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Social Emotional Learning

By Scott Wikgren, Human Kinetics



I recently attended the SHAPE America National Convention in Tampa, where the buzz was all about Social Emotional Learning (SEL). Many attendees have heard about the term and mentioned that their school administrators were stressing the need to incorporate it into their programs. Vendors were promoting their products as ideal for SEL. 

So, what is SEL? According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Here's a visualization of their model: 

In other words, SEL is good teaching--what good teachers have been doing for decades.

I do understand that creating terminology helps educators better coordinate efforts and track results. However, my first thought, when reading the SEL definition, was that “understand and manage emotions,” “feel and show empathy for others,” and “establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” is what the late Don Hellison successfully promoted through his Teaching/Taking Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) approach to physical education.

In addition, “set and achieve positive goals” is a cornerstone of the conceptual approach to physical education Chuck Corbin developed in the 1960s and is a key element in his iconic “Stairway to Lifetime Fitness, Health, and Wellness.”

Others have also stressed elements of SEL for decades. I think of Muska Mosston (teaching styles), Daryl Siednetop (sport education), George Graham (pedagogy), Bob Pangrazi (dynamic PE), Lauren Lieberman (universal design), Jim Stiehl and Don Morris (changing kids’ games) and so many others whose work has inspired me as a physical educator.

Bottom line, I do not believe good teaching, or SEL, is about removing obstacles for students. It is about guiding them in learning how to overcome obstacles. No matter how hard we might try to remove obstacles, everyone eventually gets knocked down. Our job is to prepare students to get back up on their own. That does require guiding them in social and emotional learning. However, we don’t have to start from scratch. Look to the pioneers in our field as a basis to start and then put your own spin on it to apply it to today’s kids in today’s environment.

My personal spin is to encourage kids to try new and challenging things and to tell them: “You will get knocked down. Good. Get up again and keep after it. If the kids next to you get knocked down, extend a hand and help them back up. That helps them, and it helps you.”


Prior to joining Human Kinetics, Scott was a physical education teacher, coach, and sports reporter. Today he enjoys tennis, hiking with his dog, and pretty much any outdoor physical activity. He also enjoys playing with his six grandchildren and hopes to pass on his love of sports, physical activity, and the outdoors to them.