SEL Versus Character Ed: Why Publishers Need to Understand the Difference to Meet Urgent Educational Needs
February 08 2023
Student using a textbook

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Character Education (Character Ed) are significant educational trends today. School districts across the country look to SEL and Character Ed curricula to address what students, families, and teachers expect from education today.

In many classrooms, respect, responsibility, honesty, and values — which are key tenets of SEL and Character Ed — are regularly discussed as stand-alone topics.

Is it enough?

Probably not.

Most people today would agree that in the current charged social climate, respect, responsibility, and honesty should be critical components of everything students learn.

This article explains the difference between SEL and Character Ed and lays out how content creators and publishers can incorporate their precepts into their materials.

What is Social Emotional Learning?

SEL is not a new concept. The emotional and social well-being of students has always been paramount to teachers, administrators, and parents. Good educators have consistently strived to foster student growth and learning in all areas of their lives, including the academic, social, and emotional ones.

Today students face more — and more significant — challenges than ever, not just in the classroom but also in their daily lives. These challenges have made SEL more essential than ever.

CASEL, an organization that promotes Social and Emotional Learning, defines SEL as the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

These are all essential things in today’s challenging environment for young people.

5 Pillars of SEL

There are five areas or pillars that support CASEL’s definition of SEL. These five things can be taught and applied throughout a person’s life. However, evidence shows that ideally they should be learned sequentially.

  • Self-awareness

    Self-awareness is the ability to understand your emotions, including how to identify your feelings, along with recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and building one’s confidence.

  • Self-management

    Self-management is the ability to manage your emotions. This pillar covers physical and mental impulse control, along with self-discipline and motivation. It applies the learning in stressful situations. This pillar also teaches goal-setting and organizational skills.

  • Social awareness

    Social awareness is the ability to understand someone else’s perspective and empathize with other people. This pillar covers equitable practices and respect for diverse backgrounds.

  • Relationship skills

    Relationship skills teaches how to establish, build, and maintain appropriate and supportive relationships. This pillar builds on the skills learned in social awareness. Students work in teams, actively listening to — and learning about — their peers.

  • Responsible decision-making

    Responsible decision-making is the ability to make appropriate choices. It teaches how to interact in different situations. This includes the capacity to identify problems when they appear, solve them appropriately, and reflect on the results.

It’s easy to see how the five pillars of SEL, taught and practiced in order, could help build socially and emotionally competent kids.

Why SEL Should be a Part of the Curriculum

Social Emotional Learning fits in well with the current educational views related to the term WHY.

Current trends encourage educators to allow students to understand the why behind an academic concept. Social Emotional Learning makes it possible to achieve maturity and responsibility that enables them to deal with the depths of a why-based culture. SEL promotes competencies that can be taught, modeled, and practiced. These skills advance equality and fairness in the classroom, home, and community.

When SEL skills are taught and practiced effectively, it creates a caring and positive classroom environment. These skills encourage appropriate and sensitive relationships among students, teachers, and administrators. When educators incorporate students’ personal experiences, strengths, and support structures, they create an inclusive and equitable classroom. Strong relationships foster student growth, collaboration, and becoming a better human being. These attributes extend to all aspects of the students’ lives, including home life, playtime, the sports field, and more.

Character Education: The Basics

So, now let’s look at a concept related to SEI, Character Education, or as it’s more commonly known, Character Ed.

Character Education is a teaching method that encourages the development of the traits it takes to become an upstanding citizen. Character Ed teaches concepts like caring about others, honesty, responsibility, civic duty, and more.

Similar to SEL, a big part of Character Ed is about students exploring feelings and motivation. Another similarity is that Character Ed programs teach students problem-solving skills and how to set and practice critical thinking. Also, teaching Character Ed skills is similar to how you teach SEL skills.

Whether SEL or Character Ed, a typical lesson includes the teacher explaining the central concept, describing how to apply it in everyday life, and allowing students to try it out through role play, discussion, and group work.

The Rationale Behind Character Ed

The simple reason for teaching good character is to help prepare students to face today’s complex society. Character Ed provides students with the knowledge it takes to deal with the complex issues they will experience in modern life. Overall, Character Ed promotes ethical thinking, personal growth, moral sensitivity, and commitment.

