Academics alone aren’t enough: the power of SEL integration

Schools struggle to puzzle together schedules that make time for children’s social-emotional needs and academic requirements. Is there a better way?

The challenge


What we heard from teachers and administration at after implementing Tools at

Academics alone aren’t enough: the power of SEL integration


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The process

Committee search to choose the right curriculum

Selection of Tools of the Mind curriculum & professional development

Tools training and implementation for all relevant staff

Teaching and learning review and outcomes

Teachers, administrators and school boards across the country have felt the pull. Should they incorporate dedicated time for social-emotional learning (SEL) into an already too-short school day? Or should they preserve that time for academics – especially recently, when worries about students falling behind are so real? Teachers see students lack the social-emotional skills they need, but don’t know how to make time for SEL lessons during days already jam-packed with academic requirements.

Returning to learning how to learn

The answer may lie in framing the tension differently. Instead of stand-alone SEL or stand-alone academics, what if we thought more about integrating the two to give children what they need? Tools classrooms integrate developmentally appropriate social and emotional learning into all activities throughout the day. We believe that teaching children strategies to learn how to learn, both independently and with their peers, includes guiding them through the process of developing empathy, understanding the perspectives of their friends and imagining themselves in roles and situations that may differ from their lived experiences. 

Starting with teacher support

We believe that teachers are best supported in teaching these skills successfully when they have access to high-quality professional development that supports that work. Several experts interviewed for a recently republished 2022 article in EdWeek Market Brief agree. “One of the best ways that you can integrate SEL is actually by supporting educators, because educators can take that forward into all subject areas,” says Andrea Lovanhill, CEO of the Committee for Children. “It starts with adult training,” agrees Steve Becton, an equity and inclusion officer for an organization specializing in SEL. 

Peter Brunn, vice president of organizational learning at the Center for the Collaborative Classroom notes that “when teachers take time to practice social skills…kids get better at them…” Teaching students how to partner with their classmates (as we do in Tools Turn and Talk and Share the News activities) can be key. Children need to learn how to turn towards a partner, how to take turns listening and how to decide what to share themselves.

The academic connection

Although it may not be initially obvious how these skills support high-level academic learning, Brunn believes it’s important to understand that students often need to feel connected and supported by their learning communities to engage in “rigorous or difficult academic learning.” And that applies to all subjects, not just those that appear to have more natural connection to SEL content, like reading and social studies.

“I looked at these standards and I was like, you can’t do this without social-emotional skills.” - Sara Rimm-Kaufman, University of Virginia

Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a University of Virginia education professor, has been working to weave SEL strategies into the Next Generation Science Standards. “‘I looked at these standards and I was like, you can’t do this without social-emotional skills,’ Rimm-Kauffman said.” She emphasizes that without self-awareness and self-management skills, it becomes very difficult for students to debate scientific problems or work together toward solutions. 

Melissa Schlinger, vice president of practice and programs for the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, believes that any collaborative classroom activities can provide the opportunity to promote SEL skills, while teaching academic content. “And any teacher who is interested in promoting SEL [can] use whatever their content area is to promote relationships among kids and with kids.”

Tools Takeaways:

  • Children have difficulty collaborating with peers on academic content if their self-regulation and social skills aren’t sufficiently developed
  • Social and emotional skills can be developed while learning academic content; it’s not necessary to teach them in stand-alone lessons
  • Teachers need support and training to learn how to integrate SEL and self-regulation into academic lessons