Skip to main content
Usable Knowledge

Defining Social-Emotional Learning

A new digital tool helps education leaders engage with the latest SEL research — and work to apply it in their schools and districts
Colorful EASEL Lab Graphic

The recent uptick in research on social-emotional learning frameworks and curriculum has meant that words like “resilience” and “self-control” are used by everyone from classroom teachers to state leaders. But not all stakeholders use these words in the same way, according to social-emotional intervention expert Stephanie Jones. When language around SEL is used inconsistently, she says, it’s difficult for researchers, teachers, and leaders to communicate, make strategic decisions, and determine whether interventions have been implemented successfully.

“Words and the definitions matter,” Jones says. “We should strive to connect our words and definitions to those others are using so that we are coordinated in what we do.”

To achieve this connection, Jones and her team at HGSE’s EASEL Lab developed Explore SEL — a digital resource with tools to help users identify the overlaps and divergences in SEL frameworks, domains, and skillsets.


Because the field of SEL has grown rapidly, classroom teachers, school leaders, districts, states, policymakers, and nonprofits have likely engaged with SEL research — but often without clarity about how it might actually apply to their particular needs. That’s why a primary audience for Explore SEL, Jones says, may be institutions that are positioned to act as mediators between SEL research and its implementation. Those institutions — grant-making agencies, think tanks, departments of education, nonprofits — can help ensure common definitions of SEL vocabulary, so decision-makers can determine which framework will target their needs.

“As we think about how Explore SEL can be best deployed to address the terminology of SEL, we’re thinking about district and school leadership, but also those who are the brokers who sit in between the practice, policy, and research communities — those who make the connection between what’s known and the people who make decisions,” Jones says, also noting that she’s also heard from educators and school and district leaders as well as program designers who have used the site.

Here, Jones walks through a few of the different tools on the site to help potential users orient themselves.

Compare SEL Approaches

The Problem: Among other uses, SEL frameworks act as an organizing system for a program or curriculum and serve to set goals and targets. Multiple frameworks might include “executive functioning” but associate different skills with the term. Frameworks might also describe the same skills using different words.

The Solution: Explore SEL allows users to compare frameworks and see where there is overlap in how skills are defined, even if the terminology is different. This overlap can provide valuable insight into forming a common definition, target areas for programs that work with different schools and frameworks, and opportunities for collaboration.

“This work should inform a feedback loop that connects what you know to what you do to what you assess and measure. And then the data from your assessments should inform what you know, and you can start the process again.”

Identify the Focus of Each SEL Approach

The Problem: Frameworks each have a different focus — some explore cognitive skills like “attention control” while others delve into emotional skills like empathy. While most frameworks incorporate elements of cognitive, emotional, social, value, perspectives, and identity domains, schools and programs may want to find a framework that fits their specific needs.

The Solution: Explore SEL allows users to see where the emphasis of each framework is, what is emphasized across all frameworks, and what areas may need further development. With this information, they can make informed decisions about what frameworks best serve the needs of their communities.

Target Specific SEL Competencies

The Problem: “Without a way to make sense of the words, it’s easy to misinterpret, overgeneralize, or overlook the hard science that links evidence to strategies, and strategies to measurement and evaluation,” Jones writes. “The result could be cherry-picking teaching practices, interventions, and assessments that may or may not be related to each other — or to the desired outcomes.”

The Solution: In addition to domains, the site also helps users search for and identify specific competencies and see where they appear in each framework. It can also make connections across frameworks and help users see the different terms used to describe a skill. From here, stakeholders can then identify areas of collaboration. When all stakeholders have a shared understanding of what goal is being met or which skill is being taught, they can design effective assessments and measurements.


Jones views Explore SEL as a guide in an iterative process that requires reflection, action, and assessment. “This work should inform a feedback loop that connects what you know to what you do to what you assess and measure. And then the data from your assessments should inform what you know, and you can start the process again,” Jones says.

Usable Knowledge

Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities

Related Articles