The Science of Learning Blog

December 3, 2019

The Overlooked Third Domain of Social-Emotional Learning: Cognitive Skills

BY Amy Takabori

SEL Goes Viral

A few months ago, a Facebook post by an Oklahoma middle school teacher went viral. It was a simple photo of a plastic bag full of crumpled paper, but its accompanying caption moved hundreds of thousands of strangers. Karen Loewe described an “emotional baggage” activity, in which students wrote down sources of their pain that they literally left at the door in a bag. “I have never been so moved to tears as what these kids opened up about and shared with the class,” Ms. Loewe wrote.

While this story surprised and delighted the public, educators across the country already knew that such classroom practices that foster social-emotional learning (SEL) have become increasingly common in K-12 schools.

In fact, NewSchools goes so far to say, “Enthusiasm for social emotional learning has reached a fever pitch” in their 2019 report on SEL. The widespread acceptance of SEL is also indicated by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act’s (ESSA) federal funding provision for schools’ SEL programs. The RAND Corporation, one of the foremost nonprofit research organizations, even published a 2019 research brief on the state of SEL in schools.

As this new dimension of learning continues to be shaped and defined by educators and education researchers alike, one important component of SEL is too often overlooked: cognitive skills. The invisible third prong of SEL, cognitive skill development should take on a bigger role in SEL models in schools. Here is what educators should know about why and how to target cognitive skills in their SEL practices.

What is SEL, really?

If someone asked you what SEL was, you would likely describe social and emotional learning—they’re right there in the name, after all. You might give classroom examples like the emotional baggage activity from the viral Facebook post. Or you might describe schoolwide initiatives like a one-on-one mentoring program that matches teachers with students or a restorative justice practice that asks students to engage emotionally and interpersonally to resolve conflicts as an alternative to traditional disciplinary measures like suspension.

A comprehensive approach to education, SEL is the newest branch of the whole child approach. It is built on a growing body of evidence that says non-academic skills are decisive for students’ academic success.

But to be clear, non-academic is not the same thing as non-cognitive. While SEL may be non-academic, meaning it is not a mode of learning limited to academic content like math or language arts, it is a grave mistake to call SEL a set of “non-cognitive” skills, though many do.

This misnomer is harmful because cognitive skills are in fact an integral component of social-emotional learning. Although it didn’t make the cut when the SEL movement was named, cognitive skills are the third domain of SEL that is no less crucial than its social and emotional counterparts. This three-domain framework of SEL is supported by prominent experts.

The Leading SEL Framework(s)

Granted, there is no authoritative definition of SEL that everyone agrees on. One commonly used framework developed by CASEL, the leading organization that spearheads research and policy on SEL, identifies five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

While this has been a productive way of thinking about SEL, CASEL’s framework does not explicitly discuss cognitive skills (though they are implicitly embedded). To expand our understanding of SEL, a 3-part definition is emerging as the leading model. The RAND Corporation defines these 3 domains of SEL in their research brief, in which they adopt this framework from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

COGNITIVE SKILLS include such executive functions as working memory, attention control and flexibility, inhibition, and planning, as well as beliefs and attitudes that guide one’s sense of self and approaches to learning and growth.

EMOTIONAL COMPETENCIES enable one to cope with frustration, recognize and manage emotions, and understand others’ emotions and perspectives.

SOCIAL AND INTERPERSONAL SKILLS enable one to read social cues, navigate social situations, resolve interpersonal conflicts, cooperate with others and work effectively in a team, and demonstrate compassion and empathy toward others.

An iteration of this 3-domain model is also what developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones at the Harvard Graduate School of Education identifies based on a comprehensive literature review of current research.

3 Strategies for Educators to Foster Cognitive Skills in SEL Practices

What does it mean for educators that cognitive skills are a component of social-emotional learning? For a well-rounded SEL approach to teaching, here are 3 strategies for educators to foster cognitive skills in their students.

1. Explicitly teach students how the brain learns.

Just as some SEL approaches train students to be attuned to their emotional states and their behavioral reactions, teachers can raise students’ awareness about their own cognitive processes. With cognitive and emotional processing working together as students make decisions, self-monitor, and perform other executive functions, teachers need to help students build their knowledge of both their cognitive and emotional wiring.

This could mean explaining what a growth mindset is and how to develop it. This article explains this influential concept, as popularized by Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck, and offers 10 ways teachers can foster a growth mindset in students, including avoiding certain types of praise and saying “yet” more often.

It could also mean teaching your students about how their brains build neural pathways when they learn new information. This teacher explains how dendrites in the brain work to solidify knowledge and has students write summaries on new information in learning journals called dend-writes.

2. Bring canine reading buddies to the classroom.

It might sound a bit whimsical, but research shows that therapy dogs in the classroom actually improve SEL in all 3 of its domains—social, emotional, and cognitive skills. A study by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that the presence of a dog in the classroom lowers stress hormones like cortisol, having an anti-stress effect on kids, which helps them focus on learning.

Specifically regarding cognitive skills, WeAreTeachers reports that “interacting with therapy dogs improves students’ reading skills, stimulates memory and problem-solving skills, and even optimizes executive-functioning skills.” Educators might want to consider implementing this fun and learning-friendly practice at their schools.

3. Lead activities that develop executive functions.

To develop the executive function skill of working memory, have students play the card game Concentration and other memory games. Although it may be more engaging for students to play games like Concentration in groups of 4 or 5, students won’t get much memory practice if they have to wait a while for a short, single turn. A solo or one-on-one game would offer more memory training.

To develop the executive function skill of paying attention, plan timed activities—the more gamified, the better! For example, you could play “Beat the Clock,” which entails giving students a task they need to complete before a timer goes off.

Is it possible to simultaneously develop working memory, attention, processing speed, sequencing, and other cognitive skills? Such efficiency is indeed possible, but only with the help of technology.

Fast ForWord is a 2-in-1 reading and brain training program that has been proven effective by decades of evidence in developing both reading and executive function skills. Recently named a Top 10 brain fitness and executive function program by nonprofit BrainFutures in their 2019 report, Fast ForWord is the only one in the report that also ranks among the top English language and literacy interventions evaluated by What Works Clearinghouse.


Cognitive skills are an important, though often overlooked, component of SEL. Of course, social and emotional skills help children and adolescents be better learners, readers, and students, but SEL efforts should not neglect cognitive skill development. Try implementing some of the suggestions above and watch your students grow. And the next time someone asks you what SEL is, be sure to explain all three of its domains!

Looking for a reading and language program that is also designed to build social-emotional skills, including cognitive ones? Look no further than the Fast ForWord® K-12 adaptive software. Watch this introductory video to learn more.

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