Character Education teaches students to understand, care about, and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue, and citizenship. It helps them take responsibility for themselves and others. When practicing these skills in the classroom, students learn how to practice them not just with other students but also teachers, so they have experience interacting with people of different generations, which is a big part of becoming a leader in society. The values taught in Character Ed help instill the attitudes and actions that create the safe, healthy, and informed communities that serve as the foundation of our society.

When Character Ed is done right in the classroom, it also builds a community of understanding. The skills taught through it give students the profound power to build appropriate relationships and develop core ethical values. These strong values allow students, educators, parents, and other to create safe and healthy communities within the school building and at home.

SEL Versus Character Ed: The Difference

SEL and Character Ed may seem like the same thing. However, there are some key differences.

SEL gives people the tools to understand why they have the feelings and ideas they do and empowers them to develop their values and beliefs. SEL is the why.

Character Education tells you what values someone must have to be a good citizen. Character Ed is the what.

Put another way: SEL is about self-awareness, developing healthy relationships, and making appropriate and responsible decisions. Character Ed is focused on developing morally accountable individuals.

Character Education and SEL overlap. It is often tricky for academic content creators and publishers to distinguish between the two. They have similar goals and support similar core values. Both build better classroom environments. They help students achieve academic success and enjoy a higher quality of life.

  • So, which of these two disciplines should educational publishers focus on today?
  • Should they develop specific content for Social Emotional Learning or Character Ed?
  • Should content creators add messaging to support positive values across all academic subject areas?

The next section answers these questions.

SEL or Character Ed: Which should publishers support?

Content creators should focus on SEL in content for the youngest learners, those in K to 8. This period of rapid development is the perfect time to introduce the SEL pillars of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. It’s the right time to get the student thinking about why people feel what they do.

Educators need specific content to teach the pillars of SEL in the classroom. They also require tools, exercises, conversation guides, simulations, and other things to help students internalize the pillars of SEL in their lives. These tools should allow students to succeed and fail and learn from their less-than-successes. It’s how people find out about these things in the real world.

Content creators must integrate SEL messages into other academic subjects, especially those heavily focused on human interactions, such as history, social studies, and reading. Learning how self-awareness, relationship-building, and responsible decision-making needs to play out in everyday experiences will make these somewhat ambiguous concepts come to life.

Content developers shouldn’t only message about SEL in elementary materials. It’s critical to continue to include it throughout the learning process. It’s easy to backslide on self-awareness, healthy relationship building, and good decision-making. Countless adults, many in visible leadership positions, have made the news because they’ve fallen short in these areas.

Many educators hold on teaching Character Education until students have a basic foundation of SEL. They believe students have to internalize the why before they can internalize the what. Others introduce the concepts of Character Education while teaching Social Emotional Learning because they believe the two ideas work in tandem. Educators ramp up Character Ed messaging later in the student education process, as they are more able to understand the practical application of moral choices across all subject areas and parts of their lives.

Teachers need content creators to provide opportunities in their educational texts — along with exercises and experiences — that allow them to discuss subject-specific examples of being a good citizen and demonstrating a solid moral compass.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Good citizenship and morality are highly subjective. These concepts can easily creep into the sensitive realms of politics and religion. What’s critical is that you provide teachers with material and experiences that allow them to spin discussions how they prefer, guided by school and community standards. If you’re not sure, have materials reviewed by various educators.

SEL and Character Ed: The Opportunity for Academic Publishers

The current focus on Social Emotional Learning and Character Ed presents two significant opportunities for educational content creators and publishers.

The first is to develop new materials and experiences to support SEL learning. There is currently a dearth of professional content on the subject. Many educators resort to whatever they can find on the internet. Publishers that deliver high-quality SEI materials could generate significant ongoing business for years to come.

The second is to update existing materials with more content to support Character Ed discussions. It could provide an excellent opportunity to extend the life of older content and generate new interest and sales.

Academic content creators and publishers should take time to learn about SEL and Character Education to leverage it to serve educators and learners better and add dollars to their bottom lines.