25 Years of Social and Emotional Learning: Lessons from CASEL’s 2019 SEL Exchange

Last week, we attended the inaugural Social and Emotional Learning Exchange conference hosted by the Collaborative of Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). The conference was a trailblazing event designed to bring together researchers, educators, policy-makers, and practitioners all united by the desire to push the social and emotional learning (SEL) field forward, to share best practices, and to make SEL a national priority.

SEL’s Progress

The conference served as a reminder of how much SEL has grown from its inception. In 1994, the establishment of CASEL served as a two-pronged catalyst; prong one being the introduction of the terms “social and emotional learning” and SEL, and prong two being a mission to integrate SEL into mainstream educational contexts. Though relatively new to the educational landscape, the field has experienced tremendous growth since its foundation, as evidenced by over 1,500 attendees at this sold-out conference, as well as the emergence of state-wide K-12 SEL standards in 14 states, an increasing collection of evidence supporting the efficacy of SEL programming, and nation-wide initiatives promoting SEL as a necessary component of education and workforce readiness.

Many sessions presented at the conference reminded us of this tremendous growth. Attendees learned about new advances in SEL curricula, assessment, and implementation. A standout session that highlighted the progress the field has made was one chaired by Dr. Roisin Corcoran of the University of Nottingham. In this session, she brought together all past presidents of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) SEL Special Interest Group (SIG) to discuss what the field has already accomplished, its biggest obstacles, and opportunities for future directions.

Present Challenges and Potential Solutions

One challenge discussed is that albeit the progress and growth of the SEL field, negative outcomes for youth such as bullying, suicide rates, and mental health problems have not showed much improvement over the past 20 years, and American youth continue to struggle with these issues. Another issue that was highlighted is that many individuals in educational contexts and policy do not take SEL seriously enough. SEL is currently often considered as an “add-on,” rather than as an integral part of K-12 curricula; this must change for the field to continue to grow and provide lasting impacts.

Several recommendations were also made for future SEL work. First, all of those in the field should pay attention to what is happening internationally. SEL is happening all over the world, and it would be wise to learn from best practices established by other countries, as well as to consider the global impact SEL can have. Additionally, we need to pay attention to classroom contexts, with a particular focus on educational equity. Culturally responsive SEL can help to close achievement gaps, but we must be sure that all SEL is designed and delivered with equity in mind. Last, a recommendation was made to focus on developing SEL standards and align them to assessments in order to better integrate SEL into policy contexts.

SEL 10 Years from Now?

At the end of the session, Dr. Corcoran raised a compelling question: “In ten years, if the SEL field continues to grow and be successful, what will we have accomplished?” The panelists shared the following visions with us:

  • SEL will be a core component of our national K-12 education system. SEL classes will have a place in students’ schedules just as do classes like math, science, gym, and social studies.
  • We will place a higher priority on SEL for workforce readiness.
  • Teachers will be more empowered and given more time and autonomy to foster relationships in their classrooms. This would stem from improving our teacher education system, and ideally developing a system that looks more like Finland’s, which is recognized as one of the best teacher-training models worldwide. Teacher preparation programs would also include content on teaching social and emotional skills to students, as well as focus on the development of teacher social and emotional skills.
  • We will have learned more about implementation. Some interventions show mixed findings, and we could benefit from learning about implementation and contextual factors that contribute to this.
  • We will have developed more research-to-practice models and collaborations between researchers and practitioners.


The future of SEL indeed looks bright, and the work we do today will help us reach the our mission of helping people achieve education and workplace success. Many of our current initiatives at ACT align directly with recommendations and hopes set forth by the SIG’s past presidents. Some examples are listed below.

We at ACT, in collaboration with our domestic and international partners, CASEL, and other researchers and practitioners in the space, hope to make the goals outlined for the next ten years become a reality. Together, we can work to make SEL a core component of K-12 education, post-secondary education, and workforce preparation.

Dana Murano, PhD

Dana Murano, PhD

Research Scientist - Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning: Dana Murano is a Research Scientist in ACT's Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning. She completed her PhD in Educational Psychology with a specialization in Learning, Development, and Instruction at the City University of New York. Her research focuses primarily on the development and assessment of social and emotional skills in students. Additional work and research interests include the development of interventions to improve social and emotional skills, meta-analysis, and the intersection of feedback and the development of social and emotional skills.