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Social-Emotional Learning

A Guide to the Core SEL Competencies [+ Activities and Strategies]

Cap Aguilar and Clarissa Bridges
A Guide to the Core SEL Competencies [+ Activities and Strategies]



When implementing social-emotional learning (SEL), it can be helpful to narrow your focus to a few SEL competencies that are most relevant for the students and educators in your school community.

That's why many district and school leaders use the framework from CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning). CASEL outlines five core social-emotional learning competencies that can be taught in many ways in any type of school or district community.

In this guide, you'll learn about the five core SEL competencies—complete with definitions and examples of what these competencies may look like and sound like in practice. For each core competency, we also share examples of low-lift SEL strategies, activities, and teaching practices that you can use right away in your school community to promote student SEL and adult SEL

Keep reading or use the shortcuts below to access different sections of this guide.

I. What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

II. The 5 Core SEL Competencies

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Management
  3. Social Awareness
  4. Relationship Skills
  5. Responsible Decision-Making

III. Assessing the Core SEL Competencies

Download a packet of small-group SEL facilitation guides (perfect for SEL Coaches and SEL Coordinators!)

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-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.

*via CASEL's updated 2020 definition of SEL

In other words, social and emotional learning describes the skills that educators do not explicitly teach. It can be apparent when social-emotional skills are present or absent in students. A 2017 meta-analysis from CASEL involving students from kindergarten to high school showed that students exposed to SEL programs performed better academically (13 percentile points higher) than their non-SEL peers.

What Are Social-Emotional Competencies?

Social-emotional learning competencies are the specific skills, habits, and mindsets that fall under the umbrella of social-emotional learning. These skills are varied, and school communities may prioritize different SEL competencies based on identifiable student needs or the district's portrait of a graduate. However, many school districts focus on CASEL's five core SEL competencies as a starting point.

The Five Core SEL Competencies

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Management
  3. Social Awareness
  4. Relationship Skills
  5. Responsible Decision-Making

Now that we've outlined the five core competencies, let's take a look at each competency in depth. We'll also look at specific activities for promoting students' social and emotional development of each competency.

Core Competency #1: Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is the ability 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.

Self-Awareness May Look Like:

  • Identifying emotions
  • Having an accurate self-perception
  • Recognizing strengths
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-efficacy

Self-Awareness May Sound Like:

  • How am I feeling and why?
  • When am I at my best?
  • When do I feel angry?
  • What kind of person do I want to be today?
  • What stresses me out?
  • Where do I fit into my family/community?

Self-Awareness Strategy: The Feelings Wheel

The Feelings WheelThe Feelings Wheel (see the image to the right) helps students acknowledge their emotions and feelings so that they can move into action and respond constructively to those feelings.

How it works: Let's say you are feeling "fearful." Locate that feeling on the wheel, then move one ring out and identify another emotion. Keep moving to the last ring on the wheel. By accurately identifying your emotions, you can do something about it and handle these emotions in a productive way.

Application for the Feelings Wheel:

For You: Quiet time; meals, mornings, or before bed

For Students: Dedicated time during the day; daily/weekly check-ins; buddy system


Self-Awareness Strategy: Positive Pivot

The Positive Pivot Scale is a high school strategy from Move This World that helps students consider a range of ways to respond to a situation. The scale runs from negative 5 to positive 5.

Explore more high school activities for social-emotional learning aligned to the CASEL competencies.

Positive Pivot Scale

How it works: Consider a challenge you are facing today. Identify where you are currently responding on the Positive Pivot Scale. Then, ask yourself: What would I need to do to move to a higher number on the Positive Pivot Scale?


Application for the Positive Pivot Scale:

For You: Quiet time; meals, mornings, or before bed

For Students: Dedicated time during the day; daily/weekly check-ins; buddy system

Core Competency #2: Self-Management

Self-management is the ability 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.

Self-Management May Look Like:

  • Impulse control
  • Stress management
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-motivation
  • Goal-setting
  • Organizational skills

Self-Management May Sound Like:

  • I need a break right now
  • May I please have space? I am not ready to share.
  • I think I need help with _______.
  • I don't understand yet, but I will ________ to reach my goal.


Self-Management Strategy: Positive Self-Talk

Self-talk is "the act of practice of talking to oneself, either aloud or silently and mentally." Generally, negative self-talk makes us feel worse, but positive self-talk can make us feel better because it triggers problem-solving and helps remind ourselves that making mistakes is part of life.

Two examples of shifting from negative to positive self-talk include:

  1. You are overwhelmed by the amount of tech it’s going to take to teach your class.
    "This is never going to work! I'm not tech-savvy" to "I can ask someone to help me, and it will become easier."
  2. You have an important question for the teacher, but the teacher tells you that he/she doesn’t have time to answer it. "I can't figure this out by myself!" to "It will take time, but I can learn this."

