The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

And Why Health Teachers Should be Leading the SEL Movement

My Beef With SEL

I doubt I need to convince you of the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) or tell you that it's THE buzzword in education right now. Never before have educators placed so much attention (and money) on students' non-academic needs. That is outside of the health classroom. Especially as we navigate a worldwide pandemic and life as we know it has been turned upside down.


Social-emotional learning is defined 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 (as defined by CASEL).


Emotions, goal setting, empathy, relationship building, and decision making. Yes, please! I don’t think any teachers will debate the importance of social-emotional learning and these vital life skills.


Yet, I have, to be honest, this movement has brought me so much frustration.

The Importance of Social Emotional Learning and Why Health Teachers Should be Leading the Way - What's wrong with the SEL Movement and How to Fix It

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

Don't get me wrong as an advocate for comprehensive, skill-based health education, this movement to strengthen students' social and emotional well-being is incredible. And absolutely necessary. But it's still left me uneasy and frustrated. Why you ask? 


Well, let me explain. 


While most teaches are familiar with SEL, few have heard of comprehensive, skills-based health education. The skills-based part refers to a teaching approach focused on students mastering practical and vital life skills. And the comprehensive aspect refers to teaching health through a multidimensional lens. Gone are the days of only talking about eating healthy, working out, and memorizing parts of the body. Now the focus of health education is much more holistic, incorporating topics like mental health, building social skills, making healthy decisions, learning how to manage money, setting goals, and living with passion and purpose. It's all about teaching students the specific life skills they need to build happy and healthy lives.


Notice any similarities between the skills-based movement and the movement of social-emotional learning??? Yea, me too.

SEL Core Competencies Skills-Based Health Skills Skills-Based Health Topics
Self-AwarenessPracticing Health Enhancing BehaviorsEmotional & Mental Health (Emotions, Self-Confidence, Self-Preception), Intellectual Health (Growth Mindset), and Spiritual Health (Values)
Self-ManagementGoal Setting, Practicing Health Enhancing BehaviorsEmotional & Mental Health (Stress Management), Intellectual Health (Goal Setting, Self-Discipline), Occupational Health (Organizational Skills)
Social AwarenessAnalyzing Influences, Interpersonal Communication, Decision Making, Practicing Health Enhancing Behaviors, Advocacy

Intellectual Health (Perspective-taking), Social Health (Empathy, Perspective-taking, Respect for others), Multiculture Health (Perspective-taking, Appreciating diversity)

Relationship SkillsAnalyzing Influences, Interpersonal Communication, Practicing Health Enhancing BehaviorsOccupational Health (Teamwork), Social Health (Communication, Social engagement, Relationship-building)
Responsible Decisions MakingAnalyzing Influences, Access Valid Information, Interpersonal Communication, Decision Making, Goal Setting, Practicing Health Enhancing Behaviors, AdvocacyIntellectual and Occupational Health (Identifying problems, Analyzing situations, Solving problems, Evaluating, Reflecting) Multicultural and Spiritual Health (Ethical responsibility)

As SEL started to gain traction, I was hopeful that this would be health education’s movement to shine. I dreamed of principals calling upon health teachers to train their staff, help develop school-wide programs, and prioritize health class in general. While some leaders have done this, it’s not the norm.


Instead, I see health teachers who have been training for this moment and advocating for SEL long before it was a buzzword, being overlooked. I see schools spending countless dollars on fancy programs and experts while health teachers desperately advocate for class time and to be recognized as a "core subject" while "core" teachers are praised for their SEL efforts. I see so much passion, talent, and possibility being left on the table. 

Can You Feel My Frustration???

We are in this unique moment where the concept of comprehensive, skills-based health has never had more attention. But for some reason, health teachers are being left out of the equation on a mass scale. And it breaks my heart. Not just for the teachers who haven't been given a platform to do what they do best, teach students how to live whole, thriving lives. More importantly, my heart breaks for the millions of children who are missing out on impactful and life-changing learning experiences.

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How Health Educators Can Lead the SEL Movement

Now I don't want to be a downer and spread my frustration. So here are three things schools can do to empower health educators to lead the SEL movement: 


  • Fund health education programs and make health education compulsory in middle and high school and recognize health as a core subject (seriously it's time to drop the "elective" label)


  • Establish health educators as the SEL experts


  • Ask health educators to collaborate with teachers across the curriculum to identify simple methods for reinforcing SEL/Skills-Based Health knowledge and skills throughout the entire school experience 

A Reality Check

Unfortunately, in a time when health education is literally being cut from the school experience, I have little faith that the greater education community will recognize the profound role health educator currently play and should be playing in the SEL movement. I don't doubt that teachers and admin will continue to recognize the importance of social-emotional learning. But I worried that health teachers will never be acknowledged for the role they could play in the SEL movement. 


I sure hope I'm proved wrong.


P.S. I'd love to hear how you're supporting the SEL movement through health education. Please share in the comments or shoot me an email! I'd love to chat.

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Hello. I'm  Janelle!

A middle school health teacher turned curriculum developer (and #WAHM). I'm on a mission to share the easiest-to-teach, most impactful health lesson plans on the Internet. Because your time and energy is better spent on teaching and connecting, not on planning and prep.

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