What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

If you have ever spent a great deal of time in the college classroom, then you are surely aware of the long-standing jokes concerning “group projects.” The trick has always been that the more academically inclined student bears the entire weight of the project while the other students exert little effort but manage to reap the benefits of the harder working student. Perhaps, however, this problem and others like it may find an answer in the “new” classroom environment which relies on SEL methods. In teaching English online, I have found that the SEL method encourages character education and positive skill sets. SEL is an abbreviation for Social and Emotional Learning and according to Collaborative for Academic, Social,and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “is 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.”1 SEL is a powerful learning tool that can prepare students for the workforce and culturally diverse environments. For those teaching English online, SEL skill sets are the most important concepts you can communicate to your students. Your online students encounter the same problems, anxieties, and emotional barriers as those students sitting in a physical classroom. Social Emotional Learning and character education can shape the future of education by creating a new classroom environment that values diversity, management of emotions and empowering students with positive skills that they can return to their workforce and community. Let us turn our attention now to social emotional learning skills you should convey to your students when teaching English online.

social emotional learning using iPad

Social Emotional Learning and why it Matters in the Online Classroom

According to Kim Gulbrandson, Ph.D., social emotional learning facilitates positive skill sets and encourages, “understanding one’s own attitudes and how they contribute to behavior so that one can make responsible decisions.”2 In teaching English online, tutors may find that students who embrace social emotional learning also value productivity, empathy and positive learning environments that allow for creativity and risk-taking. Online students appear, at first glance, the most disadvantaged in the classroom because they do not have physical access to their instructor or classmates. However, online students have an advantage in that they are more willing to take risks because of the distance and space which they are free to operate in. For those teaching English online, you have the opportunity to shape your student’s attitude and behavior through positive feedback, correction, and social interaction. SEL matters because it can prepare students for life after high school by helping them develop socially, emotionally and intellectually. This type of learning also provides students with cross-cultural skills such as self-esteem, self-efficiency, and sociability.3 These characteristics are vital skills that students need to succeed in college, the workforce and as an active and productive member of the community.

SEL social emotional learning between two students

According to CASEL, social emotional learning must incorporate the SAFE traits: sequenced (which focuses on coordinated activities that encourage skill development), active (interactive learning aimed at mastering new skills and behaviors), focused (which emphasizes the development of interpersonal skills) and explicit (which teaches specific skills related to feelings, managing behavior, and problem solving).4 Moreover, the difference between regular teaching methods and social emotional learning is that rather than focusing on the mere repetition, memorization, and explanation of information and skill sets, SEL focuses on the actual implementation of skill sets and managing emotions. One learning method is passive; the other is active. Social emotional learning is important for those teaching English online because it encourages risk-taking and building self-esteem and respect in the classroom which is vital for student success. According to Amy Eva Ph.D., “if teens feel competent, autonomous, and valued in their community—if they have a sense of high status and respect, in other words—they’re likely to be more motivated and engaged.”5 In teaching English online, I have found that social emotional learning offers the greatest opportunity for my students to learn respect and how to value the opinions of others. In several of my classes, rather than have my students answer random questions, I ask students questions about what they want to be when they grow up, what classes they enjoy most and what they talk about with their family and friends. This allows me to positively influence my students by shaping their perceptions of behavior, respecting their peers and elders, and managing emotions.

The skills learned are varied and numerous but include skills for everyday success such as cooperation, communication, responsible decision making, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, personal responsibility, relationship skills, empathy, problem solving and assertiveness. In teaching English online, you will find that these skills sets will help your students gain confidence, control their emotions, make responsible decisions and successfully collaborate with other students for positive outcomes (kudos to group projects). Social emotional learning can also help your students manage their emotions by practicing empathy, overcoming anxiety, managing their time and creating a safe learning space by discouraging bullying and encouraging risk-taking. According to one source the impact of social emotional learning includes “…academic improvement, greater results for students with early-identified problems, better social interactions, improved social behavior, ability to care for themselves, and less aggressive and/or disruptive behavior.”6 Moreover, social emotional learning matters for those teaching English online because it increases student engagement and performance while developing valuable skill sets that your students will need for the workforce and community relations.

Boy in online classroom

Social Emotional Learning and the New Classroom Environment

Social emotional learning is an invaluable learning tool for tutors teaching English online because it offers a support system that connects students to their teachers and each other. Social emotional learning is all about behavior management and communication. When I am teaching English online, I try to have my students interact with their parents and classmates. In one activity, I had a list of questions that the student had to ask their mother and father and classmates (questions about careers, friends, interests, and leisure). Examples include: What does your mom like to do? What job does your father work? How many friends do you have? What do you talk about with your classmates? This brought the students closer to their parents and their classmates through shared interests and activities. Social emotional learning can serve as an emotional support system as well that gets the student, parents, and community actively involved in learning. According to one source, “…SEL programming fosters students’ social-emotional development through establishing safe, caring learning environments involving peer and family initiatives, improved classroom management and teaching practices, and whole-school community-building activities.”7 When you are teaching English online, it is important that you employ activities that establish a support system that encourages risk-taking and a safe learning place for mistakes to be made without fear of rejection. Eva suggests utilizing activities and games that recognize a student’s strengths and talents such as challenging students to focus on and perform a different character strength every week until it becomes a habit. Accordingly, “…if a student wants to capitalize on kindness as a strength, he might perform a random act of kindness for a peer, write a thank-you note to a teacher, or volunteer to care for abandoned animals at a local shelter over the weekend.”8 However, this may be more of a challenge for those teaching English online. For online tutors, it may be easier to have students interact with shy students and make them feel welcome in class or having all the students applaud a fellow student who gets an answer correct. The important thing to remember is that your online classroom should serve as a support system where students can release anxiety, learn to manage their emotions and learn to interact and collaborate with their classmates for positive learning outcomes.

