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Ingredients to Student Success: Integrating Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning

By Isabella Hernandez- April 17, 2023

As educators, administrators, parents, and caregivers, we share a goal of wanting our students to thrive. The COVID-19 pandemic affected student learning and student well-being. School administrators are hard at work implementing solutions that can support both learning and well-being, which may often lead to initiative overload. Educators are left with the question: “How do I do it all?”

Integrating social, emotional, and academic learning is a universal support for both academic recovery and student well-being. We know that the social, emotional, and cognitive areas of our brain interact with one another during the learning process. So, when educators are intentional about how students experience learning—socially, emotionally, and academically—they promote a supportive learning environment and bolster students’ abilities to engage in more complex learning experiences. Research shows that students who receive quality social and emotional learning instruction have higher academic achievement, a greater motivation to learn, and fewer negative behaviors. To deepen your understanding of the link between social, emotional, and academic learning, check out this resource.

Students are displaying the need for social and emotional supports more than ever, for example, the U.S. Surgeon General’s recent advisory reports alarming increases in mental health challenges for youth. Students who engage in social and emotional learning are better able to manage their emotions, have an improved attitude about themselves and others, and make responsible decisions, which can promote positive mental health. When educators intentionally integrate social, emotional, and academic learning, they maximize time with their students, use effective instructional practices, and make learning more relevant to their students.

You may be wondering, “Will social and emotional learning practices take time away from academic instruction?” First, we know that explicit social and emotional learning instruction (perhaps with a social and emotional learning program) improves academic learning and student engagement, which can then maximize instructional time. Second, educators can intentionally modify quality practices they already use in their classrooms to incorporate social and emotional learning into their academic instruction. These common teaching practices, when used intentionally, can support both student learning and well-being.

So, what do these common teaching practices look like in practice? The Instructional Practices That Integrate Equity-Centered Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning brief outlines 10 educator practices that you can use to help meet your students’ social, emotional, and academic needs. These practices might not be new to educators, but using them intentionally with the goal of supporting social, emotional, and academic learning may be new.

The 10 educator practices discussed in the brief are shown in the following figure:

The figure shows two information trees.  The first reads Affirming Learning Environments and is linked to Youth Centered Problem Solving, the Power of Language, Responsibility and Choice, and Warmth and Support.  The second tree reads Learning Design and Instruction and is linked to Cooperative learning, Group discussions, self-assessment and self-reflection, balanced instruction, expectations and rigor, and SEL competence building

For example, implementing youth-centered problem solving helps students develop their abilities to solve personal, interpersonal, and academic problems that they may encounter during learning. Similarly, when educators help students self-assess and self-reflect, students learn skills to better understand what they know and do not know, as well as learn targeted skills (e.g., help seeking, resource management) that facilitate their learning.

The following are two concrete lesson examples of how to use these educator practices to integrate social, emotional, and academic learning in an elementary and secondary classroom.

  • Elementary Physical Education Example – Warmth and Support. To build warmth and support in a physical education class, co-create a list of words, phrases, or even a team cheer that students will use to encourage each other and build a positive environment. This lesson connects recognizing the strengths in others (a social and emotional competency) with the academic standard of accepting differences in physical development.
  • Secondary Science Example – SEL Competence Building. To engage students in examining biases and prejudices in a science class, discuss the types of biases that can exist in scientific research and the implications those biases may have on the interpretation of findings of that research. This example combines examining prejudices and biases (a social and emotional competency) with the academic standard of understanding potential biases of research methods or interpretations of research.

Integrating social, emotional, and academic learning is a way for educators to work smarter, not harder, to accelerate academic learning and support student well-being to meet student needs.

Educators can start integrating social, emotional, and academic learning today by considering how they might use these 10 educator practices and examples in their classrooms. School and district leaders can provide professional learning and coaching, as well as time for educators to reflect on their own social and emotional competencies, to support educators in implementing the 10 educator practices.

To guide educator and leader implementation of the integration work, consider the following reflection questions:

  1. How do these educator practices already show up in your classroom, school, or district?
  2. How can the educator practices that are already being used in your classroom, school, or district be modified to integrate social, emotional, and academic learning?
  3. What supports do educators in your school or district need to implement social, emotional, and academic integration in their classrooms?

Educators don’t need one more thing added to their plate. They are already working hard for their students. Integrating social, emotional, and academic learning is a way for educators to work smarter, not harder, to accelerate academic learning and support student well-being to meet student needs. As educators and students alike begin to intentionally use their social and emotional skills for academic learning, students are further supported in developing resilience, engaging with peers, connecting with school, and achieving academically. For further reading about this topic, check out the following links:


Isabella Hernandez is a research assistant at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). She supports the Illinois Resource Allocation Review, Illinois Wellness, and Illinois Teacher Recruitment, Retention, and Recognition Project with the Region 9 Comprehensive Center (R9CC). Isabella has served as a research assistant for several successful research, evaluation, and technical assistance projects across several states. These projects leverage evidence-based strategies and data-driven solutions to promote high-quality programs and policies with an emphasis on equitable access. 

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages