top of page

Promoting Social and Emotional Learning within School Social Work: What’s Out There?

Written by: Kevin Tan, Ryan D. Heath, and Sheri Olson

Social and emotional learning (SEL) continues to receive widespread attention within education, and its implications for school social workers must not be neglected. Multiple frameworks have been developed to guide policymakers, academics, and practitioners, and to highlight SEL’s impact on student academics and behaviors. While these frameworks share considerable conceptual overlaps, it is worthy for school social workers to explore what’s out there and consider the wide array of SEL skills that they should focus on when working with their students. One helpful starting point for school social workers is the Explore SEL website by the Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

In this brief, we review the focal areas of some frameworks, and discuss its relevance for school social workers. However, we encourage practitioners to do their own study at Explore SEL and consider how these frameworks can be translated into skills and strategies to promote student growth. Let this be the beginning for an ongoing discourse on how we can promote SEL within school social work.

(Note: SSWAA will be offering a preconference session with a team of academics and practitioners at the upcoming national conference to discuss the relevance of SEL for school social workers, so do sign up for it!)

CASEL (Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional and Learning) Framework

We start by discussing the framework by CASEL, which is arguably the most widely known and utilized framework. It identifies the five core domains of SEL as (1) self-awareness, (2) self-management, (3) social awareness, (4) relationship skills, and (5) responsible decision-making. The most recent version of the framework (CASEL, 2017) pays specific attention to the role of context, placing the five SEL domains within a center of nested contexts: the most proximal includes classrooms, SEL curricula, and SEL instruction, followed by schools, school-wide practices and school policies, and a third distal level including homes, communities, and partnerships with families and communities. This addition is notable for the recognition that SEL happens within these nested contexts.

Such attention is highly relevant for school social workers as it expands the focus of intervention to not just individual-level skill-building, but also influencing contexts that are responsive to student needs. Considering the ecological perspectives that school social workers bring to the work we do, the emphasis of context in CASEL’s framework is well-suited for our field. However, the framework, though, speaks less to specific strategies for developing the five core domains across different age groups.

Two frameworks proposed by the Consortium on School Research may also be relevant for school social workers. The first framework, Teaching Adolescents To Be Learners, specifies the factors and foundations most relevant for academic achievement. The framework indicates that student factors related to academic success, also known as “noncognitive factors,” are context-specific and that a proximal classroom/school context and distal sociocultural context will influence the development of student noncognitive factors.

The five noncognitive factors that drive academic performance are: (1) academic mindsets, (2) social skills, (3) perseverance, (4) learning strategies, and (5) academic behaviors.

The framework posits that mindsets will affect social skills and classroom learning strategies. For example, growth mindset, sense of belonging, and relevance of school are important mindsets for academic success (Farrington et al., 2012). It theorizes that these mindsets, along with social skills, perseverance, and learning strategies, all come together to influence academic behaviors – attendance, homework completion, studying, etc. – to enhance academic performance. Students’ performance, in turn, will inform their mindsets and, thus, create a feedback loop.

One particular contribution of this framework to school social workers is its specificity of the noncognitive factors (e.g., growth mindsets, sense of belonging) that ensure academic success. Likewise, much of the previous work on SEL focused on elementary school ages, whereas this framework focused on adolescents. It does not, however, specify what factors might foster other outcomes, such as healthy relationships or successful employment, or what factors are most salient at developmental stages other than adolescence. Additionally, it did not speak to what experiences are necessary to support students’ needs based on developmental tasks most salient at different points in a young person’s life.

To address the importance of a developmental perspective and outcomes beyond academic achievement, a follow-up report focused more broadly on young adult success (Nagaoka et al., 2015). Utilizing a developmental perspective, this model theorizes three key factors are directly related to student success: competencies (e.g., the ability to complete complex tasks), integrated identity (a sense of consistency about who one is, across time and contexts), and agency (the ability to make choices about one’s life path). The framework further posits that these key factors rely on four foundational components: mindsets (beliefs and attitudes about oneself and the world), values (beliefs about what is good and bad), skills and knowledge (ability to complete tasks), and self-regulation (awareness and ability to manage oneself). In other words, in order to build competencies, exercise agency, and develop a sense of identity, students must develop the necessary mindsets, values, self-regulation, skills and knowledge. The framework describes the types of relationships and developmental experiences that adults can provide for young people to help build the foundations and factors related to young adult success, which was further developed in Farrington (2017).

