The term “SEL” is often attached to anything and everything that schools try to do that is positive. The reason not much is accomplished, is that SEL is not that. "SEL is a process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish positive relationships, and make responsible decisions (CASEL.org).
SEL refers to the teaching of specific social and emotional behavioral skills in a sequential, developmental order, every year, to every student, in every grade. Just like the skills we learn in order to read and write, behavioral skills help us deal positively with the social and emotional challenges in our daily lives. An SEL activity doesn't "preach" about qualities of character nor use inspiring stories to encourage people to do the same thing. The problem with "preaching instead of teaching" is that it leaves out the most important part of developing a character trait. In order to help someone use a more beneficial behavior, we need to teach the skill.
So, SEL means modeling, teaching, practicing and applying specific behaviors that will help us reflect on and choose beneficial words and actions, which leads us to develop those desirable qualities of character. Most importantly, SEL does not point out what people are doing wrong. It is a strength-based approach that helps children see their own and other’s unique strengths and value. It begins with developing a positive self-concept by learning to recognize our natural affinities and strengths, identify our emotions, develop a sense of self-confidence, etc. These Self-Awareness skills are followed by Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and then, Decision-Making skills. There are 27 specific skills within these 5 Core Competencies. See CASEL's List of SEL Competencies.
Recently CASEL redefined SEL and provided new example of descriptors to show how SEL skills address today's school and community challenges. See CASEL's NEW SEL Framework.
Each SEL skill builds upon the one that comes before, so the order in which they are introduced matters greatly. For example, we are not really ready to make good decisions until we have developed the personal and social skills that are taught in the four previous categories. So, starting the school year with an assembly program about not bullying others or doing drugs has little impact.