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Social-Emotional Learning

CASEL Releases New Definition of SEL: What You Need to Know

Nick Woolf
Nick Woolf
CASEL Releases New Definition of SEL: What You Need to Know



CASELTwenty-six years ago, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) first introduced the term "social and emotional learning (SEL)" to the education world. The SEL field has evolved tremendously since then.

This year, CASEL has released a 2020 update to the definition of SEL along with new iterations of the "CASEL 5" core competencies and "CASEL Wheel" visual framework. These updates reinforce CASEL's commitment to "an expanded vision and growing research base for social and emotional learning" that emphasizes SEL’s ability to advance educational equity and excellence.

As Karen Niemi, president and CEO of CASEL, said on an October 2020 webinar announcing the updates:

"As things have evolved, we have seen a lot of variability around the understanding of what constitutes ‘high quality’ SEL and how to implement SEL. We see the need to offer clarity around what is necessary to achieve the vision for SEL... for educators, for adults, and for young people everywhere, particularly those who have historically been marginalized."

Below, we've summarized the updates to CASEL's definitions of social-emotional learning (SEL). Learn what changed, why it matters, and what it means for your school or district.

What Is CASEL's Updated Definition of Social and Emotional Learning?

Per CASEL's press release, the new definition of social and emotional learning is as follows:

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

SEL advances educational equity and excellence through authentic school-family-community partnerships to establish learning environments and experiences that feature trusting and collaborative relationships, rigorous and meaningful curriculum and instruction, and ongoing evaluation. SEL can help address various forms of inequity and empower young people and adults to co-create thriving schools and contribute to safe, healthy, and just communities.

Watch the webinar: "A Reintroduction to SEL: CASEL's Definition and Framework" (Oct. 2020) 

What Changed in the Definition?

CASEL's updates to the definition for SEL align with how social and emotional learning is being implemented and practiced in schools and districts today. The new definition more clearly outlines the role of social-emotional learning in promoting equity in education. It also emphasizes student agency while acknowledging that the context and environment in which students live cannot be dissociated from their academic, social, and emotional development.

CASEL definition of SEL - 2020

CASEL - definition of SEL 2020

Exploring the new definition in full, here are the key additions:

  • Explicitly states how SEL can advance educational equity and excellence.
  • Elevates agency and belonging as critical pillars of SEL.
  • Acknowledges the positive impact that SEL can have through collective goal setting and making caring decisions.
  • Emphasizes how environments, relationships, and broader contexts (e.g., societal realities, individual realities, socioeconomic status, family dynamics, cultural background, access to opportunities, and experiences in schools) shape learning and development.

The second paragraph, in particular, offers a more holistic view of where and how SEL occurs. This broadened scope allows for a more explicit inclusion of areas like family engagement, adult SEL, curriculum and instruction, and continuous improvement. 

Updates to the 5 Core Competencies and the CASEL Wheel

In addition to the new definition of social and emotional learning, CASEL has updated its SEL Framework (the “CASEL Wheel”) and its definitions for the five core competencies (the “CASEL 5”). Here's what changed.

The CASEL Wheel

CASEL SEL Framework

The new version of the “CASEL Wheel” includes the same five core competencies (Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision-Making).

Now, four “key settings” wrap around the competencies: Communities, Families and Caregivers, Schools, and Classrooms.

In doing so, CASEL advocates for a systemic approach to SEL—practices, programs, and policies across classrooms, schools, families, and communities all influence students' learning and development. If supports are coordinated and working in harmony, this can promote student voice and agency, create supportive school climates, foster family engagement, and build student and adult social-emotional learning. 

The CASEL 5: Core Competencies

Adjustments to the definitions of the “CASEL 5” emphasize the importance of embedding SEL into academic curriculum and of reviewing school-wide practices and policies to create inclusive learning environments. Here are the five competencies and their updated definitions.

Core Competency (New) Definition

The abilities to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. 

This includes capacities to recognize one’s strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose.


The abilities to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations. 

This includes the capacities to delay gratification, manage stress, and feel motivation and agency to accomplish personal and collective goals.

Social Awareness

The abilities to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts. 

This includes the capacities to feel compassion for others, understand broader historical and social norms for behavior in different settings, and recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

Relationship Skills

The abilities to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. 

This includes the capacities to communicate clearly, listen actively, cooperate, work collaboratively to problem solve and negotiate conflict constructively, navigate settings with differing social and cultural demands and opportunities, provide leadership, and seek or offer help when needed.

Responsible Decision-Making

The abilities to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. 

This includes the capacities to consider ethical standards and safety concerns, and to evaluate the benefits and consequences of various actions for personal, social, and collective well-being.



What Do These Changes Mean for SEL Measurement and Assessment?

In CASEL’s Districtwide SEL Framework—which outlines four focus areas to help districts and schools achieve systemic SEL—Focus Area 4 remains "Practice Continuous Improvement." Within this area, CASEL advises districts to "collect and reflect on data, address challenges, and build upon successes to continuously improve SEL implementation."

Measuring student and adult SEL through surveys is one way to practice continuous improvement. In selecting a survey instrument and interpreting SEL perception data, it is essential to:

  • Recognize that students’ social-emotional growth is the shared responsibility of students, educators, families, and their broader communities.
  • Measure not just students’ skills and competencies, but also the social, cultural, and educational variables that support student growth.
  • Identify an SEL measurement provider that matches this expanded view of social-emotional learning. 

Panorama SEL SurveyPanorama for Social-Emotional Learning helps schools and districts measure and take action on SEL data from students and adults. Our CASEL-aligned survey offers 30+ topics on social-emotional learning, school climate and supports, skills and competencies, well-being, and equity and inclusion in school.  

CASEL partner districts use Panorama survey data as a formative tool to identify social-emotional strengths and areas of need, integrate SEL into school improvement plans, differentiate supports for children, and address adult SEL. The Panorama platform makes it easy to explore survey results and take action on the data using strategies from our SEL curriculum partners

Download the open-source Panorama Social-Emotional Learning Survey.

Explore Additional Resources

Get in touch with us to learn how Panorama can support your district with CASEL-aligned SEL measurement this year.

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