Social Emotional Learning or Character Education


What are your initial thoughts about returning to the classroom this upcoming school year?  Do you have any concerns or reservations?  Uncertainty?  Excited yet a little nervous about what this upcoming school year will look like?  

All of these feelings are typical!  We, as educators, always get those “butterfly feelings” to start up a school year. However, after the school year we just had (that I am not mentioning), we may have a few more obstacles ahead of us moving forward. Personally speaking, anxiety levels are up, and I am apprehensive about what I will face walking into the next school year.  So what can we do?  

A common theme I keep hearing from educators and administrators regarding this upcoming school year is the importance of Social Emotional Learning (SEL). School districts across the country are looking towards SEL curriculum, resources, and activities to address what students and families may be walking through the door with.  

In many of our classrooms, respect, responsibility, and honesty are weekly topics or discussions. Isn’t this enough?  Don’t we cover SEL topics when we talk about Character Ed?  Well…not quite.  SEL and Character Ed. have some similarities; however, they are very different programs designed for various reasons.


SEL is not a new concept in truth; our students’ emotional and social well-being has always been important.  As educators, we have always strived to foster our students’ growth and learning in all areas, academic, social, and emotional. However, in our current society, our students face more challenges than ever, not just in the classroom but also in their daily lives. These challenges have made the need for SEL more crucial than ever. 

According to CASEL, SEL is the “process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions.” 


There are five (5) broad areas or pillars that align with CASEL’s definition of SEL.  Although these five areas can be taught and applied throughout a person’s life, evidence shows that it is essential that they are sequenced and explicitly target social and emotional skills.

  • Self-Awareness:  the ability to understand one’s own emotions. This includes not only how to identify your own emotions but also recognizing strengths, weaknesses, and one’s confidence.


  • Self-Management: the ability to manage your emotions.  Impulsivity automatically comes to mind when I hear management of emotions.  Physical and Mental Impulse Control is covered in this pillar, as well as self-discipline and motivation.  It is taking these strategies and applying them during stressful situations and using them for goal setting as well as organizational skills.


  • Social Awareness: the ability to understand a perspective and empathize with others.  This includes equitable practices, respect, and including those from diverse backgrounds.


  • Relationships Skills: the ability to establish and maintain appropriate and supporting relationships.  Taking the skills learned from Social Awareness, students and individuals can work in teams while actively listening to their peers.


  • Responsible Decision Making: the ability to make appropriate choices and interactions across various situations.  This includes the capacity to identify problems, appropriately problem-solve and reflect.


SEL is a process across a scope of competencies.  That means SEL is not just about a specific skill but an understanding of why.  It regards your attitude, your perspective, and how you contribute to society.

Get on the WAITLIST for our year-long comprehensive SEL unit that includes daily slides, resource guides, read alouds, and activities for all six pillars!


SEL fits in so well with the current educational views of the term why.  The curriculum is pushing us to allow students to understand the why of an academic concept.  It is no different when it comes to our social-emotional learning.  SEL promotes competencies that can be taught, modeled, and practiced.  These skills advance equity within the classroom as well as the community.  

While in the classroom, when SEL is carried out effectively, it naturally creates a caring and positive environment.  These skills nurture caring and appropriate relationships among students and adults. When educators incorporate students’ personal experiences, strengths, and supports, they create an inclusive and equitable classroom.  Strong relationships foster student growth, collaboration, and becoming an overall better human being.  

Kindergarten – 2nd Grade SEL Freebie
Third – Fifth Grade SEL Freebie


Wait for a second!  If SEL is dealing with empathy, emotions, and building teamwork, what in the world is Character Education? What is the difference?  Is there a difference?  

Character Education is a teaching method that fosters the development of important traits to make an upstanding citizen.  Character Ed. teaches concepts like caring about others, honesty, responsibility, etc.  A large part of Character Education is exploring feelings and motivation.  

Similar to SEL, Character Ed programs teach students about problem-solving skills, setting goals as well as critical thinking skills.  Also, the delivery of Character Ed skills may resemble how you would go about teaching SEL skills.  A “typical” lesson may appear similar across the board, including the teacher explaining the main concept, opportunities to discuss how to apply the concept, and student activities to role play, discussion, and group work. 

Review 10 (ten) character traits with these Character Education Clip Cards! ETTC created 28 cards for each category that provides students with hands-on learning and community dialogue!


The reason for teaching good character is to help prepare the students to face today’s society.  Character Ed provides students with the knowledge of what is expected in today’s society and how to deal with them properly.  Overall, Character Ed promotes ethical reasoning, personal growth, and moral sensitivity and commitment.  

