Social Emotional Learning (SEL) emerged as a distinct field some 25 years ago, but in recent years it has seen a resurgence as more and more research has come out that emphasizes its value. A comprehensive review of hundreds of studies confirmed that SEL raises academic performance, improves classroom behavior, and bolsters the ability of students to resist stress, depression, and other emotional challenges that, due in part to the ongoing pandemic, continue to persist at high levels.   

All teachers, but PBL practitioners in particular, should take notice of one recently-published paper by Lucas Educational Research. This white paper affirms that SEL is essential to success not just in school, but in PBL specifically for a number of reasons.

SEL competencies such as forming positive relationships, empathizing with others, and regulating emotions all align to reinforce and support what goes on in a project-based classroom. The collaborative aspects of PBL, like self-management, conflict resolution, shared decision-making, and many other attributes are also addressed through SEL.     

The bottom line is this—if we want projects that build skills such as communication, conflict resolution, and critical thinking for all of our students, embracing SEL may be essential. 

The first and most widely known SEL frameworks was developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. Known as the CASEL 5, this model focuses on five elements that, when integrated into academic experiences, help support collaborative work. But CASEL hasn’t been idle since they first introduced their model in the late 90’s, offering some timely revisions and updates that connect to the growing conversation around educational equity.   

Transformative SEL in Action  

In order to ensure that their SEL model is meaningful to all students and in all communities, CASEL has recently led the development of a refined framework with elements and strategies geared towards building more equitable learning experiences. Known as Transformative SEL, this approach utilizes the CASEL 5 model, but additionally focuses on developing skills and attitudes such as curiosity, agency, problem solving, and a sense of belonging. The result is a six-part framework that integrates fluidly into most Gold Standard projects, making it possible to create comprehensive, whole child learning experiences.  

How can teachers best incorporate Transformative SEL into the context of their next high-quality PBL experience? 

Element of Transformative SEL

What Is It? 

What Could It Look Like In A PBL Classroom?

Authentic Partnering

Students and adults work together in processes that place shared power and decision making at the center.

The knowledge and feedback of outside experts is used to inform student work. Learning strategies such as peer teaching are utilized.

Academic Content

Students discuss and explore sources of knowledge that integrate issues of race, class, and culture.

Resources gathered during student-led inquiry are analyzed not just for content, but for the perspective they share as well. 


Students influence the course and content of their learning rather than just taking in what teachers deliver. Teachers provide intentional opportunities for student voice and choice.

While some parts of a project may be proscriptive, teachers co-create important aspects of a project with their students. This can include co-creating the driving question  or co-creating the norms that will guide the project work before it begins.


Instruction recognizes the individuality of students through incorporating their lived experiences and scaffolding learning to build understanding of the experiences of others. 

Allow students to connect their experiences to the subject being discussed through provocative, open-ended questions. These questions could be incorporated into reflective journaling or discussions that provide structures for students to share and learn from each other. 


Students are all equally engaged. Students feel like their diverse ideas, cultures, and voices are honored and are assets to the classroom and collaboration. 

Student teams may construct collaboration agreements that encourage participation and anticipate solutions before problems arise similar to this one. Teamwork trackers and periodic reflections about the quality of collaboration by project groups also help to keep work on track. 

Disrupting Inequities

Students regularly reflect on what they are doing and how their actions or the materials and sources they use reinforce or bring attention to inequity. 

Teachers may lead lessons that help students to become more critical thinkers and more adept at how bias can be identified in the media or other sources of information. Teachers can help students understand how inequities translate to the real world through projects that focus on related topics or tools such as the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project. 

*The above table was adapted from the PBLWorks Social Emotional Learning in PBL workshop. Please visit this webpage for more information about this service. 

James Fester, Lead National Faculty - North
James is Lead National Faculty at PBLWorks. He delivers professional development services to teachers and leaders across the country.