often debated whether these five competencies and their related topics are being addressed effectively. The reason for such debates is a hot topic that I am currently in the process of researching and writing about (be sure to subscribe and stay tuned!) Nonetheless, research continues to instill the need for Social-Emotional Learning in public schools. This year, the Aspen Institute published a report titled From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope: Recommendations from the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. The title refers to a 1983 report titled 'A Nation at Risk' that sparked the movement towards a standards-based system of education that's now finally seeing more progress in that direction. This reports' comprehensive research connects how academic learning is dependent on social and emotional development. This brings me to the question at hand:

CASEL continues to research how SEL can be approached with a standards-based perspective, addressing specific skill sets organized into competencies and topics.

With so much research developing about SEL, how can schools possible keep up?

I had the pleasure of speaking with teachers from across the country at various conferences these past few years, including teachers from Illinois, Ohio, and the state of Washington. I've come to realize that, although states are developing and approving means for addressing social-emotional learning in their classrooms from a legislative perspective, there has been less of a push to mandate oversight and accountability of these standards in those classrooms.

It is my understanding that the state perspective is that of long-term generational change which allows for these standards to be developed and adjusted over time as needed. It is also my understanding that the school perspective is not one single perspective with a single opinion toward this development of social-emotional learning but a collection of many different perspectives that incorporate students, families, teachers, staff, and administrators that all may have a slightly different approach to handing social and emotional development.

The challenge is not only in how much research is available and whether schools can keep up with additional standards and expectations. The challenge is the inherent need for a school-wide (or even a district-wide) framework that not only defines language and provides guidance for handling SEL in the classroom but must also address the same needs that support community-wide communication of these core SEL competencies.

Ok, but does the need for SEL require that it be "standards-based"?

Not only should SEL be standards-based, it should be the indicator for healthy human development of all involved in a school's healthy community. Developing self-awareness must not be a thirty-minute a week lesson that can be forgotten after a bi-monthly multiple-choice assessment. Internalizing strategies for resolving a conflict in either oneself or in a social setting must not be introduced in an after-school detention session. The need for SEL must not only exist but which implementation must be explicitly intentional. By identifying the need for a community's school-age children to develop specific awareness of emotions and their reactions to others' emotions, you are identifying the need for specific mechanisms for developing such competencies which can then be infused into a classroom's ethos. Without knowing precisely which skill sets a classroom roster of students may be lacking (or be quite strong in fact), the inexperienced teacher will overlook the need to utilize such mechanisms and the parents will not have any reference for understanding why certain mechanisms for developing SEL skills are being suggested as exercises outside of the classroom.

In fear of being misunderstood or misconstrued, an objective approach to SEL is not to objectify the human development of an individual child. There is no age-based timeline by which SEL skills or competencies must develop by certain years or weeks of a person's life. A standards-based approach to social-emotional learning is in no way intended to praise or punish a student (or teacher) but to provide the resources based on the needs of those involved in student learning as means for support in becoming healthy humans in the long term.

How I begin exploring the core of a standards-based SEL Framework?

It is my belief that we should have a standards-based approach to social-emotional learning. By understanding how humans develop socially and emotionally, cognitively and psychosocially, we may better understand how humans learn academically such that students become aware of their own ability to develop their capacity for learning in social environments.

The following image is my own design for identifying growth of SEL skills and one that I hope to bring to schools in the coming years. My framework reorganizes CASEL's five core competencies into eight domains, pictured here:

Each domain has either two or three topics. These topics are then broken into stages and tiered for increasing development of individual skills. The particular breakdown of skills is not detailed here but is based on the same research-based competencies referenced by so many state standards. The difference is in its organization.

The standards are detailed in each stage (not shown here). The standards are not designed to be tasks and are not defined by any means of grade proficiency. The depth of discussion on these matters are a natural evolution of a standards-based approach. When applied toward a social-emotional learning framework such as this, many strengths of a school's SEL program can be identified and utilized to develop those areas that may need supplemental support.

I'll add one more thing about why we should have a standards-based approach to social-emotional learning. Because this framework is not a program, it allows for any school to keep the curriculum or program it currently has in place. With this framework, schools can identify which competency areas are most positively supported through specific lessons, purchased curriculum, or in-house program. The goal here is not to provide a quick-fix to solve all concerns with a single product but rather to provide a means for ongoing organization and feedback of desired skill development that may otherwise feel overwhelming all at once.

If you would like to learn more about how my framework and how to utilize it with your classroom or school program, email me at

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