In addition, this framework specifies which factors and foundations are relevant at different developmental stages. For example, in early childhood, from ages 3-5, development of skills and knowledge are key developmental tasks. In middle childhood, ages 6-10 as young people enter the school context, continued expansion of skills, knowledge, and self-regulation occur, as well as a growing, abstract concept of self. In early adolescence, ages 11-14, mindsets become refined, and youth have an increasing group-based identity. In middle adolescence, ages 15-18, youth are focused on value development and moving to a more individuated identity.

For school social workers, it is one of the only frameworks to specify the processes through which schools and school social workers can impact students’ SEL: through developmental relationships that provide care and support, and through developmental experiences that provide opportunities for action and reflection. Likewise, the framework is unique for its emphasis on the agency of young people and their sense of an integrated identity. Although wide-reaching, this framework provides fewer specific recommendations for developing particular factors within different contexts, or how these may vary with the specific needs of marginalized or disadvantaged youth.

(If you are interested in learning more on the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research’s frameworks, check out these two sessions by Dr. Camille Farrington during her recent visit to the School of Social Work University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: How Schools and Classrooms Shape Learning and Development and Digging into the Science of Learning and Development or download the full reports at

School social workers may like the simplified language of the twenty-first century skills framework developed by the National Research Council (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012). This work synthesized economic, psychological, and sociological literature to classify major skills into the following three domains: (1) cognitive competencies, which include psychological processes and strategies, knowledge, and creativity; (2) intrapersonal competencies, comprised of intellectual openness, work ethic, conscientiousness, and positive self-evaluations; and (3) interpersonal competencies, including teamwork, collaboration, and leadership. An even more succinct model was proposed by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (2009) that identified four higher-level skills: (1) communication, (2) collaboration, (3) critical thinking, and (4) creativity. The transferability of skills is an under-focused area in the identification of student needs (Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012). Thus, the core strengths of these models are their focus on the transferability of knowledge by highlighting the importance of academic, personal management, and social skills required beyond current contexts. Overall, this framework proposes a useful model to summarize 21st Century Skills or “transferable knowledge” that young people need for a successful transition from educational settings to the labor market. However, it may provide less guidance on the kind of contexts school social workers can use to build transferable knowledge.

Developed at the Search Institute, the Developmental Assets framework (Scales & Leffert, 1999; Benson & Scales, 2011) builds on a person-in-environment approach and helps schools identify what young people need – both internally and in their environment – for the best chance of successful development. The framework provides an assessment tool that identifies twenty external assets that support youth in developing twenty internal assets.

Under both external and internal assets, the framework proposes several subdomains with multiple indicators. Under external assets, these include:

(1) external support from others, especially adults, that includes supportive relationships within caring and warm environments;

(2) empowerment, including not only safety, but also factors that foster youth engagement and feelings of value and use in the larger community;

(3) boundaries and expectations, where adults provide clear, consistent messages across different settings about what is expected of youth, and adults who model such norms; and

(4) constructive use of time, including involvement in physical activity, creative programs, recreation and/or faith-based programs.

With these external assets in place, youth are most likely to develop the internal assets. The internal assets fall under the following subdomains:

(1) commitment to learning, including positive beliefs and attitudes that foster learning and academic performance;

(2) positive values, such as caring for others, equality and social justice, integrity and responsibility;

(3) social competencies, including planning, decision making, conflict resolution, and interpersonal and cultural competence;

(4) a positive identity, comprised of a healthy view of self in relation to the future, positive self-esteem and sense of purpose and agency.

For school social workers, a notable key strength of this framework is on expanding students’ developmental needs from solely individual and internal to co-constructed and external. It suggests that external context, likewise, might be assessed to determine if it is providing what young people need. Similarly, while the previous models have noted the role of context, a strength of developmental assets is its specification of what that context should look like (i.e., the external assets) in order to foster the development of internal assets.

Although it is comprehensive in its identification of needs and naming important contextual features, the framework provides less guidance about the specific mechanisms of developing internal assets over time, and the scope of some domains may be beyond the practical abilities of many school social workers and school systems.

In the 1990s, frustration with deficit-based models of intervention that focused on problems that might define a stormy adolescence led to the development of the positive youth development framework (Lerner, Almerigi, Theokas, & Lerner, 2005). This framework emerged as strengths-based approaches with several crucial propositions that is notable for school social workers. First, they recognized that students have strengths that can be used to build new skills. Second, they emphasized a holistic approach to developing students, rather than a focus on prevention or remediation of problems.

This framework specifies the domains of positive outcomes as the six C’s:

(1) competence, including both academic and social competence;

(2) confidence, comprised of a positive identity and self-worth;

(3) character, consisting of personal values, social conscience, a value of diversity, and interpersonal values and skills;

(4) connection to family, school, community and peers;

(5) caring/compassion, which includes sympathy for others who were disadvantaged, unfortunate, rejected or in pain; and

(6) contribution to not only oneself but also to one’s family, community and to larger civil society.

