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What is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and How Does it Prepare Teens for Adulthood?

Est. reading time: 5 mins
Posted Under: For Families, Interviews, Treatment Insights

Clinically Reviewed by: Amanda Fialk, PhD, LCSW, LICSW


Today, many young people leave high school without the tools they need to be successful in the high-pressure environments of college and starting careers. The overall dropout rate for undergraduate college students is 33 percent. In addition, 60% of students wish they had more help with emotional preparation. This leads us to ask, how can we better teach young people to identify and cope with feelings more effectively?

As the Chief Clinical Officer of The Dorm, an intensive mental health treatment program (IOP) for young adults, my team and I are challenged to answer this daily. From our 13 years of treating clients with a range of conditions from addiction to ADHD, we’ve seen the large gaps in education around social emotional literacy. We’ve also witnessed the great successes that come when they’re implemented. This growth potential is why SEL is now an integral part of our treatment model.

Skills like emotional regulation, distress tolerance, decision making, interpersonal effectiveness and mindfulness skills can–and must–be taught, practiced, and honed in order to ensure success in school, work, and within our communities. Read on to learn more about SEL, why it’s an important part of preparing young people for adulthood and how we integrate this into care at The Dorm:

First of all, what is social and emotional learning (SEL)?:

Standing for Social and Educational Learning, SEL seeks to help children and adolescents develop the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success. Recent studies found that students who participated in SEL programs saw greater gains in SEL competencies and academic performance (translating into an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement).

Support for SEL in more schools is growing. At the national level, an overwhelming 83.8% of states reported that SEL has increased in priority since the pandemic began. Especially as we now only start to understand the compounding effects of the COVID pandemic and isolation on adolescents’ development, it’s more important now than ever to incorporate SEL.

SEL Fundamentals:

While many may assume it’s a new academic buzzword, Social and Emotional Learning has been in K-12 classrooms since the 1990s. SEL involves a set of processes through which young people acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes necessary to:

SEL Fundamentals:
Identify, regulate, and manage emotions
Set and achieve goals
Manage stress and anxiety
Establish and maintain positive, healthy relationships
Make responsible and thoughtful decisions

These skills allow young people to better navigate their emotional experience as well as achieve personal and collective goals. In addition, they help teens foster supportive relationships, make friends, resolve conflicts, and avoid engaging in high-risk behaviors. Together, SEL reduces behavior problems and psychological distress (Elias, 2014; Jones & Kahn, 2017).

Why is SEL important/helpful?:

It Helps Young People Navigate Crucial Periods of Development

Adolescent and teenage years are crucial developmental periods. This is when teens first learn how to build relationships, develop self-identity, handle stressors, make decisions, and set goals. Teaching them social and emotional skills during these years ensures they have tools moving forward into their college- and emerging adult-years.

It Can Increase Academic Performance

Studies consistently show that students who participate in dedicated SEL programming see academic performance relative to those who did not. In one study, students participating in SEL programs saw an 11 percentile-point gain in achievement. This suggests that SEL programs tend to bolster, rather than detract from, students’ academic success.

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Mental Health Benefits of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL):

A recent European study indicated that students participating in SEL programming had a significantly larger increase in social and emotional competence and prosocial behavior. It also showed a decrease in mental health issues such as antisocial behavior, substance use, anxiety and depression.

Key Findings of SEL Treatment Programming:

Key Findings of SEL Programming: Significantly more positive outcomes with social behavior and academic performance
Significantly lower levels of conduct problems and emotional distress
Better attitudes about self, school, and others
Decreased alcohol and drug use
Decrease in violence, bullying, and conduct problems
Greater college retention
Greater job satisfaction post-college
Joseph L. Mahoney, Joseph A. Durlak, and Roger P. Weissberg, 2018

What is Taught in SEL?

  • Self awareness – assess, identify, describe and understand one’s feelings; have internal motivation and achieve goals 
  • Self management – regulate one’s emotions and behaviors to handle stress, control impulses, and persevere; set and monitor progress toward personal goals
  • Social awareness – take the perspective of and empathize with others; recognize and appreciate individual and group similarities and differences
  • Relationship skills – establish and maintain healthy, rewarding relationships; resist social and peer pressure; prevent and resolve interpersonal conflict; seek help when needed
  • Decision making – make decisions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety, respect for others, and potential consequences of actions; increase capacity for reasoning
A group of diverse students sit around a table and discuss a project, smiling.

How we teach social and emotional skills (SEL) at The Dorm:

We take a holistic approach to mental health treatment, incorporating traditional individual, group, and family therapy with nutrition, health and fitnessacademic and vocational coaching. Through each of these areas, our clinicians, dietitians, and specialists all integrate the development and practice of SEL skills, including communication, social skill therapy, and life skills.

Here’s some of the specific lessons and treatments we use for teaching social and emotional learning:

DBT Groups: DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) is a type of psychotherapy taught in both individual and group therapy. It promotes behavioral skills like mindfulness, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness. Through DBT, clients learn how beliefs, thoughts, expectations, and their worldview affects their life.

Social Skills and Communication Groups: In these groups, clients learn, practice and hone social and communication skills necessary for individual and interpersonal social and emotional success. These skills include: eye contact, filler words, tone, pitch, uptalk, body language, and special cues.

Goals Group: Every morning at The Dorm, this group meets to set individual daily goals. Clients learn how to set goals that are specific, measurable, relevant, and time bound. When goals are met, a client is rewarded. When clients struggle to meet goals, they are validated, supported, and encouraged by the other group members.

Mindfulness/Meditation: Mindfulness improves decision-making and impulse control through developing equanimity, or an ability to let go of reactivity. It results in stress reduction, emotion regulation, self-management, and social awareness. Example: Clinicians ask clients to imagine what stress looks like and then ask them to release it.

Daily Journaling and Reflective writing (in a group or individually): Journaling prompts help clients think about social-emotional skills in many areas of life. After writing, clients can then share their responses with their coach, a partner, or a group. Example prompts: “When was there a time when you used self-control? What was the outcome?” and “Why do you think it is important to be kind?”

Process Groups: Clients raise issues and topics that are important to them and are supported in processing the emotions with one another in the group setting. The open-ended format allows clients to control the content and process of the group. An added benefit is that it closely mimics “real life,” resulting in greater growth.

Volunteer Groups/Service: Service activities are a fun, meaningful way to connect clients to the world around them. By helping others, clients build empathy and self-awareness. Volunteering also requires decision-making and social awareness.

Community Meetings: Community Meetings are opportunities for clients to acknowledge, support and boost one another up. They also encourage clients to solve community-related issues and to plan events and initiatives in a thoughtful manner.

Since many schools still don’t implement SEL daily, it can be difficult to ensure that your child is learning the social and emotional skills needed to succeed in high school, college, and beyond.  If you have any questions or feel that a loved one could benefit from our outpatient services, please contact us here.

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