Social Emotional Learning: What It Is and How It’s Taught in Washington’s Schools

Jean-Paul Theriot starts his physical education classes by asking his students to give him a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

It’s a quick way for him to check on the emotional state of his students as they enter. If he sees a lot of thumbs down, he makes a shift to “tread lightly” during class. He also offers the “break box” to his students.

“This is the first year I actually created two opposite corners in the gym where I’ve got a step-up box and I just call it my break box,” said Theriot, who teaches at Cascade Elementary School in the Renton School District. “If they come in and they are not in their thinking brain … you can just walk over to that box. … And they know I’m going to give them about 3 minutes to be left alone, and at that point I’m going walk over and check in with them, see how they’re doing.”

Theriot’s strategies are a part of Social Emotional Learning, or SEL, which can be likened to “soft skills” that all people learn so they can lead successful lives. Although SEL has been a part of public education for decades, it can be a confusing term that generates some misconceptions. Below, OSPI describes the facets of SEL with input from two Renton School District teachers.

Defining SEL

SEL is a process that supports students in identifying and managing their emotions, establishing relationships, and making responsible decisions. These skills ultimately help students succeed academically and in life.

“When thinking of the skills that are necessary for students to learn, we know that problem-solving, communication, and goal-setting are necessary,” said Tammy Bolen, SEL Program Supervisor at OSPI. “We know that when one struggles to learn, it takes resilience and emotional regulation to work through that process. All of these are SEL skills.”

SEL, then, is best taught when incorporated into all areas of instruction instead of being taught as a standalone subject. Within the structure of Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), an evidence-based framework to ensure schools support the success of all students, SEL is a “tier 1” support that is intended for all students.

Rectifying Misconceptions About SEL

Bolen, Theriot, and Melissa Wolhuter — who teaches a combined fourth and fifth grade class, also at Cascade Elementary School — said there are some misconceptions that they hear about SEL. They also indicated how they respond to these misconceptions.

SEL is not mental health therapy. While SEL can help students build skills to get through challenges, SEL is not interchangeable with mental health treatments.

SEL does not teach moral or political values. Theriot said he hasn’t personally interacted with parents or guardians who have voiced concerns that SEL may be moral or political in nature, but added that he has seen those concerns from media sources elsewhere in the country.

“SEL is not based on values,” said Theriot, who’s in his 26th year of teaching. “It’s based on meeting kids where they’re at and getting them the tools that they need.”

Even with SEL practices in place, students are still held accountable for their actions. Wolhuter said she sometimes hears the misconception that SEL allows students to do anything they want with no consequences for their actions. She added that this isn’t true.

“There are still school and classroom expectations that students are required to meet,” Wolhuter said. “When an expectation is not met, there are typical consequences such as loss of recess, phone call home, suspension.”

She added that at Cascade Elementary School, they “add another layer to this.” If there is an incident, students reflect on it and make plans to have a repair conversation with any peers or teachers who were involved in the incident.

“Our goal is that eventually students will be able to make these repairs unprompted by adults,” Wolhuter said.

What SEL Looks Like in the Classroom

Because SEL is intended to be incorporated into all areas of instruction, it can take a variety of forms.

Along with check-ins and the “break box,” Theriot incorporates SEL into his physical education classes by teaching breathing exercises and offering objects like fidget spinners that help students regulate their emotions.

Wolhuter said she will create opportunities for students to step away from their schoolwork for a moment when it gets frustrating.

“As a kid is doing something in a content area — let’s say math — they’re getting really frustrated,” she said. “Do you need to go take a break? I have a girl [with] very low confidence in math. You can look out and body language tells you a lot. I can see when she’s shutting down.”

Wolhuter also holds regular class meetings with her students, during which students can bring up any issues happening in or outside of school. She then acts as a facilitator to guide students in talking it out and coming up with solutions.

Wolhuter also talks with her students about building relationships, communication, and the importance of modeling her own SEL skills. She demonstrates vulnerability by being willing to admit when she has made a mistake, and models repair conversations.

Bolen said that building trusting relationships is key to the success of SEL.

“Belonging, community, and trust are foundational and must be intentionally developed in schools and classrooms if we want students to succeed and thrive,” Bolen said.

What Happens During Serious Incidents

All the adults at Cascade Elementary School work to ensure that students develop the ability to identify their emotions and express themselves safely. But there are sometimes occasions when a student gets escalated past the point of being able to communicate their feelings with words.

For those situations, Cascade Elementary School has the “cougar den” as an option. It’s a quiet room with dim lighting, staffed by two professionals, where students can go to get support in regulating their emotions.

Theriot offers the cougar den to students who need more time on the “break box” after the first 3 minutes are up.

“What I tell them is, why don’t you go down to the cougar den, and when you’re ready hopefully you’ll come back and you’ll join us for PE,” Theriot said. “I want them to know that that’s a free pass, versus if I put you in time out. At that point, I’m calling for SEL support and you’re going to be taken to the cougar den, and I may or may not see you by the end of PE.”

Serious incidents can be stressful for educators. To support educators, school districts should regularly offer professional development and training opportunities.

“This need for SEL is so significant, so important,” Theriot said. “But it’s not just for kids. Adults need it too.”

Why Washington Teaches SEL

Research shows that SEL leads to improved academic outcomes and behaviors, including increased student academic performance and improved classroom behavior. Social and emotional skills are also proven to help improve life outcomes, leading to reduced societal costs required for public assistance, public housing, police involvement, and detention.

“SEL is as an integral factor in academic, career, and life success,” Bolen said. “SEL positions students for overall well-being and supports them in developing the resiliency, collaborative skills, and confidence needed to engage meaningfully in our increasingly diverse communities.”

At Cascade Elementary School, Theriot and Wolhuter agreed that SEL gives students a toolkit.

“It gives them common language that they can use with the adults,” Theriot said. “It gives them an opportunity to learn about their own emotional states. That recognition is really, oftentimes, all they need to start that advocacy of self.”

Additional Resources

This story was written by Chelsea Embree, Communications Strategist at OSPI. You can contact the Communications Team at