Character Education is a learning process that enables students and adults in a school community to understand, care about and act on core ethical values such as respect, justice, civic virtue and citizenship, and responsibility for self and others. Upon such core values, we form the attitudes and actions that are the hallmark of safe, healthy, and informed communities that serve as the foundation of our society.

While in the classroom, when Character Ed. is carried out effectively, it also creates a community of understanding.  These skills enable individuals to understand appropriate relationships and core ethical values.  These strong values are for the actions we make to create safe and healthy communities within the school building and at home.  

Provide students with moral and ethical opportunities to practice throughout the school year with our Digital Character Cards for your Google Classroom. Help students to understand ethical values and provide dialogue through a virtual platform or morning meeting.


So you may have read both of those sections and still ask yourself, “well… what’s the difference”?  There sure are a lot of similarities between the two programs; however, there is one major difference between SEL and Character Ed. 

SEL provides opportunities for individuals to understand why they have the perspective they do and create their values and beliefs.  Character Education tells you what values to have rather than teaching individuals to be aware of what they have.  

Another important distinction between the two is that Character Ed. primarily focuses on developing morally responsible individuals.  In comparison, SEL is about being self-aware, developing those relationships, and making appropriate and responsible decisions.  

Character Education and SEL overlap, and it isn’t always easy to distinguish between the two.  They have similar goals, core values, foster a positive school climate, and result in academic success and higher quality of life.  Which one should I implement in my classroom?  Do I do a bit of both or should I focus on purely just one to create an effective program with fidelity?  


My personal thoughts are to start off with a strong SEL foundation.  By bringing the SEL pillars of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making you can begin the discussion of why we feel the things we do.  I feel it is important to have the ability to understand our feelings and connect them to those important Character Ed pieces.   

I am not one to personally tell a student what to believe in.  Yes, I do understand it is so important to be honest, it is so important to be responsible.  I model those concepts to my students and positively reinforce them when I see students acting that way.  With that said, it is important for students to have their own moral and ethical awareness so they themselves can also see the importance of the values we hold dear to society.  

I would personally suggest starting off with SEL before introducing concepts of character education.  This is just one view of what one individual thinks is important between the two.  I also called out to our Teaching Trailblazers through our Facebook groups, Fearless Kindergarten Teachers: Education to the Core, Fearless 1st Grade Teachers: Education to the Core, and Fearless 2nd Grade Teachers: Education to the Core to see what others thought.   Here are some more thoughts on the matter of which one is more important…SEL or Character Ed.?  

“Both” ~ Jessica R. 

They are so interwoven! I couldn’t pick one over the other.” ~ Debbie B. 

“Good question. I want to say social emotional bc I think children have to have the ability to understand feelings then bring in the character Ed. Then you have a way to make that connection between the two. But I think it could work either way or even together.” ~ Tammy Y. 

“Do both together!” ~ Alicia A. 

“Social-Emotional. Teach self-awareness and self-management will lead into character-building lessons.” ~ Jessica B. 

“Both are so intertwined why choose one over the other. Good character helps us handle our emotions appropriately while socially interacting with others!!” ~ Janine R. 

“Both are important for learning and give the slight edge for SEL cause after the year and a half some students had, they are going to need to talk about all the emotions they have.”  ~ Jonathan S. 

“SEL – because at the very foundation, students need to feel safe, loved, and valued in order to learn. So, teaching character education to a group that isn’t ready to receive it because of trauma or otherwise, would not, I suspect, result in any actual education.” ~ Anthony P. 

“Character education is one of several important components of social-emotional learning. So to answer your question SEL is more important to do weekly throughout the school year and in doing so you will also cover character building all along the way.” ~ Becky S. 

“Both.  They go together.” ~ Dorion H. 

“I think they are equally important and go hand in hand. Over the years I have found excitement in teaching lessons that integrate both. They both need each other.” ~ Charis J. 

“SEL. You have to own your emotions before you can care about others and how your actions impact others.” ~ Kim D. 

“I think they build upon each other.” ~ Deidre S. 

“Both are important!  I believe.  Social-emotional needs must be met before they can learn.  Character is what builds up a child.” ~ Molly R.

What are your thoughts?  Do you feel Social Emotional Learning plays a larger role during this upcoming school year or Character Education?  What are some activities that you do in your classroom or at home with your own children that promote building a community of learners?  Let us know in the comments below! 

Written By – Christopher Olson

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