Foundations for Social-emotional Skill Building

The best research helps us make discoveries to improve outcomes. The best research also reveals the processes needed to achieve those outcomes.

One of the greatest learnings to emerge from the recent SEL Challenge is the foundation that best supports social emotional learning.

Whether programs were focused on engaging youth in community service learning, organizing student voices and action for change, going on adventure activities for deep learning, or using theater as a means of self-expression, five common features created the base upon which social-emotional skills were built.

  • Project content sequence: Each SEL Challenge program had some type of project in which youth were engaged. Youth helped provide input on the project, the projects had clear goals, and the projects became more complex over time.
  • SEL content sequence: Social-emotional learning skills were interwoven throughout the project itself. The skills of problem-solving, responsibility, initiative, teamwork, empath, and emotion management were naturally required over the course of the project. The development of these skills generally followed a progression over time, and were supported through specific curriculum activities.
  • Safe space: A non-negotiable for all quality youth programs, the importance of safe space, became very evident. A safe space ensures that authentic learning can occur, and that all in the group are cared for and appreciated.
  • Responsive staff practices: The role of staff in supporting SEL skill building must not be underestimated.  SEL skills are built through relationships, and the relationship between staff members and youth are critical. A team member’s ability to get to know the youth deeply, provide individual support as needed, and to coach, model and facilitate around SEL skills are instrumental to effective SEL growth.
  • Support for staff: Organizationally, a commitment to supporting staff engaged in SEL work results in stronger staff, more effective programs, and increased outcomes for youth. Supporting staff growth and development and ensuring a continual quality improvement process is key.

This Friday, Wyman and St. Louis based practitioners will be exploring this topic further in the Social-Emotional Learning Institute. To learn more about the SEL Challenge, its findings, and tools you and your organization can use, visit