The Power of Social Emotional Learning

Posted by AAPC Publishing on Nov 9th 2021

The Power of Social Emotional Learning

Have you heard the term Social Emotional Learning (SEL) recently and thought, what is social emotional learning and why does it matter?

At a glance

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is the process by which children and adults learn to build positive relationships, identify and manage their own emotions, learn empathy and how to take the perspective of others, and make good choices in their daily lives. But SEL is more than just learning the skills of social behavior, i.e. the “what”; it is also about learning the “why” of these behaviors.

How we teach students becomes just as important as what we teach. Research shows a connection between the skills taught in SEL programs and academic achievement, positive behavior, and healthier life choices.

In this blog post, we will discuss experiences with SEL, SEL and Children, SEL and Adults, and why this is such an important topic. As an added bonus, we will be including books and activities that will assist you in implementing social and emotional learning in the classroom.

The 5 Social Emotional Learning Competencies

  1. Self-awareness—being able to identify our own feelings, and to understand the way our feelings affect our actions, as well as being able to identify our own strengths and weaknesses
  2. Self-management—being able to regulate our feelings and actions in a variety of situations, being able to manage stress and to control our impulses
  3. Social awareness—being able to understand the feelings of others, even if different from our own; being able to understand the perspective of another person; understanding the expectations of other people in a variety of situations
  4. Relationship skills—being able to have and maintain positive relationships with others, including sharing interests, negotiating conflicts, and being able to work cooperatively
  5. Responsible decision-making—being able to evaluate the consequences of our own behavior, including an awareness of safety concerns, and ethical concerns, and social expectations

These five categories can look different at different ages and in different situations, but all are essential to being successful in the world. Because individuals on the autism spectrum struggle with abstract reasoning, SEL is particularly challenging.

The ability to reference others and to draw meaning from what is observed, the understanding of why social behavior is important—these are huge challenges for people with ASD.

We are now realizing that social and emotional learning is perhaps the most crucial—and challenging—part of the education process for people on the spectrum.

My Experiences With Social Emotional Learning

My first job as a young teacher was overwhelming. I wasn’t sure what to teach, or how to teach it. The students had challenging behaviors and seemed lost in their own world.

During the late 70s, specific treatments for autism were few and far between, so there wasn’t much guidance for someone like me. But as time went on, something began to stand out:

I noticed that some students had better social skills than others, and no matter what academic or vocational skills they possessed, these students generally seemed happier and more successful.

This early observation has proven to be true in every other setting in which I have worked.

  • Non-public schools
  • County Programs
  • District Programs
  • Clinic Settings
  • Work Settings
  • Homes

Individuals who have good social and emotional skills typically are more successful in school, employment, and navigating the community.

This is especially true for folks on the autism spectrum. We all know the stereotype: individuals with ASD are loners and don’t like to be around people. So many attitudes toward ASD are based on the premise that people with ASD are not social.

But what if that assumption is false? What if they actually crave human contact, just like the rest of us, but don’t know how to get it, or succeed at it? Let’s assume that all of the stereotypes are false. Then what?

Social Emotional Learning and Children

Seven-year-old Kevin is very interested in others and wants to have friends, but he has a hard time seeing past his own interests, and cannot modify his behavior, even when it is upsetting to his peers.

At school during their free time, Kevin wants to play with his friend, Todd. Kevin wants to play Legos, which is ok with Todd. But Kevin insists on building a spaceship and talking about planets, while Todd is more interested in cars. Kevin and Todd are each unable to let go of expectations for the activity, so they end up playing alone, rather than together.

Todd is frustrated when Kevin will not share the Legos he needs and is tired of talking about Mars, while Kevin is angry that Todd will not comply with his wishes. Todd leaves after a few minutes, moving on to another activity where he has more control.

Social Emotional Learning and Children Scenario Breakdown

In this scenario, Kevin lacks both self-awareness and social awareness. He doesn’t see his own limited interests as being problematic, and cannot understand Todd’s different desires for the activity. Kevin also lacks relationship skills, in that his failure to acknowledge Todd’s interests eventually drives Todd away.

Even when an adult points this out to Kevin, he is unable to control his own impulses, and his lack of self-management skills eventually ends the play activity between the two boys. The situation ends with Kevin playing alone, while Todd happily plays cars with another peer.

The crucial piece here is to understand that Kevin really wanted to play with Jason. He likes and enjoys Todd’s company, and thought that Todd would enjoy their time playing spaceship.

This situation plays out over and over again in the lives of our children. Although their intentions may not be clear, they are eager to engage with others but don't understand how, and their efforts often lead to frustration and failure on both sides. And not only do the interactions lead to frustration or failure, but to confusion. The child ends up wondering, why? Why doesn’t my friend want to play with me? Why do I always end up playing alone?

