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The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning in Schools

Most adults don’t look back on their junior high or high school years with fondness. In these critical years, children are learning how to form more complex relationships with others, which can be stressful. Of course, relationships can cause stress throughout adulthood, but younger brains typically lack the social and emotional skills to deal with it.

What Is Social-Emotional Learning?

Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is a teaching methodology that helps students understand their emotions and demonstrate empathy for others. With more emotional awareness, and a greater ability to manage stress, students are better equipped to make responsible decisions, achieve their goals, and build better relationships. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL consists of five core competencies:

  • Self-awareness — the ability to identify and assess your thoughts and feelings and how they affect your behavior.
  • Self-management — the ability to manage your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
  • Social awareness — the ability to empathize with others and engage in ethical behavior.
  • Relationship skills — the ability to communicate, listen, validate others, resist social pressures, and resolve conflicts.
  • Making responsible decisions — the ability to make good choices about your behavior, including social interactions.

Top Stressors for Teens

Young adults have difficulty handling stress of any kind. Even though a parent might not understand why a math test seems far more stressful than, say, shouldering a mortgage and caring for a high schooler as well as an aging parent, science has the explanation. To put it simply, stress is more stressful for young minds. Stress also has a negative impact on decision-making, resulting in poor decisions and potentially risky behavior.

According to the American Psychological Association, there are six common triggers of teenage stress:

  • Academic Stress
  • Social Stress
  • Family Discord
  • World Events
  • Traumatic Events
  • Significant Life Changes

Stress will always be part of life, but some people handle stress, as well as other emotions, better than others — a trait often referred to as emotional intelligence. In our society, we often treat emotional intelligence like it’s a quality someone either has or doesn’t, perhaps because of the word “intelligence.” Basic intelligence, as we understand it today, probably can’t be taught, but skills and knowledge certainly can. In the past, most schools didn’t concern themselves much with teaching soft skills, but they probably should have.

The Exponential Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning

At Saint John’s Prep, we believe that social-emotional skills are important building blocks to helping students become their best selves, interact and problem solve with others, and manage challenges. In fact, solid social-emotional skills can have a powerful snowball effect throughout life.  

When people of any age feel like they belong, they’re less likely to experience stress, depression, or loneliness, and they become more productive. More specifically, a student who feels less stress is able to absorb more of the information given to them in a classroom, which makes it much easier for them to perform well. When they perform well throughout middle school and high school, they’re better prepared to do well in college, throughout their careers, and are ultimately better suited to take on leadership roles.

At Saint John’s Prep, we see this phenomenon time and time again, and scientists and employers observe it as well. According to the Committee for Children, stronger social-emotional skills result in decreased bullying behavior and drop-out rates, and increased academic development. These important soft skills are perhaps even more important later on in life, as 79% of employers say that SEL skills are the most important qualities for success.

Our Social-Emotional Learning Program

Because strong social-emotional skills offer exponential benefits, our classrooms incorporate SEL early and often, beginning in middle school and continuing throughout upper school. Let’s explore how the SEL curriculum is integrated into each learning group in more detail.

Middle School SEL

In grades 6 – 8, our teachers coordinate lessons throughout the year to focus on communication, conflict resolution, compassion and empathy, self-awareness, self-management, overcoming academic personal challenges, setting and accomplishing good goals, resilience, and decision-making skills. While these valuable lessons are incorporated into our regular classroom activities, at Saint John’s Prep, we also provide additional opportunities to focus on SEL.

Group Sessions

To set our youngest students up for success throughout their time with us, all of our 6th graders go through small group sessions with counselors to learn critical SEL skills like perspective, healthy relationships, resiliency, respect, and time management. Additional groups are organized in grades 6 – 8 to include other topics, like making friends and communication skills.

Life Skills Curriculum

Thanks to a generous grant, we are able to supply our middle school students with special life skills curriculum. This valuable coursework uses guided lessons, group work, and traditional classwork, and focuses on self-image, self-improvement, making good decisions, dealing with difficult emotions, resisting peer pressure, and gaining assertiveness and self-advocacy skills. This curriculum also outlines the risks associated with alcohol, smoking and drugs, and encourages critical thinking skills.


We plan several middle school retreats throughout the year to foster a deeper sense of belonging. Students can work on soft skills, like being a good listener, but they can also apply what they’ve learned in order to build valuable connections and trust in their community.

Upper School (High School) SEL

5 Students On Sidewalk

Social-emotional skills are further refined in upper school where students can practice them more organically in the context of committees, sports, and leadership groups. Our students are also provided plenty of opportunities to apply what they’ve learned in their daily classwork, as we encourage respectful debate and productive communication during group work, and provide opportunities for students to display critical thinking skills.

Our students typically begin applying their SEL skills immediately, and can see how these lessons benefit their academic performance as well as their relationships with others. However, upper school is typically where our students begin to use these skills to evaluate how they can be successful throughout their lives, and how they might make a positive difference in the world around them.

It is a continual source of joy to watch our students reach a point of maturity where they think deeply and often about how they want to contribute to their community and their world. In our experience, instead of being fearful of college and the many career paths open to them, our students typically have the self-awareness to understand their talents and passions, and genuinely look forward to what lies ahead of them.

Other SEL Opportunities at Saint John’s Prep

Tip Sheets

We frequently send out tips through our parent/student portal so parents are informed about the valuable SEL skills their students are learning, and support this valuable curriculum at home. In the past, we have sent our resources around maintaining a growth mindset, dealing with anxiety, managing stress, self care, and embracing a healthy (non-perfectionist) mindset about achievement.

Staff Relationships

Because we are a smaller private school, our staff is able to connect with students more closely. Teachers can respond to individual student needs, and are allowed the creative freedom to tailor their curriculum to what students are experiencing. 

For example, during political times of year, our staff is free to take additional time to teach students better debating skills, and can come up with new activities in the classroom to practice those skills and discuss different worldviews and perspectives. We’re also able to connect students with school therapists or community resources; we recognize some needs are better fulfilled outside of the classroom.


We are honored that our school attracts students from all over the world. But our diverse student body also provides valuable opportunities to practice SEL skills. We believe that exposing students to different viewpoints at a relatively young age is critically important and prepares them to have constructive discussions about difficult topics like race and different religious perspectives. We support our students’ natural curiosity and encourage these conversations. We also help our students learn to navigate these topics appropriately, and always with respect.

SEL in Public Schools

Most Americans agree that soft skills should be taught in schools. However, unlike subjects like history, geography and math, mastering soft skills requires far more resources and individual attention than most public schools are able to give. 

We are very respectful of the difficult work public schools are called to do, and the education they are able to provide given the many challenges they face. But public schools simply don’t have the resources to work on character development the way a private school can. Additionally, private schools like Saint John’s Prep have the freedom to fine-tune and quickly adjust their curriculum to reflect what their students are experiencing.

SEL Reflects Our Values

We are very proud to share that many of our beloved Benedictine values are simply SEL concepts expressed in a different way. For example, the principles of Benedictine hospitality encourage warmth, acceptance and joy in welcoming others. Self-awareness and emotional intelligence form the foundation of Benedictine wisdom. And the key to unlocking all of these strengths can be found in the development of empathetic, mindful listening skills.

Should you visit our campus, you will find it to be a very warm and welcoming place, where our students and staff are free to speak their mind, diversity is celebrated, and creativity is always honored and respected.

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