Integrating Social and Emotional Learning Skills into the Content Areas

Are you interested in discovering ways to integrate key SEL skills into your content area teaching? Take a moment to read our blog article to discover a flexible framework for SEL integration.


If you had grown up in the rural Midwest as I did, you would have learned to associate the changing of the seasons with routine happenings in country life. Summer signaled county fairs and Little Miss pageants. Fall ushered in endless dust and the promise of a bountiful harvest. Winter brought a quiet calm filled with long nights of machine maintenance and bookkeeping. But spring brought babies. Baby ducks, baby calves, baby lambs — and of course, everyone’s favorite, baby pigs.

While I was satisfied with admiring these yearly litters from afar, the summer my cousin Andrea turned 8, she went whole hog — literally, petitioning and eventually convincing my soft-hearted grandfather to give her a piglet of her own to raise. Though we expected her fascination with this suckling pig to be short-lived, she proved us wrong, spending many hot summer days and frigid winter nights sitting on a bucket in the barn, talking to “Daisy” and lovingly feeding her any scraps she could source from my grandmother’s “slop bucket.” Eventually both girls matured and gradually Andrea’s visits to the pasture became few and far between as she matriculated from grade school to middle school, high school to college, content with the knowledge Daisy would live out her golden years free from the threat of ever becoming a breakfast accompaniment.

Coincidentally enough, Daisy passed away just a few months before my grandfather did. And when we all returned to the farm to comb through photos and artifacts, the topic of Daisy came up. When I inquired as to what inspired Andrea to acquire Daisy all those years ago, she looked me square in the face and said, “E.B. White.” As it turns out, like many students, she was assigned the book, Charlotte’s Web, and as she pored through the pages, learning about Wilbur’s fate and Charlotte’s creative plan intended to help him sidestep it, she realized she too had the unique opportunity to make the difference in the life of one pig, just as Fern and one small arachnid had done (White, 1980). So that is exactly what she did. And some 25 years later, she still practices vegetarianism and posts daily about the plight of animals.

While this is a unique example of perspective taking and empathy culled from a teachable moment, for most students, incorporating social-emotional learning into the content areas is often more like a whisper than a roar. And it’s this type of subtlety which encourages a slow build to understanding and practicing the key principles of SEL, indicating the promise of what can occur when educators actively look for every opportunity to integrate key ideas of SEL into essential learning and benchmarks.

Looking Back, Moving Forward

As the world evolves, so must the skills needed to be successful academically, socially, and as a citizen of the world. Where there was once a sole concentration upon teaching students academic content such as reading, writing, and mathematics, the need to adjust our focus to helping students navigate and take control of social-emotional competencies such as self-awareness and management, collaboration, perspective taking, and decision making, takes center stage. But unlike Charlotte’s timely intervention on Wilbur’s behalf, these skills will simply not materialize for students at the first hint of trouble. Instead, they must be taught, modeled, nurtured, and developed in the same way a student learns how to write a five-paragraph essay.

For many educators, this undertaking can seem daunting, and rightfully so. Teachers and school professionals already work tirelessly to address students’ social-emotional needs and shortcomings as they mediate conflicts among students, engage in conversations about social and racial issues, coax students who have the tendency to “shut down” out of a pattern of refusal and indifference, assist with teaching organizational habits, and ensuring the classroom culture is welcoming to diverse populations of students and families. In each of these instances, we find ourselves addressing these gaps in school/life skills on the fly, only equipped with the resources we have at our disposal at that moment in time. It is easy to see how the proposal that one simply integrates SEL into the required content areas sounds like another top-down request we must add to an already heaping plate of responsibility (Ferlazzo, 2019).

In actuality, what propels this movement forward is the desire of researchers, educators, and SEL professionals to present an educator-friendly plan to assist them in implementing a systematic approach to address social-emotional strategies in such a way that the teacher can avoid the stress that playing “whack-a-mole” with daily student issues can trigger.

Inspired by the key practices and principles for curriculum integration (outlined below), and backed by the support of CASEL, Dr. Tara Laughlin developed an instructional framework to assist educators in designing units of instruction where social and emotional skills are integrated into the required content. This approach can be applied to any content area in any grade level and around any desired SEL competency or set of skills (Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010).

Five Key Models of Curriculum Integration

Competency Based Learning Students must demonstrate proficiency in explicit, measurable, and transferable competencies.
Backwards Design/Planning Educators start with the intended learning outcomes and work backwards to determine the plan of action.
Gradual Release of Responsibility Ownership of learning is released from teachers to students in small increments until students assume all responsibility.
Performance Assessment A method of assessment in which students demonstrate mastery using authentic situations where students transfer learning to real-life situations.
Instructional Adjustments and Interventions An instructional practice where educators analyze formative assessment data and implement targeted intervention and enrichment activities based upon students’ needs.

A Flexible Framework for SEL Integration

Laughlin’s model draws inspiration from each of the proven pedagogical practices listed above, while streamlining the process for content integration into six steps for educators and school personnel to follow. These procedures are outlined as follows (Laughlin, 2020).