Application for Positive Self-Talk:

For You: Pay attention to your thoughts and words, and pivot as needed

For Students: Explicitly teach positive self-talk through mini-lessons and hold students accountable


Self-Management Strategy: WOOP Goal-Setting

The WOOP activity from Character Lab helps students find their wishes and develop an action plan to fulfill those wishes. WOOP is named for each step in the process: identifying your Wish, imagining the Outcome, anticipating the Obstacle, and developing a specific Plan. 

W: What is an important wish that you want to accomplish? Your wish should be challenging but feasible.

O: What will be the best result from accomplishing your wish? How will you feel? Pause and really imagine the outcome.

O: What is the main obstacle inside you that might prevent you from accomplishing your wish? Pause and really imagine the obstacle.

P: What’s an effective action to tackle the obstacle? Make a when-then plan.

Application for WOOP:

For You: Make time for goal-setting.

For Students: Google forms, Flipgrid (video recording), and monitor progress

Core Competency #3: Social Awareness

Social awareness is the ability 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.

Social Awareness May Look Like:

  • Perspective taking
  • Empathy
  • Appreciating diversity
  • Respect for others

Social Awareness May Sound Like:

  • I wonder how that made _______ feel?
  • How would I feel if I were in that situation?
  • What is ________ thinking?
  • They seem sad right now. Maybe I should _______.
  • Thanks for sharing! My family does it this way.

Social Awareness Strategy: The Listening Circle

The Listening Circle teaches empathy, provides an opportunity to hear (or read) different perspectives, and builds community. In a listening circle, students have a safe space to share their voices by responding to prompts. Example prompts include: "Who do you look up to the most, and why?" and "What advice would you give yourself today, and why?"

Application for the Listening Circle:

For You: Connect with friends and family via social media, phone, Zoom

For Students: Make time for it in the classroom or virtually (Zoom breakout rooms, Flipgrid, Padlet)


Core Competency #4: Relationship Skills

Relationship skills are the ability 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.

Relationship Skills May Look Like:

  • Communication
  • Social engagement
  • Relationship building
  • Teamwork

Relationship Skills May Sound Like:

  • When you ______ it made me feel _______.
  • Can you explain what you mean by that?
  • I disagree with you because _________.
  • What did you mean by _________?

Relationship Skills Strategy: Count Me Down

Count Me Down is a strategy from Move This World that helps students identify ways they are similar and different from others. The goals are to develop a stronger understanding of peers and to demonstrate respect for differences and exhibit empathy. An example prompt for Count Me Down is as follows:

  • 3 unique things about your family
  • 2 challenges you're currently facing
  • 1 goal or dream you have

Application for Count Me Down:

For You: Use the prompt to journal about things in your life

For Students: Make time for it in the classroom or virtually (Zoom breakout rooms, Flipgrid, Padlet)


Relationship Skills Strategy: Rose, Bud, Thorn

Rose, Bud, Thorn is a strategy that helps students identify positive moments and areas where they need support. During this activity, students share a:

  • Rose: Something positive that happened this past week
  • Bud: Something you are looking forward to next week
  • Thorn: Something you need help with in the next week

To foster grit and growth mindset, students may also consider ways to turn thorns into roses.

Rose Bud Thorn 

Application for Rose, Bud, Thorn:

For You: Reflect on what went well and what you need help with; communicate when you need help turning thorns into roses

For Students: Make time for it in the classroom or virtually (Zoom breakout rooms, Flipgrid, Padlet)

Core Competency #5: Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making is the ability 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.

Responsible Decision-Making May Look Like:

  • Identifying problems
  • Analyzing situations
  • Solving problems
  • Evaluating
  • Reflecting
  • Ethical responsibility

Responsible Decision-Making May Sound Like:

  • How will this impact others?
  • Is it worth it?
  • Why do I want to make this choice?
  • Was this a strong choice?
  • Will this help me?

Responsible Decision-Making Strategy: The POOCH Protocol

POOCH is a process for problem-solving that can help students thoughtfully generate solutions to problems by thinking through possible options and outcomes. The steps are as follows:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Explore different options to solve the problem.
  3. Discuss an outcome for each option.
  4. Choose an option.
  5. Reflect on how things went.

POOCH ProtocolAccess the POOCH template as a Google Doc.

Application for the POOCH Protocol:

For You: Use it when faced with difficult decisions

For Students: Use as a tool to collectively solve problems

Assessing the Core SEL Competencies

Once your school or district has identified specific SEL competencies to focus on, the next step is to gather baseline data on how students are developing those skills, mindsets, and competencies. SEL data can help educators identify individual students' strengths and areas for growth related to specific competencies. At the school and district level, the data can help guide school climate improvement plans and tier one SEL instruction.

The Panorama Social-Emotional Learning Survey (open-source and available for download), aligned to the CASEL framework, is a great tool to get started measuring SEL. The survey, developed at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, contains more than 22 research-backed topics to help school districts gather valid and reliable social-emotional learning data from students.


Example of Panorama's SEL dashboards (mock data pictured)

Access Panorama's Social-Emotional Learning Survey—with 30+ Survey Topics for Students and Adults

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