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Social-emotional learning has become a bit trendy lately. However, it’s more than merely a trend. SEL is a critical part of student soft skill development. In my latest article, I explore the relationship between project-based learning (PBL) and social-emotional learning (SEL). It’s an idea that Matinga Ragatz and Mike Kaechele explore in their upcoming book The Pulse of PBL and their thinking on this subject has definitely shaped my thinking on this powerful overlap as well. In fact, before you dive into this piece, you might want to check out Mike Kaechele’s articles on the Marriage of SEL and PBL  as well as how to combine SEL and PBL in your classroom.

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Student Soft Skill Development

Ricardo was a shy student. By “shy,” I don’t mean he didn’t enjoy talking in front of the class or he rarely raised his hand. It was more than that. If I called on him, he would freeze up entirely. On several occasions, I would see that he had the right answer and I would even give him the heads-up that I would be calling on him. However, when I pointed to him, he would stutter and stammer or merely shrug his shoulders and say, “I don’t know.”

It was easy for me to relate to Ricardo. When I took public speaking as an elective my freshman year, I froze up entirely and had to quit ten seconds into my first speech. My teacher let me try a second time and I scripted out the entire speech. However, two sentences into it, my voice cracked and I simply couldn’t get the words out. I tried a third time. It was rocky but I managed to complete the four minute speech.

I wanted Ricardo to find his voice and build confidence. I wanted him to develop the critical skill of communication. However, it wasn’t working during direct instruction and guided practice. Instead, he had a breakthrough during an independent project. Each student completed a Geek Out Blog and Ricardo chose engineering and robotics as his topic. At the end of the project, students had to share their geeky interests with the class over the course of a week. I offered students the chance to record and edit videos instead of doing a synchronous presentation. All they would have to do would be to press “play” and let the projector do its job. This prerecorded process blended together a high-stakes element of launching to an audience with the low-stakes opportunity to make mistakes and revise their work.

Ricardo’s video was well-produced, with creativity and humor infused through the entire thing. When it was finished, I asked him if he would be willing to answer questions and he came alive during this question and answer process. This moment was a reminder for me of the valuable soft skills that students develop in project-based learning.

Project-based learning provides an authentic opportunity for students to develop critical soft skills.

The Critical Need for Soft Skills

When Google began Project Oxygen, they assumed the best predictor of employee success would be university program and grades. Instead, the top of their list was, “being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues.” In other words, the most critical factors for success involved soft skills.

Later, when they studied their teams in Project Aristotle, they found the top skills were, “equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence.” Some would call these “soft skills,” but as classroom teachers, we know that there’s nothing soft at all about these skills. If anything, these critical skills are could be called “hard skills,” because of the inherent challenge in mastering them. You can call these critical skills, timeless skills, and vital skills but they aren’t soft by any means.

Project-based learning provides an excellent context for having students develop these soft skills. I saw this with Ricardo, who emerged as a leader in small group STEAM projects. In fact, he was a STEAM punk! He was an excellent problem-solver and a great listener. He was humble and empathetic. And yet, PBL alone doesn’t guarantee soft skill development. I learned that lesson the hard way with a specific collaborative project that very same year.

Halfway through the first semester, a new student arrived. Miguel had failed out of the eighth grade once already and he had spent time at a juvenile detention center. He arrived to class with his arms crossed and rarely looked up at all. He had an expression on his face that said, “I don’t want to be here and I’m not even sure you want me to be here, either.” I remember placing him in a group with Ricardo on a highly engaging roller coaster project. However, he never engaged. Instead, he’d stare out the window or occasionally stare at his phone. This continues for days and days as the project progressed.

At one point, though, he leaned forward and said, “What if . . .”

“Go on,” Ricardo said.

“It’s nothing,” he answered.

“Just say it,” Ricardo said.

“What if we had a gap at the top of the loop?”

“The car would fly off,” another student said.

“I just thought maybe the circle force . . .”

“Centrifugal force?” Ricardo asked.

“Yeah, that. I thought it would keep the car on the track,” he answered.

“There’s not enough time to change the roller coaster,” Ricardo pointed out. Other group members agreed. That afternoon, Miguel came by to ask if he could work on the roller coaster project by himself. For the next two weeks, he came in before school and worked on his own project. The truth is, he had great ideas but his group hadn’t given him a chance. It was a reminder that PBL alone won’t lead to soft skill development. For that, we need specific strategies that develop social-emotional learning.

