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SEL and children's mental health - What can we teach each other?

By Cari Michaels

What does children's mental health (CMH) have to do with social and emotional learning (SEL)? How can we draw connections between these two areas of work so that children learn better and are healthier?

Viewing children's mental health as a public health issue brings common ground to this conversation. Public health encourages us to look beyond a child and a specific diagnosis toward dynamic, ecological systems in which both CMH and SEL are influenced.

A child's mental health status is influenced by her internal state, but also by experiences within her family, school or community. A child's mental health at a given time may be affected as much by parental conflict or community violence as by a diagnosed condition.

The public health approach emphasizes optimal mental health for everyone, not just those who are sick. We all have a state of mental health that changes throughout our lives - sometimes it may include a diagnosis and sometimes not. The idea of mental health promotion underscores the importance of motivating and supporting all children in striving toward their own version of optimal health.

Sometimes "mental health" is confused with "mental illness", but these two are not the same, nor are they opposite ends of one spectrum. The figure below, published in Promoting Youth Mental Health through the Transition from High School, illustrates two dimensions creating four quadrants - children can experience good mental health with a diagnosis, and poor mental health without a diagnosis. And, importantly for the work of SEL and CMH practitioners, children both with and without illness can reach an optimal level of mental health.

In her blog post "Essential ingredients of social and emotional learning", Kate Walker illustrates the five core SEL competencies of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) framework in a nutrition chart - one "serving" of a youth program includes self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationships skills, and responsible decision-making. Clearly these core competencies are essential to good mental health.

A public health practitioner would view these "ingredients" as protective factors - they help children maintain good mental health during ordinary days, and also when they experience adversity. Children with mental illness don't necessarily lack these competencies -- in fact, managing their illness may require advanced skills in areas such as self-awareness and self-management.

To some, teaching SEL concepts aims to maximize learning, but to many, including Dr. Gil Noam in his May, 2014 presentation Social and Emotional Learning: Assess It to Address It, SEL is used more and more in broad ways to improve health. Both SEL and CMH practitioners are interested in promoting healthy relationships, responsible decision-making, and good citizenship. These skills can be taught in many realms of that ecological setting - after-school programs, community centers, clinics, etc.

So how can we shift both our perspective of mental illness and our approaches to social and emotional learning and mental health service delivery to better serve kids? Does a public health framework help us get there? What might be our next steps?

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.
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  1. Good reminder that mental health isn't synonymous with mental illness!
    Your post reminded me of the "wellness" focus we are seeing in physical health,
    with an emphasis on good nutrition, exercise and mindfulness (among other things)
    to keep physically healthy. We see this focus in our institutions, policy and the
    media. And not only do these factors influence our physical health, they also affect
    our mental health.

    I’d like to bring another concept to this discussion. A major task for youth as
    they grow and transition to adulthood is the development of
    community capital
    , especially cultural, human, and social capital. These skills, ways of knowing and
    resources provide protection and support, and can foster our mental health and well-being.
    Including the concept of community capital in a public health approach can help us assess
    where youth have developed ‘public’ protective factors to help them deal with adversity
    and support their mental health.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Trudy, and for making the connection between physical and mental health. Yes – these preventive activities (good nutrition, exercise, and so on) are good for health overall. Sometimes we forget the mental health benefits.
    The “community capitals” you mentioned and described in your link to Iowa State University are new to me – I like that they emphasize health promotion at a community level. The strengths described in this model are important for youth to build healthy relationships and engage in the world in a meaningful way. I think a focus on these community-level protective factors, as they are described here, emphasize the healing nature of healthy relationships for kids and also lead us toward understanding children’s mental health as a community issue. Many of us have a role to play.

  3. Trudy,
    Thanks for this information on capital - interesting and relevant to this discussion. I think there could be connections made between awareness of capital and some of the specific SEL skills identified in the CASEL model.
    Lots of room for new discussion - and research and practice ideas - here!

  4. Hi Cari -
    Thanks for your post. You mentioned that
    sometimes "mental health" is confused with "mental illness" , but they are not the same, nor are they opposite ends of one spectrum. I can imagine that assumptions and interpretation of terms could pose barriers to promoting good mental health. Could you provide a definition of each term? I am interested in how you frame the distinctions.

