How Social-Emotional Learning Standards Differ by State

There has long been a focus in early childhood on teaching the “whole child” and supporting children’s growth in academic and non-academic realms.

Unlike at the elementary and secondary levels, there has long been widespread recognition that the development of children’s social-emotional skills are essential ingredients for academic learning in preschoolers. Research demonstrating the importance of social and emotional learning(SEL) for children’s school and life success has spurred state administrators and education policymakers to include such skills in their standards of learning.

What are learning standards?

Learning standards are statements about what students should know and be able to do as a result of educational instruction. As part of the educational reform movement in the 1980s and 1990s, states began developing learning standards for core academic subjects in K–12. Today, learning standards for language arts, math, social studies, and science can be found in every state.

Additionally, many states have developed standards for other subject areas, including health, world languages, performing arts, and most pertinent to this discussion, children’s social and emotional development. The teaching of social and emotional skills is an important component of education programs, particularly in preschools. For many children, preschool represents their first opportunity to socialize with nonparental adults and to form peer groups. In preschool, children master skills like sharing, following instructions, and waiting one’s turn.

Curious about what this kind of learning will look like for your little one? Learn more here: Social-Emotional Learning in the Preschool Classroom.

Why do SEL standards matter?

Even though preschool teachers have long been helping children master social and emotional skills, learning standards and guidelines related to this instruction have only recently formalized educational expectations. SEL standards are important because they influence curriculum development and selection, professional development, and assessment standards by which young children and teachers are evaluated. In essence, they define the goals for social and emotional education within a state. When learning standards include social and emotional domains of development, state officials are communicating to administrators, teachers, parents, and students that these competencies are important and valued and help to define what it means to be ready for school.

With an increase in research focused on SEL, policymakers have recognized the importance of these non-cognitive skills and have included relevant domains in standards of learning to varying degrees across the country. That said, state standards for social and emotional development differ substantially across the U.S.. Although all 50 states currently have social-emotional development standards that are separate from those for other academic and health goals at the preschool level, such distinct SEL standards at the K–12 level are still relatively rare. Currently, only a handful of states have comprehensive, free-standing SEL standards spanning all K–12 grade levels. Some such states are Illinois, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.

Rarer still are states that have coordinated efforts to create standards for SEL that use equivalent terminology and are developmentally scaleds across the whole education spectrum — preschool through high school. One example of such alignment can be found in the state of Illinois.

Case Study: Illinois

In 2004, Illinois was the first state in the nation to adopt and implement free-standing K–12 SEL standards. The 2013 revisions of the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards extended these standards down to the youngest students in the state.

Children in Illinois are expected to be working toward three SEL goals, which align across all grade levels:

  • Goal 30: Develop self-awareness and self-management skills to achieve school and life success.
  • Goal 31: Use social-awareness and interpersonal skills to establish and maintain positive relationships.
  • Goal 32: Demonstrate decision-making skills and responsible behaviors in personal, school, and community contexts.

For more information about the SEL standards in your state, check out the state scan scorecard of preschool and K–12 standards conducted by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). You can access the most recently evaluated standards for each of the 50 states, though it's important to remember that education policy changes rapidly and you may have better luck going through your state's board of education website.

How do I evaluate my child’s preschool SEL practices?

As the parent of a preschool-aged child, you may be curious to know more about how her school is helping her achieve these and other standards. A first step is to read the standards or guidelines yourself. Many states' guidelines, like those in Texas, include suggested instructional strategies to help develop each competency or skill.

When you observe your child's classroom, do you see teachers engaging in these practices? Are some of the suggestions things you can do at home, too? It is also appropriate to ask your child's teacher if she has lesson plans dedicated to social and emotional development or if she’s using an SEL curriculum.

While the prevalence of SEL standards in preschool is an indicator of the increased importance placed on such instruction early in life, SEL skills are not mastered in preschool. Beginning to learn them prior to kindergarten can help set children on a path to success in grade school, but continued and standardized emphasis on the development of social and emotional competencies is necessary to maximize children’s SEL — and other learning.

Why should we advocate for aligned standards?

Through the establishment of fully aligned SEL standards stretching from preschool through high school, states can create a common language and progressive expectation for children’s SEL, ultimately aiding educators and parents in preparing children for success in the social world. Furthermore, the alignment of standards and use of a shared SEL language can facilitate common professional development opportunities for teachers across grades, and can simplify the challenging tasks of selecting curriculum and assessment strategies for children and teachers.

If you are interested in advocating for better SEL standards in your school, district, or state, there are many resources you can use to talk to administrators or leaders in your area. Here are a few helpful sources:

  • CASEL State Standards for Social and Emotional Learning: This page includes handouts and presentations that define successful SEL standards, as well as an examination of the standards establish by Illinois and Pennsylvania, two states that have set comprehensive SEL benchmarks.

  • NASBE SEL Policy Brief: The National Association of School Boards of Education created a document detailing their initiative to help school boards better understand SEL practices.

Looking for more advice on advocating for better standards? Read our advice: Not Happy With Your School’s Policy? 5 Strategies to Win.