  • Step 1: Identify Teachers rely on the standards or curriculum maps to determine the content to teach. School, district, and individual classroom goals and observations are used to identify social-emotional skills that pair well with the academic content.
  • Step 2: Pre-Assess Teachers informally or formally assess students on the objectives related to an academic content unit of study or topic, as well as the SEL skills to be addressed. Each assessment is administered separately from one another, as they measure two different outcomes.
  • Step 3: Plan Using pre-assessment data, teachers prepare to teach the instructional unit (self-selected or school mandated) using backwards planning to guide the process. Teachers purposefully match SEL skills with academic content and identify potential areas for assessment or reteaching to occur.
  • Step 4: Teach Teachers provide instruction on one paired content area and SEL skill. Both lessons occur separately so maximum attention can be given to each of the essential concepts. For example, during Monday’s reading block, a teacher may teach a lesson about making inferences by noticing a character’s body language; then, later in the day, teach a skills lesson about perspective taking.
  • Step 5: Practice After receiving separate instruction, the teacher assigns a task where both the content area focus and the SEL skill can be utilized simultaneously. For example, students might be asked to create a diorama of what they envision a character’s bedroom to look like, representing his/her likes and dislikes, as well as demonstrating the ability to adopt the character’s perspective and choose things based on the specific attributes or interests.
  • Step 6: Assess Teachers administer a performance assessment to assess a student’s grasp of both the academic content and the SEL skill. Ideally, a rubric is used to show a student’s growth on the continuum in his/her quest toward mastery of both the content skill and the SEL competency.

It should be noted that there is flexibility in this model and teachers should feel confident creating a simpler pathway for the implementation of both academic and SEL skills through the decision to repeatedly model, teach, and practice one isolated skill among multiple content areas of focus. This might consist of creating multiple lessons where students are asked to demonstrate positive relationships skills with others through speaking and listening, receiving help and feedback gracefully, and resolving conflicts peacefully.

Putting a Plan in Place


There is no doubt that integrating and implementing this type of framework requires teachers to reconsider how their planning and instructional time is used. Redesigning or realigning content and time-tested assessments every year is a daunting task, and a framework such as the one noted above can also give educators the illusion of creating more work. However, it can be argued that by integrating SEL into the academic content one is already responsible for requires a great investment in time up front, but the return on such an investment is tenfold. The final pieces of the framework sets students up for success by allowing them to continue applying the problem-solving process against all content areas. This continued application also leads to a higher level of ownership, accountability, and efficiency. The teacher can now act as a classroom facilitator and guide, as opposed to a volunteer firefighter, putting out academic and behavioral flames all day long.

The research also supports that the reinforcement of SEL skills within meaningful learning opportunities leads to higher levels of self-management, effective collaboration, and fewer disciplinary issues, as students learn how to govern themselves through the skills outlined by social-emotional skills and competencies. Fundamentally, all students deserve access to a responsive curriculum that seeks to incorporate the social and emotional skills needed to ensure that their transition into higher education and/or their career path is a successful one. Choosing to utilize a student-centered integrative approach empowers educators to ensure that this happens, while remaining true to the valuable and time-tested curriculum they are tasked with teaching. Thus, the inclusion of teaching social-emotional skills within core content simply serves as a way to enhance learning while adding meaning for the audience.


In 2018, the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development released a report called Consensus Statements of Practice, which concluded that social-emotional learning should be taught in conjunction with academic content. They stated, “By integrating, rather than separating, young people’s social, emotional, and academic development, we can position each and every student for success” (Berman, Chaffee, & Sarmiento, 2018).

The curriculum and classroom are ripe with opportunity for addressing and blending essential social and emotional skills that can lead to mastery over core curriculum, as well as CASEL’s core competencies. When students are provided with engaging topics, texts, and writing experiences, they are given meaningful contexts and content for which they can practice and display their knowledge and understanding of SEL skills. And everybody wins.

Are you curious? Want to learn more?

To learn more about social and emotional learning, visit the Professional Development Institute (PDI) website or go directly to comprehensive list of courses for Social and Emotional Learning training. The Professional Development Institute has been offering quality online professional development courses to K-12 educators for over 27 years and provided training to over 345,000 teachers across the globe. We specialize in offering quality, affordable university-approved online courses that focus on the most relevant topics in education while providing practical strategies that can be implemented in the classroom immediately. All PDI courses are at the graduate-level, instructor-led, and are conducted entirely online. University credit is available through University of California Division of Extended Studies. PDI offers an extensive catalog of online courses for teachers on topics that are the most critical in today’s classrooms.

Article References

Berman, Chaffee, S., &. Sarmiento, J. (2018). “The practice base for how we learn: Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development,” Consensus Statements of Practice from the Council of Distinguished Educators. The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development: Washington, D.C.

Darling-Hammond, L & Adamson, F (2010). Beyond basic skills: The role of performance assessment in achieving 21st century standards of learning. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

Ferlazzo, L. (2019). “Author Interview: 'All Learning Is Social and Emotional'”. Retrieved 21 April 2021 from

Laughlin, T. (2020). “Framework for SEL Integration: It’s Time to Teach Differently”. Retrieved 11 May 2021 from

Categories: SEL, social and emotional learning, integrating social and emotional skills

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