The Relationship Between PBL and SEL

About a year ago, my friend Mike Kaechele approached me with a book idea about the relationship between SEL and PBL. Mike is a true expert on this overlap. I’ve known Mike for years and his ideas around PBL helped me reshape my practice as a teacher who used PBL. I had the honor of observing his classroom for two years in a row and I was amazed at his focus on SEL within PBL. At the time, I didn’t know what SEL was. I preferred the term “soft skill development,” but I immediately noticed how well his students interacted with one another and how they were developing these critical soft skills through the intentional way that Mike crafted the learning experiences.

Mike eventually partnered with PBL and SEL expert Matinga Ragatz. Matinga is a renowned PBL expert who worked in so many different contexts helping teachers make PBL a reality. They built their upcoming book The Pulse of PBL on the following framework provided by CASEL. Full disclosure, I am the co-owner of Blend Education, who will be publishing their book. I am so excited about it. Look for a podcast episode and webinars on this topic in the future!

If you’re not familiar with the CASEL Framework, here’s how it works:

As a refresher of project-based learning, check out this video:

Project-based learning can help facilitate soft skill development and create the context for students to engage in social-emotional learning. At the same time, when students also engage in social-emotional learning, they develop critical soft skills that help them create better projects. This leads to a reciprocal relationship, where PBL leads to SEL and SEL improves student performance in PBL tasks.

Project-based learning provides the perfect context for students to engage in social-emotional learning and SEL provides a chance for students to learn about the key soft skills that will allow students to thrive in collaborative projects. So, I’d like to explore how PBL can work within an SEL framework. I’m borrowing from Mike’s idea of using CASEL as a framework but I’m sharing my own strategies that I developed in teaching PBL. I don’t want to give away too much of their book but Matinga and Mike have fleshed these ideas out in-depth and provided some amazing resources in The Pulse of PBL.


PBL is a great way to teach students self-awareness. It begins by empowering students with voice and choice. They might choose the topics in a Geek Out Project or Genius Hour project and in the process, they are “integrating personal and social identities.” They might tackle a particular problem that relates to their community and thus they are “identifying personal, cultural, and linguistic assets.” In design thinking projects, students can become “aware of their personal biases and prejudices” while also “linking feelings, values, and thoughts.”

Furthermore, the revision phase provides students with the opportunity to engage in self-assessment and peer assessment. Here, students find an authentic context to reflect on their learning in a way that can boost metacognition:

This revision phase allows students to rehearse and revise in a low-stakes environment before ultimately launching it later. This iterative process helps students internalize the notion that mistakes are a part of the process. They learn how to “fail forward.” Students should feel the permission to make mistakes. It’s the notion that you can’t have grit unless you have slack. But as they move through this iterative process, students begin to develop a growth mindset and experience a boost in self-efficacy (two components of the CASEL framework).

When students finish various projects, they can reflect on their work with a portfolio project. When portfolios are an everyday part of the learning process, students can showcase their best work, reflect on their growth, and set new goals for learning targets. Here, students improve their metacognition as they determine where they are in their mastery and what steps they need to take in the future. Ultimately, this leads to deeper thinking and better learning and, yes, more self-awareness.

Notice that students grow self-aware as they create their portfolios. However, SEL mini-lessons about self-awareness can help improve student reflections as tey work on these projects. As a teacher, you might do a short 10-15 minute lesson about self-awareness and self-reflection before students write their reflections on their work and on their learning. So, again, there is this reciprocal relationship between SEL and PBL.


I recently wrote about how to design collaborative projects that build student self-direction. Self-directed learning involves being a self-starter and a self-manager.

In the CASEL framework, this includes, “exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation” and “demonstrating personal and collective agency.” I created the following continuum for student agency, with empowerment as the most student-centered.

Here, they own every part of the process. In project-based learning, student ownership includes every phase of the project:

  • Students ask their own questions
  • Students pursue their own sources and engage in authentic research
  • Students analyze data and come to their own conclusions
  • Students generate their own ideas as they engage in brainstorming and ideation
  • Students revise their work
  • Students clarify their audience and find ways to launch their work to an authentic audience

Self-management also includes project management. Project management begins with goal-setting based on the big picture idea of what you want to accomplish. Here, you need to have a clear sense of where you are going and what it will look like when you are finished. It also involves breaking the project down into tasks and subtasks with clear setting deadlines. Here, you often visualize each part of a task, creating a bridge between the abstract ideas with the concrete actions. In this phase, you also develop a plan of action and select your tools and materials. If you’re working collaboratively, you often divide up roles and responsibilities. Next, you choose and implement specific strategies. As this occurs, you will begin to monitor your progress. You’ll likely run into barriers, which will force you to problem-solve, experiment. You might even need to pivot and re-examine your original goals. When students learn the project management process, they grow into self-directed learners, capable of being self-starters and self-managers.