Social Emotional Learning and Adults

Now let’s take a look at an adult with ASD, who has also never mastered the social and emotional skills we saw in the last example.

Alison graduated from high school with a diploma. She is academically strong--able to read and do advanced math—but lacking in basic social skills.

Alison gets a job at a data entry company. She is able to perform her job duties, but when it comes to the social skills inherent in a work setting, she is woefully unprepared. She likes to listen to music when she works, as it drowns out the annoying sounds of her coworkers. She doesn’t understand why her other workers are upset or distracted by her choice of loud heavy metal music.

When her coworkers politely request that she listen to a different type of music, or at least turn it down, she is annoyed and feels as if her coworkers are being unfair. She argues with them and refuses to turn her music down. When her supervisor speaks to her about the situation, Alison storms out. Later, she cries because she feels her coworkers don’t like her, and she cannot understand why.

Social Emotional Learning and Adults Scenario Breakdown

In this scenario, Alison lacks self-awareness of her own behavior, and of how she differs from others in her needs.

She lacks social awareness in her failure to understand both the cause of her coworker’s frustration, and in the emotional undertones of their complaints, i.e. that they like her, but dislike the loud music.

Alison does not display either the relationship skills needed to resolve the conflict or the responsible decision-making skills needed to understand how her behavior might also cost her a good job.

If she only had the self-management skills to problem-solve a solution (e.g. turning the music down, using earbuds, etc.), she might end the conflict. Alison really wants to succeed at her job and to have friends at work, but lacks the skills to be successful.

In Conclusion

Both of these situations are snapshots of the problems that face individuals on the autism spectrum when it comes to social and emotional learning. These skills are paramount to success in the real world—impacting all areas of life.

As individuals who both love and support people on the spectrum, can we prevent these heartbreaking scenarios? Can we actually help?

The good news is, we can! Strong social emotional skills can be taught. All of us—parents, educators, and everything in between—can and should be addressing these skills in our everyday dealings with individuals on the spectrum, but this requires discipline and attentiveness. We must use evidence-based practices to teach, model, and reinforce these skills.

At AAPC, we are committed to providing the best resources for this. Here are some of our titles that will teach you about social emotional learning skills, and will also give you great practical ideas for strategies and activities for your SEL program in the classroom or at home.

Recap of the 5 Social Emotional Learning Competencies and Recommended Books and Activities


Being able to identify our own feelings, and to understand the way our feelings affect our actions, as well as being able to identify our own strengths and weaknesses.

My Book of Feelings

This highly engaging workbook is an ideal way to help teach children with autism spectrum disorder to identify, assess the intensity of, and respond appropriately to their emotions. Children learn to identify situations that are big deals, medium deals, and small deals and the emotions that match these situations.

Also included is a communication pad for tracking and sharing information between home and school - an important component of effective programming. This educational book is a great tool for all children, including those with autism spectrum disorder.

Other Competencies: Social Awareness; Responsible decision-making; Relationship skills;

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My Sister Lily, Who Doesn't Have Autism - NEW RELEASE

Discover a beautiful children’s book that explores autism and celebrates our differences!

Blending colorful illustrations with a heartwarming story, My Sister Lily, Who Doesn’t Have Autism is a touching book that seeks to provide an illuminating perspective on autism and neurodivergence. Told through the eyes of Ben, an autistic boy who is best friends with his neurotypical sister, this story encourages children and parents alike to better understand autism, practice acceptance, and cherish the many things that make us unique.

From their daily habits to the many differences in their feelings, attitudes, and quirks, this lovely book is a testament to the power of friendship, showing us that no matter our differences, we can still be friends!

Other Competencies: Social Awareness; Relationship skills;

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This interactive workbook is useful in helping children and adults establish and understand the triggers for their strong emotions and use interventions that may help them cope more effectively with the world around them. After all, children who understand their sensory systems will have fewer behavior challenges!

Other Competencies: Social Awareness; Responsible decision-making; Relationship skills;

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Being able to regulate our feelings and actions in a variety of situations, being able to manage stress and to control our impulses

The Cartoon and Script: Teaching Social Behavior and Communication


By becoming better communicators and having the self-management skills to become more flexible, our children can live lives that are less stressful. Using cartoons and scripts, this book breaks down complex behaviors into manageable steps and provides methods to help children and youth generalize skills across settings and people.

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Social Awareness; Responsible decision-making; Relationship skills;

Changing Behavior One Step at a Time


This book provides parents, therapists, and teachers 119 rules and tools to help their child manage their behavior by understanding and solving behavior challenges. While this book is written for parents, many professionals have used it successfully.

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Social Awareness; Responsible decision-making; Relationship Skills;

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Let’s Talk Emotions


A collection of easy-to-use activities for children ages 4-18. Children learn to identify and respond to their own feelings as well as the feelings of others, thereby improving their chances of maintaining and establishing fulfilling and successful social relationships. The appendix includes worksheets.

