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An inquirED Blog

Integrating SEL and Social Studies

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Over the last 10 years, there’s been an explosion of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs in schools. These programs are designed to help students develop positive relationships, personal agency, self-awareness, and decision-making skills. If those seem like important skills to you, you’re not alone. Employers agree. So do learning theorists and brain researchers.

But if SEL skills are so important, why have we siloed them off into separate blocks of time instead of integrating them across academic subjects? It’s a mistake we’ve made before. Remember when all the computers were sequestered in a lab and available only during tech period? Or how we’re still decontextualizing literacy skill development from rich and authentic content?

Let’s not make the same mistake with SEL. We know that learning is more effective when it occurs within a meaningful, relevant context. We also know that if SEL instruction happens in separate blocks, it tends to be in disconnected segments or even skipped entirely when time is short.

The solution is clear: SEL needs to be systematically integrated into academic content. Not only will this provide the context and connections required for effective SEL programming, but it will also remove the burden on teachers to make separate time for SEL instruction. Fortunately, there’s a core subject that’s a great start for integrating SEL: social studies.

Social and Emotional Learning Belongs in Social Studies

Just as the terms science, mathematics, and language arts are used to group together related subjects into fields, social studies connects disciplines focusing on the study of human relationships. These disciplines can provide the rich, authentic context needed to ground the practice of SEL skills.

Civics examines our relationship with others within a group, whether it’s a classroom, community, or country. History teaches us to analyze the past to inform our actions in the present and the future. Economics asks us to investigate how we meet our wants and needs and balance them in relation to others. Geography prompts us to consider how we affect our environment and how it affects us.

The list above is not exhaustive. Add in psychology, anthropology, archaeology, philosophy, religion, and sociology, and you have nearly the whole spectrum of human experience as your area of study.

And the benefit of integration flows the other way as well.

The practice of SEL skills can contribute to the ongoing transformation of social studies into a more active, participatory experience for students. When students study the principles of civics and lessons of history, while also using SEL to put those principles into practice in their classrooms and communities, then their learning deepens and becomes more meaningful.

Let’s Make Sure to Support Teachers

Of course, the integration of SEL into social studies won’t happen if it’s just another task heaped on teachers’ plates, served up with no resources and little support. That’s why curriculum providers, district leaders, and state education officials must come together to provide the support teachers need.

For curriculum providers and district leaders: First, let’s make sure that social studies instruction is happening in the elementary grades, reversing the trends that began with No Child Left Behind. We must also build and prioritize social studies curricula that include embedded teaching strategies and tools to help students develop their SEL skills. And we have to make sure that teachers receive the professional learning supports they need to implement these curricula, moving beyond the theories presented in half-day workshops to the realities of day-to-day classroom instruction.

State leaders can help as well. Due in part to the creation of the C3 Framework, social studies standards are being rewritten across the US. This gives education officials an important window of opportunity in which they can work with organizations like the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) to weave SEL skills into the fabric of social studies standards.

If curriculum providers and educational leaders can work together to provide teachers with the support they need, then we can put the “social” back in social studies with embedded SEL that will benefit every student.

Additional Resources

If you were unable to attend the webinar or would like to rewatch any portion of it, we have included a recording below.


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