  5. Cari - thanks for much to consider in your blog, the comments it generated and your responses. I find the four quadrants in the model very helpful. It reinforces the need to provide a solid foundation of ways of being, relating and acting that make up daily mental health as well as impact coping with mental illnesses. I find it remarkable that given all we know now we are not as a society more deliberate and intentional in building these foundation skills, attitudes, and behaviors that can make such a difference - a difference in coping with daily life or a diagnosed mental illness. When I travel to Finland I am always amazed by how much more focused they are as a society on the health, well-being, and learning of their citizens. How can we be more deliberate in just a few areas that will really make a difference? What areas might you recommend be considered?

  6. Cari, Thanks for the great post and for helping bridge these two areas.
    I encourage folks to check out an issue brief by Cari and Liz Hagen on this topic that is now available on our SEL webpage:

  7. Thanks, Kate. I am glad this brief is posted I really enjoyed writing it.
    I hope both this blog and the brief encourage new ways of thinking and collaborating. Specifically, I'm curious about how SEL practitioners view the conclusions of the research brief.
    Are these conclusions appropriate for your setting and population? Do they change your way of thinking about educating children and youth?
    I welcome more discussion about this.

  8. Cari,
    Though I am not well-versed in the SEL literature base, the connection I make with the core competencies of SEL is to the Search Institute's Developmental Assets framework (, especially in the domains of social competencies and positive values. As a teacher, the Developmental Assets are a framework used for targeting areas that may maximize resiliency in students.
    One thing I wonder is whether you could say a bit more about ecological systems theory and how you see that shaping your approach to public health. My training and experience leads me to believe that while this is a theory that some educators may be well-versed in, this is not necessarily the case broadly across K-12 and early childhood.
    Thank you for your consideration of these contributions to the discussion and have a great day!

  9. Deb-
    Thanks for your comments! I strongly second your thoughts about the need for teachers weaving SEL skills into all aspects of learning (reading, writing, physical education, etc.). I would take this a step further to encourage educators and administrators to think about SEL skills when setting school policy and working toward positive school climate. SEL includes more than just tasks for the classroom teacher.
    The video you link to above about Brooklyn’s PS24 shows how one school has made these types of changes – they have transformed their school by prioritizing certain curricula, changing procedures related to conflict, incorporating peace helpers, etc. Thanks for including this – I enjoyed watching it!

  10. The infusion of SEL in the classroom is a central
    element in improving school climate and in reducing the use of exclusionary practices in schools. Youth of color and children with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by the use of suspension and expulsion. They are punished and excluded for some of the same behaviors that their white and non-disabled peers engage in with fewer and less severe consequences. Racial and disability bias accounts for much of the disproportionality.
    That said, explicit SEL instruction promotes a positive and inclusive school climate by teaching and promoting skills such as problem-solving, self-awareness, making and keeping friends, managing emotions, reading social situations, making good decisions, etc. When students acquire this toolbox of skills, they are more equipped to effectively deal with emotional and social situations at school. Teachers who deliver and embed an evidence-based SEL curriculum have an opportunity to observe which students may need SEL skills that will help them experience success at school.
    When we examine a connection between SEL and mental health, it might very well be that when youth have a reserve of social and emotional skills at their disposal, school, social, and/or family life can become less stressful. We know that accumulated and/or acute stress in a child often serves as a launching pad for the onset of childhood mental illness such as depression and anxiety.
    When a child has the confidence and skills to successfully navigate the social and emotional landscape, it may positively impact her/his mindset. By switching focus to skills acquisition in human development, we promote a positive psychology approach, which is strength rather than deficit based; a concept central to mental health.

  11. Thanks, Char, for emphasizing the strength-based nature of mental health and also pointing out the fact that building SEL skills can help prevent mental illness.
    As we move further toward understanding mental health as a positive goal for all children, I think these connections between the mental health field and other fields of study and practice (SEL, but also physical health, nutrition, obesity prevention, trauma, etc.) will become more and more obvious.
    As you mentioned, we need to pay specific attention to racial and disability bias as we do this work - an interest in creating various categories of need can result in unfair treatment for both children of color and children with mental health needs. It can also prevent seeing the child as a whole person.
    I appreciate your comments!


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