Social Studies: Integrating Social and Emotional Learning

Teachers have always known that they have a duty to teach students, not just content. Most of the skills taught beyond the core curriculum fit under the umbrella of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). CASEL identifies five competencies of SEL: Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making. While all of these competencies should be practiced in the social studies classroom, I want to focus on two: 

Social Awareness

  • Perspective-taking
  • Empathy
  • Appreciating diversity
  • Respect for others 

Responsible Decision-Making

  • Identifying problems
  • Analyzing situations
  • Solving problems
  • Evaluating
  • Reflecting
  • Ethical Responsibility 

One of the first problems that historians must address is historical viewpoints. Whose point of view has been documented? What is the motive behind choosing a certain perspective? Do we only have the story of those in power? Whose story is missing? Have we considered the perspective of others who may have a different gender, ethnicity, culture, or socio-economic status?

Social studies teachers can teach Social Awareness by having students consider alternative historical perspectives. What was the Native American perspective on the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War? How did the term “God-given rights” make them feel? How did enslaved people feel? Did they think that their lives would get better or worse if the colonies won? 

By practicing empathy toward those whose history has not been traditionally emphasized, students learn to fathom the rich fabric of human culture and to respect those who may have had different life experiences. Social Awareness is vital to a well-rounded view of history and for appreciating the diversity of culture within the United States. 

After considering multiple viewpoints, students should practice Responsible Decision-Making. Student historians can observe primary and secondary sources through a multitude of mediums. Students should critically analyze situations and evaluate the historical choices that people have made. Reflecting on the ethics of these decisions, they can contemplate whether or not they would have made the same choices. 

In my American history class, we scrutinized U.S. foreign policy from the Spanish American War to the present. Students looked at the many U.S. interventions around the world, and questioned if our motive was seeded in Manifest Destiny (the positive propaganda of spreading Christianity, democracy, and civilization) or if we had selfish reasons based in political power and economic gain. We discussed the custom of American politicians explaining foreign policy in terms of morality, rather than the realpolitik philosophy of many other countries.

For each intervention, students examined the viewpoints of the government, military, businesses, and common people of both the U.S. and the country with which the U.S. was involved. Additionally, students considered the perspectives of allies and enemies of the United States, and sorted through multiple primary and secondary sources, evaluating viewpoints and biases.

The short answer to what students discovered is that it’s complicated. The U.S. is neither “good” nor “bad;” every foreign policy decision is a complex combination of many interest groups. In each intervention, some groups benefited and others did not. By analyzing the policy decisions made, students learned to appreciate all the people involved. This is especially important in our current political climate that pits only two, narrow viewpoints against each other without any nuance. In social studies classrooms students should be pushed to think past this entrenched dichotomy so that they can negotiate realistic compromises on complex national and global issues. 

With Thanksgiving coming up, we have the perfect opportunity for students of all ages to practice Social Awareness and Responsible Decision-Making. They could ponder:

  • Is the traditional story of Thanksgiving historically accurate? 
  • How do cultural and religious beliefs influence the telling of the story?
  • How would Native Americans tell the story of the first Thanksgiving?  
  • How did Thanksgiving become a national holiday and what was the motivation of the politicians who declared it? 
  • How has Thanksgiving been used as national propaganda and myth making of the origin of our country? 
  • What is the current responsibility of the United States toward indigenous peoples? 
  • How can we both celebrate Thanksgiving with our families and honor Native people who suffered loss of land and livelihood?
  • For additional ideas, see “A Racial Justice Guide to Thanksgiving for Educators and Families” by the Center for Racial Justice in Education.

Social Awareness and Responsible Decision-Making are vital skills for all students. Social studies is the perfect content area to cultivate these skills so that future generations have the tools to respectfully collaborate and negotiate viable solutions to global issues. 


Mike Kaechele is a Project Based Learning (PBL) coach and National Faculty member of Buck Institute for Education, leading workshops around the country to help teachers make the shift to student-centered inquiry. During 15 years of PBL teaching, Mike has taught social studies, math, STEM, and STEAM classes. His passion is inspiring educators to design engaging PBL curriculum for all content areas and age levels.

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