Early on in the PBL journey, I managed every group project. I quickly found myself acting as the project manager for 30 different projects. Eventually, I taught students how to own the process. Students divided up roles, tasks, and deadlines. Some groups used a single spreadsheet to manage project progress while others used an app such as Trello. Notice, again, how the project management process provides a context for students to practice self-management. This aligns with the CASEL goals of “setting personal and collective goals” and “using planning and organizational skills.” As a teacher, you might create SEL mini-lessons on self-management that help students learn key skills they will practice as they engage in project management.

If you’d like to check out the project management process for students, please fill out the form below and I’ll email it to you

Responsible Decision-Making

Projects provide an excellent context for responsible decision-making. For example, consider the CASEL goals of “demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness” and “learning how to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, and facts.” These align perfectly with an inquiry-based learning project.

You might integrate these SEL skills into the Wonder Day or Wonder Week projects:

In the case of a service learning project or a design thinking project, students might engage in a project centered around community issues. For years, my students did a project called Project Social Voice, where they researched an issue (including doing needs assessments), engaged in community service, and presented a solution to that particular issue. This aligned with the CASEL goals of “identifying solutions for personal and social problems” as well as “anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions.” They also engaged in deeper systems thinking at the personal and community levels.

Regardless of the project, students will likely engage in critical thinking and data analysis in the research phase of a project. Here’s an example of the 5 C’s of Critical Consuming that I’ve used with students:

As they engage in this research, students are “recognizing how critical thinking skills are useful both inside and outside of school.” There is a natural overlap here between the critical thinking in a project and the type of critical thinking students develop through SEL. But as they work collaboratively, they also learn key relationship skills.

Relationship Skills

Collaborative projects provide the ideal context for students to develop relationship skills. However, this requires intentionality in the design of our projects. The mistake I made with Miguel was that his group didn’t work interdependently.

Interdependence is the overlap between autonomy and group cohesion. It’s what happens when each student has voice, choice, and personal accountability while also depending on one another to accomplish their tasks. In these moments, they create something better together than what they would have created on their own.

In SEL, this involves, “practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving” and “seeking or offering support and help when needed.”

Take, for example, this brainstorming strategy. Students actually benefit from listening to one another depending on each other for new ideas. Even the “low” student has something valuable to add to the group.

Another key aspect is trust. As teachers, we can create structures and protocols that will help students develop trust and group cohesion. This fits within the idea of “developing positive relationships.” You might build trust through doing group trust building activities (like mini maker projects, divergent thinking challenges, and get-to-know-you activities) but you might also take it to the next level by having students develop their own team norms or group commitments. Here, they can clarify what it will look like to build on student trust. Even so, there will be moments of conflict. This is why it helps to teach specific SEL lessons on conflict resolution and to use conflict resolution protocols within group projects. CASEL uses the phrase, “resolving conflicts constructively,” which can work well in the context of PBL; where groups inevitably must navigate conflict.

Social Awareness

Students can develop social awareness in every phase of a project. As they work collaboratively, they will need to learn how to value their group members’ perspectives and recognize the strengths in others. However, design thinking projects provide a great opportunity to become more socially aware at a larger level. This fits within the SEL goal of “demonstrating empathy and compassion.” As teachers, we can create structures that help facilitate empathy. It might involve community interviews, observations, doing a Day in the Life activity, or taking a more quantitative approach with a community needs assessment.

Empathy and social awareness also include the need to identify your own biases. For example, students might do this design sprint:

Afterward, they can debrief with questions like, “who can play this game?” and “who might not have access to this game?” That becomes an entry point for thinking about empathy in design and questioning what ableist assumptions students might have. Next, they might talk to someone with limited mobility and hear about how to make games more universally accessible.

Making It Happen

Note that PBL and SEL are not new things that you need to add to an already crowded plate. Instead, it’s about re-arranging your plate in a way that allow sstudents to engage in meaningful projects while they develop vital soft skills. Ultimately, PBL provides a great context for students to learn and practice critical SEL skills. There’s a natural overlap between the two:

We can integrate social-emotional learning lessons into our PBL units in a way that helps facilitate metacogntion. Meanwhile, they can practice these SEL skills as they engage in project-based learning. Ultimately, when both PBL and SEL work together in tandem, students develop critical soft skills and grow into the critical thinking, life-long learners we know they can be.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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