SEL (social-emotional learning) has found itself in the hotbed of an extremely emotional and political spotlight. What started as an innocent concept revolving around understanding and learning about non-academic elements of a student’s life, has quickly been associated or disassociated with theories, concepts, and practices outside of its scope. 

The Problem:

Key drivers:

  • Confusion and baggage on educational terminology and acronyms
  • Edtech vendors attempting to capture market share through poorly made products
  • Unprecedented involvement from student parents and guardians
  • Politics

The truth is, SEL was doomed from the start. Looking at emotional or social health in a silo put SEL on a trajectory that was never ingrained with the core reason guardians agree to send their children to school - to improve their explicit academic skills. A competency that sits outside the core as a widget was destined to collide with the reality it’s facing today.

SEL as a term however, IS commonly being used in schools & districts to describe a very well-researched and unbiased understanding that learning is relational. All students are different, and we know that personalized learning is the most effective way to change a student's academic outcomes. So what should we be doing instead?

The Solution:

To start, let’s employ a practice from the best product creation processes known to man. Zoom out to the problem statement. What are we trying to do in one sentence?

Improving the non-academics of a student’s life will dramatically improve their ability to perform academically.

This leads to our next problem, defining “non-academics,” another SEL stumbling point. “Social Health” is not an atomic element of a student’s life, nor is the definition of it universally agreed upon. Looking at non-academics in a healthy, research-backed way is the key. “Emotion” as an example, is one facet of a much larger & intertwined framework that makes up a student:

The illustration above comes from the research done by the Digital Promise Group (read more here). This shows the interconnectivity of “emotion” (selected in blue) to elements of the students background, their cognitive abilities, and on the far left, the impact to elements of literacy (composition, critical literacy, and reading fluency). Here you can see atomic level non-academic factors and how deeply embedded they are in the ability to achieve academically.

A note on analytics:

Finally, the display layer (who sees what, and how) of the information discussed and taught in non-academics is key. This is where so many edtech vendors are dragging down SEL with them. The majority of SEL products have become lost in trying to show students as analytic sets instead of focusing on improving their outcomes. Heavily utilizing user-centered design and staying focused on the student helps keep this work focused on the ultimate outcome of helping them improve their academics. Read more about how the Shmoop Heartbeat does that here.


A knee-jerk reaction to over-focus on just emotional health has painted a cloud over the desperately needed work of looking for growth opportunities and strengths across ALL non-academic elements of our students’ lives. If a student doesn’t know how they learn (elements of metacognition), they can’t effectively learn at all. If a student has low working memory and didn’t sleep well, they are nearly incapable of processing new information. The work of non-academics in the classroom is important, it just needs to be done the right way.


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