Where It Begins

For many districts, the path they follow into a more systemic approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) begins with concerns for their students (and adults’) mental wellness. This is both a logical connection as well as a narrow view of SEL. 

There are indeed many links between a systemic approach to SEL and what we hope for in a school that is attentive to the mental health of its students and staff.  These approaches share a relational focus and a broader view–beyond academic test scores alone– of what success for students looks like.  There is a shared concern for building a comprehensive set of academic and life skills within positive learning climates allowing all students to cultivate a sense of identity, agency, and belonging.  By promoting these responsive relationships, emotionally safe environments, and an intentional approach to social and emotional skills development, SEL cultivates many important “protective factors” that buffer against mental health risks.

We must be careful not to equate SEL with mental health intervention or treatment.

SEL is focused on the skills and environments that all students need to thrive, both in the academic and social-emotional domains of their lives.  School districts frame these efforts as the universal or “Tier I” aspect of learning design for students. As we think about what constitutes an SEL-rich classroom,  we look for opportunities for students to explicitly learn and practice social and emotional skills, experience supportive environments that are intentionally co-crafted across teachers and students, and learn in ways that integrate SEL with academic content and teaching practices. Being intentional about these classroom and school supports for all students sets the stage for overall student thriving.  

SEL Programming & Practices Explained

SEL  can also provide a bridge to mental health education by building awareness and alignment of language and strategies for students who may need more targeted or clinical interventions. Evidence-based SEL programming and practices act as universal, strengths-based support to promote the healthy development, resiliency, and well-being of all young people. Then, more targeted supports for smaller groups of students should align with overall SEL goals, integrate SEL practices such as relationship-building, and reinforce core social and emotional competencies. SEL can also help create pathways and alignment between schools and community partners as they work together to ensure all students have the support they need to thrive. It is important to note that SEL is not designed to diagnose or treat mental illness.

At this moment when schools are facing the dual challenges of increased mental health and academic achievement concerns, grounding our practices in a systemic approach to SEL can support the healthy and holistic development that is most needed by all of our students and their communities.

Karen VanAusdal joined CASEL in 2016 and is the Vice President of Practice. Prior to that role, she served as the Executive Director for the Office of Social and Emotional Learning for Chicago Public Schools where she worked for ten years. Karen started her career as an elementary school teacher in the Washington, DC, area and was an SEL program designer and implementer in the Boston Public Schools. Karen has spent her career supporting young people and the creation of equitable learning environments. At home, she also works on nourishing the SEL skills of her school-aged children.

About Us

Erika’s Lighthouse is a non-profit organization founded in 2004 that is dedicated to educating teens and raising awareness surrounding depression and mental health. Our programs are tailored to our mission of making sure no young person feels alone in their depression. Erika’s Lighthouse strives to help teens create an inclusive school culture and eliminate the stigma of mental health. Erika’s Lighthouse evidence-informed programs not only bring awareness to young people about depression and mental health; they build a structure for young people to thrive and survive, even when they might be experiencing depression.