The model posits that these positive outcomes are developed and achieved over the life course through the ongoing dynamic interactions between an individual and their environment. As such, the interactions will vary based upon individual characteristics (e.g., the background, needs, and self-regulation of the individual), and the ecological characteristics around them (e.g., human resources, physical and institutional resources, and accessibility to and within the family/school/community). A stronger fit between individual and environment will produce more favorable interactions, which will be more effectively develop the six C’s.

School social workers may appreciate this framework as it was among the first to use strengths-based approaches in the assessment of students. It also provides a useful and concise but holistic summary of what we may ultimately hope to foster in our students. When considering the identification of student needs, strength-based approaches consider both internal and external factors responsible for student development and emphasize how they can be utilized to respond to student needs. Such approaches sometimes lack buy-in from schools, and implementing positive youth development programs may be challenging, while also requiring greater specificity in what is included in the model.

Finally, school social workers may have heard of Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences. Through the 1980s, the prevailing theories of intelligence assumed that there was one overall construct of intelligence that could be measured with assessments of intelligence quotient (IQ). However, many scholars refuted this notion, instead noting that intelligence was a multifaceted construct – the most prominent model of which was the theory of multiple intelligences (Gardner, 1999, 2011). This theory posited multiple domains of knowledge that an individual could develop and possess, highlighting that intelligence was not a fixed trait, but a set of eight malleable domains:

(1) visual-spatial,

(2) linguistic,

(3) logical-mathematical,

(4) interpersonal,

(5) intrapersonal,

(6) bodily-kinesthetic,

(7) musical, and

(8) naturalistic.

A related framework highlighting the multiple dimensions of intelligence is the cognitive abilities taxonomy (Carroll, 1993), which theorized that higher order general cognitive ability was made up of eight second-order factors which, in turn, were comprised of forty-five specific abilities. The eight factors include the following:

(1) fluid intelligence, made up of reasoning, organization, and induction processes;

(2) crystallized intelligence, comprises language comprehension and communication abilities;

(3) retrieval ability, includes the ability to generate and express ideas in written, visual, or other forms;

(4) memory and learning, made up of memory span, recall, and learning abilities;

(5) broad visual perception, includes visualization, spatial relations, and processing of images;

(6) broad auditory perception, comprises hearing, speech, and sound discrimination processes;

(7) broad cognitive speediness, includes rate of processing, test-taking, and calculations with numbers; and

(8) reaction time, is the time it takes to respond to stimulus and make an appropriate response, including knowledge retrieval.

The contribution of these two frameworks to understanding student needs is a recognition of the importance of multiple domains of learning and their interrelatedness. For school social workers, when identifying student needs, attention should be paid to more than just one or two sets – for example, not simply assessing the linguistic/crystalized intelligence or logical-mathematical/fluid intelligence and reaction time domains measured by academic achievement tests. As with other frameworks, neither provides abundant guidance on the development of the intelligence domains.

Additional Frameworks

A full review of the frameworks is beyond the scope of this brief, but a few other notable frameworks is important to highlight. They require mentioning here because they center the needs of marginalized students that may be underemphasized or even invisible within other frameworks.

The first is the role of culture, race/ethnicity, and social justice and student SEL development. Critical and transformative education (Mezirow, 1997, 2000) found in Freedom Schools (Payne, 1997), has paid special attention to the identities of their students, particularly students of color. Such frameworks highlight the importance of understanding their identity and its social-historical meaning, as well as competencies related to engaged citizenship and promotion of social justice.

Other relevant contemporary frameworks include trauma-sensitive approaches provide special guidance on the needs of students who have undergone types of trauma, including but not limited to neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, exposure to community violence, and bullying (Crosby, 2015; Oehlberg, 2006). Additionally, restorative justice practices also gained substantial attention in school practice as it highlights the importance of including students, school staff, and community members in responding to conflicts, particularly of victimization, and implementing disciplinary measures (Bintliff, 2011; Payne & Welch, 2015; Zehr, 2015).

What does all these mean for school social workers?

While we encourage school social workers to explore the array of SEL frameworks, it is important that we do not get lost in the multitude of frameworks. Within the realm of academia, there has been an emphasis on using an integrated approach to promote SEL, because of concerns that multiple seemingly unrelated approaches may undermine the validity of any one framework (Tolan, Ross, Arkin, Godine, & Clark, 2016). Many parallel conceptual frameworks supported by a robust body of evidence emerged independently from each other, and scholars have called for bridges between the divides. In this spirit, rather than critiquing models’ relevant strengths, school social workers may benefit instead from exploring different models, and finding the one(s) that best align with their school context, and their students’ needs and strengths.