Other Competencies: Self Awareness; Relationship Skills

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Being able to understand the feelings of others, even if different from our own; being able to understand the perspective of another person; understanding the expectations of other people in a variety of situations.

Social Rules for Kids-The Top 100 Social Rules Kids Need to Succeed


Many parents are not sure of what to say and do to help their children improve their social interactions. This book helps open the door of communication between parent and child by addressing 100 social rules for home, school, and the community. Using simple, easy-to-follow rules covering topics such as body language, manners, feelings, and more, this book aims to make students' lives easier and more successful by outlining specific ways to interact with others on a daily basis.

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Responsible decision-making; Relationship skills; Self-management

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Super Skills: A Social Skills Group Program for Children with Asperger Syndrome, High-Functioning Autism and Related Challenges


This series of social skills activities is designed to help elementary-aged students with autism spectrum and other social cognitive deficits succeed in the social realm. Group lessons are organized under four types of skills necessary for social success: fundamental skills, social initiation skills, getting along with others, and social response skills.

Each lesson is highly structured and organized, making it easy for teachers and other group leaders to implement successfully. A series of practical checklists and other instruments provide a solid foundation for assessing students' social skills levels and subsequent program planning.

Other Competencies: Responsible decision-making; Relationship skills; Self-management; Self-Awareness

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The Hidden Curriculum for Understanding Unstated Rules in Social Situations for Adolescents and Young Adults


There are some rules that everyone is expected to know but hardly anyone ever teaches them. Those rules are called “the Hidden Curriculum.”

Some students just seem to learn those rules naturally as they grow up. Other students only learn those rules if they are taught to them directly. Those students end up feeling confused. They may break rules that they did not know even existed. These mistakes may cause them to be socially isolated.

The Hidden Curriculum is a fun way to make sure that all of our students have the opportunity to learn the Hidden Curriculum. Learning these social rules helps our students to make friends and prepares them for life.

Other Competencies: Relationship Skills; Self-management, Self-awareness

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Relationship skills

Being able to have healthy relationships with others, including sharing interests, negotiating conflicts, and being able to work cooperatively.

Conversation Club Curriculum: Teaching Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Book Set: Instructor’s Manual and Student Storybook

Provides a comprehensive instructional framework for teaching both the “how” and “why” of conversation. Conversation goal areas include conversation initiation and topic selection, topic maintenance, perspective taking, and social motivation, environmental awareness and body readiness, active listening behaviors, gaining attention behaviors, and conversation repair. Targets the needs of elementary-aged children. Downloadable content is included.

Other Competencies: Self-management; Self Awareness

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Why Didn’t They Just Say That? PEERspective - A Complete Curriculum


PEERspective is a complete curriculum that teaches high school students self-awareness, self-acceptance, relationship building, conflict resolution, managing stress and wellness, and many other topics that have a lifelong impact on students’ lives.

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Social Awareness; Responsible decision-making; Self-management;

Diary of a Social Detective


This book combines social instruction with reading comprehension in a fun and unique way! Johnny Multony is hired by other students in his school for help with common interpersonal dilemmas, such as cliques, dealing with disappointments, bully, personal space, friends, body language, and much more. Help your child or student become a social detective in their own lives!

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Social Awareness; Responsible decision-making; Self-management;

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Responsible Decision-Making

Being able to evaluate the consequences of our own behavior, including an awareness of safety concerns, and ethical concerns, and social expectations.

FLIPP the Switch 2.0

This book is indispensable for anyone who wants to minimize behavior challenges, maximize on-task behavior, and support positive social-emotional development in a child or student. Readers will learn about executive function and how executive function skills contribute to success in school, at home, and at work. Most importantly, readers receive specific instructions, templates, and how-to scenarios for 25 strategies -- five strategies for each of the five FLIPP components – flexibility, leveled emotionality, impulse control, planning, and problem-solving.

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Social Awareness; Self-management; Relationship Skills;

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Behavior Mapping


Grounded in evidence-based practice, Behavior Mapping is a groundbreaking way to motivate your child or student to make good choices and learn new skills. Better yet, due to its visual nature, this simple-to-implement strategy is effective for a range of students, regardless of age and ability level. There are four major categories of maps presented: Consequence Maps, Complex Behavior Maps, Language Maps, and Problem-Solving Maps. Downloadable Behavior Maps are included.

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Social Awareness; Self-management;

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The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job


Getting and keeping a job has a lot to do with your ability to make responsible decisions. This practical and easy-to-use book provides necessary yet often untaught information on a variety of topics related to getting a job, finding a mentor, networking, interviewing, talking with supervisors, dealing with on-the-job frustrations, understanding the social rules at work, and many other topics.

Other Competencies: Self-Awareness; Social Awareness; Self-management; Relationship Skills;

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