Social emotional learning cannot be memorized; it must be acted out in the classroom whether through action or spoken word. I have found that the only successful way to implement social emotional learning when teaching English online is through activities and games that create support systems. Focusing on character strengths can increase self-esteem and reduce depression especially in teens who suffer the most from performance anxiety and fear of failure. Accordingly, “it’s easy for us to focus on our weaknesses and personal challenges, but when we spend time making the most of our positive qualities, we can build greater self-esteem and confidence.”9 When I am teaching English online with older students, I try to include activities that encourage students to work toward social change, self-improvement and thinking about career possibilities and their future self. I ask questions such as: What would you do if you saw a classmate cheating on an exam? What would you do if someone were being bullied at your school? What job do you want to work? What should you do if you are angry with someone? These questions can reinforce behavior management and help students understand their strengths, skills, and what they can do to help those around them. When I first started teaching English online, I had a student who was very rude to his classmates. I began to ask him questions about how he would respond if he were being bullied or if his friend was. These questions set him to thinking, and since then his behavior has greatly improved as well as his performance in class.

Moreover, social emotional learning is key to creating a support system where all students are free to learn, explore their strengths and take risks. According to secondstep.org, “children who are socially and emotionally competent have more friends and more connections with positive peers, and are less likely to be rejected, isolated, or bullied.”10 For those teaching English online, social emotional learning is the best tool you have available to help your students develop their strengths to help serve them in the workforce and their future community. A classroom environment that values diversity, risk-taking and a positive support system will be successful in developing the social emotional learning process.

How can I Apply Social Emotional Learning in the Online Classroom?

For those teaching English online, the task of applying social emotional learning in the classroom may seem impossible. Social emotional learning, however, can be taught in the classroom explicitly through modeled behavior (by the tutor) and activities. Activities can include individual writing, making assignments that the parents and children can work on together and reinforcing ideas through games, questions, and problem-solving. Classroom discussions are your best outlet for applying social emotional learning if you are teaching English online.

Sample discussion questions can include:

  • Moral questions: What would you do if you saw someone stealing?
  • Social questions: What can we do to help people in poverty?
  • Intellectual questions: What job do you want to have someday?
  • Lifestyle questions: What can you do to be healthy?

Other activities can involve action. When you are teaching English online, encourage your students to engage in positive behaviors and perform random acts of kindness or make responsible lifestyle choices. It is important to remember as you are teaching English online that social emotional learning must be actively taught (or explicit) and not just memorized. According to one source, “…if students are taught what gratitude is, but there is no instruction on skills for expressing gratitude, it is not explicit.”11 Try giving your students scenario problems to solve when you are teaching English online (such as questions about stealing, cheating, or bullying and how to respond to these negative behaviors). Remember, when you are teaching English online, that the best way to implement social emotional learning skills is to model those skills in yourself.

You may wonder how you can assess social emotional learning in your online classroom. You can measure skill development in relation to social emotional learning with the DESSA system or Devereux Students Strengths Assessment. According to Kickboard, “the DESSA System provides a comprehensive, cloud-based system for assessing, informing and improving these social and emotional skills of children both in-school and out-of-school.”12 It is not necessary to have such a program when you are teaching English online; however, it may provide tutors with the information necessary to track the development of social emotional learning in the online classroom. Katy McWhirter has also provided a valuable list of ways to implement SEL in the classroom such as innovative intervention programs, positive encouragement (TPR is good for this), emphasis on working together and getting the whole school involved in SEL learning.13 I would add that warm-ups are great outlets for conveying
SEL skills for those who are teaching English online. I like to ask my younger students questions about friendship and how they spend their time with their family. This can reinforce notions about behavior and how to spend one’s time wisely. For my older students, I like to ask warm-ups that relate to their social life and their interactions with older people. When you are teaching English online, you must continually remind yourself that SEL offers countless positive outcomes in the classroom. According to Concordia University’s College of Education, “…SEL students showed lasting decreases in negative outcomes such as conduct problems, emotional distress, and drug use, compared to control groups.”14 You must ask yourself what you can do to actively teach SEL skills and behaviors while you are teaching English online.

1 CASEL (n.d.). What is SEL? Retrieved from https://casel.org/what-is-sel/
2 Gulbrandson, Kim. “Character Education and SEL: What You Should Know.” Committee for Children. July 31, 2018. Accessed March 07, 2019 https://www.cfchildren.org/blog/2018/07/character-education-and-sel-what-you-should-know/.
3 CASEL (n.d.). What is SEL? Retrieved from https://casel.org/what-is-sel/
4 Gulbrandson, Kim. “Character Education and SEL: What You Should Know.”
5 Eva, A. (2019, April 05). Making SEL More Relevant to Teens. Retrieved from
6 McWhirter, K., Rhodes, J. B., & McNall, P. (2018, November 28). Why Social-Emotional Learning Matters | Resources and Expert Advice. Retrieved from https://www.accreditedschoolsonline.org/resources/social-emotional-learning/
7 Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning:A Meta-Analysis of School Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 407. Retrieved from
8 Eva, A. Making SEL More Relevant to Teens.
9 Eva, A. Making SEL More Relevant to Teens.
10 Second Step. Teach Children the Skills They Need to Thrive. (n.d.). Retrieved from
11 Gulbrandson, Kim. “Character Education and SEL: What You Should Know.”
12 DESSA System Assessment Tool. (n.d.). Retrieved from
13 McWhirter, K., Rhodes, J. B., & McNall, P. Why Social-Emotional Learning Matters | Resources and Expert Advice.
14 Why We Really Need SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) Now. (2018, October 23). Retrieved from https://education.cu-portland.edu/blog/leaders-link/social-emotional-learning-defined/

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