We encourage school social workers to view these frameworks as a way to embody a strengths-based approach to school social work. These frameworks can help us identify the positive qualities among the students that they work with – not their risks and deficits. The best strategy to preventing risk for poor outcomes is recognizing the strengths students have within them and use it to foster positive development. Additionally, we encourage school social workers to consider developing intervention efforts at adjusting contexts to be more responsive to the needs of students as highlighted by the more contemporary frameworks, which emphasizes the developmental role of contexts (e.g., classrooms, schools, peers, families).

It remains a challenge to translate these frameworks into actual, practical strategies for school social workers to utilize in their practice. We intended this brief to be the first step for a dialogue to strengthen this research-to-practice pipeline. Likewise, we hope school social workers’ exploration and application of these frameworks can be brought back to researchers, further fostering the practice-to-research pathway. Thoughts?

Kevin Tan, PhD, MSW is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Ryan D. Heath, PhD, LCSW is an Assistant Professor at the School of Social Work in the Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University. Sheri Olson, LCSW is a school social worker at 27J Schools, Colorado. We thank Jenna White and Caitlin Yore for their research assistance on the background with this brief.

Action: Join SSWAA SEL workgroup. Contact Sheri Olson (email: Attend the SSWAA pre-conference workshop.

Useful Links

1. Explore SEL by the Ecological Approaches to Social Emotional Learning (EASEL) Lab at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

2. CASEL(Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional and Learning):

3. University of Chicago Consortium on School Research:

- Foundations for Young Adult Success:

- Dr. Camille Farrington’s Lecture and Workshop at the School of Social Work, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (

a. How Schools and Classrooms Shape Learning and Development:

b. Digging into the Science of Learning and Development:

5. Developmental Assets:

6. Positive Youth Development:


Benson, P. L., & Scales, P. C. (2011). Developmental assets. In Encyclopedia of adolescence (pp. 667–683). New York, NY:Springer.

Bintliff, A. V. (2011). Re-Engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning through Restorative and Social Justice Education. Adolescent Cultures, School and Society. Volume 51.

Farrington, C. A. (2017). Illuminating the mechanisms of character development. Journal of Character Education, 13(1), 53-66.

Farrington, C., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T., Johnson, D. & Beechum, N. (2012). Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance: A Critical Literature Review. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Carroll, J. B. (1993). Human cognitive abilities: A survey of factor-analytic studies. Cambridge University Press, MA.

CASEL (2017). What is SEL? Retrieved July 31, 2017, from

Crosby, S. D. (2015). An ecological perspective on emerging trauma-informed teaching practices. Children & Schools, 37(4), 223–230.

Gardner, H. (1999). Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2011). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Pellegrino, J.W. & Hilton, M. (2012). Committee on Defining Deeper Learning and 21st Century Skills. Center for Education.

Nagaoka, J., Farrington, C., Ehrlich, S., Heath, R., Johnson, D., Dickson, S., Hayes, K. (2015). Foundations for Young Adult Success. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Lerner, R. M., Almerigi, J. B., Theokas, C., & Lerner, J. V. (2005). Positive youth development a view of the issues. The Journal of Early Adolescence, 25(1), 10–16.

Mezirow, J. (1997). Transformative learning: Theory to practice. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 1997(74), 5–12.

Mezirow, J. (2000). Learning as Transformation: Critical Perspectives on a Theory in Progress. The Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series.

Oehlberg, B. E. (2006). Reaching and teaching stressed and anxious learners in grades 4-8: Strategies for relieving distress and trauma in schools and classrooms. London, UK: Corwin Press.

Payne, A. A., & Welch, K. (2015). Restorative justice in schools: The influence of race on restorative discipline. Youth & Society, 47(4), 539–564.

Payne, C. M. (1997). Education for Activism: Mississippi’s Freedom Schools in the 1960s. Retrieved from

Scales, P. C., & Leffert, N. (1999). Developmental assets: A synthesis of the scientific research on adolescent development. Search Institute.

Tolan, P., Ross, K., Arkin, N., Godine, N., & Clark, E. (2016). Toward an integrated approach to positive development: Implications for intervention. Applied Developmental Science, 20(3), 214–236.

Zehr, H. (2015). Changing Lenses: Restorative Justice for Our Times. Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press.

7,351 views0 comments


bottom of page