PG Blog Header, Fostering Curiosity as a Component of SEL

Fostering Curiosity as a Component of Social Emotional Learning

October 4, 2022


By  Dr. Amanda Sullivan and Dr. Amanda Strawhacker


Intellectual curiosity is the desire to learn something new, figure something out, or to make a discovery. In our previous blog posts in this series, we have explored the ways that curiosity is linked with K-12 academic achievement in areas like critical thinking, media literacy, and foundational science skills. In this post, we explore the importance of fostering curiosity as part of supporting Social Emotional Learning (SEL). According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL can be defined as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.” In other words, SEL allows children (and adults) to understand and control their emotions, be empathetic to others, work collaboratively, and make good decisions. 


What the Research Says

In our guts, most educators and caregivers firmly believe that SEL is important. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified the value we place on SEL as feelings of isolation, stress, and loss among PK-12 students have grown over the past two years. Research generally supports our gut feelings that SEL is important and has demonstrated that there are many benefits to supporting SEL in students beginning at an early age. In a recent 2021 report, for example, researchers in the UK found that universal SEL interventions enhance young people’s social and emotional skills and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in the short term. A 2015 national study published in the American Journal of Public Health demonstrated that there are significant associations between SEL skills in kindergarten and key outcomes for young adults years later. Specifically, early social and emotional skills development helped to reduce societal costs required for public assistance, public housing, police involvement, and detention later in life. 


Kindergarten students raising hand in classroom libraryKindergarten students raising hand in classroom library


Research has also shown that curiosity naturally fits in with SEL learning and development. Many researchers and educators reinforce curiosity as a component of SEL learning. For example, the Colorado Skies Academy explains, “we believe kids are more empowered to learn and retain knowledge when learning means asking questions. That’s why we reinforce curiosity as a component of social-emotional learning (SEL).” Similarly, the OECD, which administers the global Program for International Student Assessment, analyzed the social-emotional development of more than 3,000 students from large cities in 11 countries. In this study, the OECD looked at curiosity as a piece of SEL, finding that curiosity and persistence were the strongest predictors of academic success in both math and reading for both children and teenagers. 


Tips to Support Curiosity as a Component of SEL 

We know that curiosity and SEL are important to the short and long term development of students. But how do we support these skills? There are many easy ways that educators and caregivers can begin to support curiosity as a component of SEL. Here are a few ways to get started: 

  • Address the emotions behind uncertainty: Part of being curious is accepting a state of uncertainty. It means not knowing the answer to a question right away and sitting with that uncomfortable feeling as you try to find new information and make discoveries. Educators can encourage students to see uncertainty as an opportunity for learning. Give students time to think, reflect, and discuss how they deal with feelings of uncertainty in order to promote SEL. 
  • Use tools like PebbleGo: Tools like PebbleGo can offer educators an effective way to support curiosity and general SEL skills. PebbleGo is a safe and easy-to-navigate curricular content hub specifically designed to foster curiosity and learning with K-2 students. It is packed with informational articles, games, video content, and more. Using PebbleGo, educators can engage K–3 students with SEL content created for their specific needs and curriculum, increase understanding of SEL concepts, regardless of reading ability, with authentic read-aloud audio, and even draw on ready-to-go SEL lesson plans and other extended learning opportunities. Learn all about how PebbleGo can be used to foster SEL here and all about how PebbleGo can foster intellectual curiosity here


PG Article screenshot, What are feelings?PG Article screenshot, What are feelings?


  • Provide opportunities to collaborate and relationship build:  Relationship skills are an important SEL competency that concerns students’ ability to make positive connections with others, take their emotions into account, and maintain healthy relationships. CASEL describes relationship skills as “the ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.” To do this, students must have opportunities to communicate, negotiate conflict, and seek help when needed. Educators can help students practice this by providing opportunities for students to work on  both small and large group projects with a variety of classmates exploring topics they are curious about.  
  • Celebrate making mistakes: Supporting intellectual curiosity often means supporting students as they make mistakes. When we are curious about something, we test our hypotheses and try to find effective solutions and answers. To truly engage in this process of satisfying our intellectual curiosity, we must inevitably deal with making mistakes or hitting roadblocks along the path to discovery. Encouraging students to persevere through this not only offers an opportunity to foster intellectual curiosity but offers a unique opportunity to process emotions around failure. Educators can support students by encouraging a growth mindset, or the belief that your intelligence, skills, and talents are all  susceptible to growth. Part of supporting a growth mindset is learning to embrace failure as an opportunity to learn something new, grow, and change.  


Kids in a classroom sitting at desks with iPadsKids in a classroom sitting at desks with iPads


  • Promote curiosity and empathy toward others: Last but certainly not least, educators can model their own curiosity as it pertains to the feelings of others in service of promoting empathy in the classroom. Dr. Steve Taylor calls empathy “one of the most important and beneficial human qualities” in an article for Psychology Today. Since curiosity is about asking questions and empathy is about asking questions about how others feel, educators can easily support both by encouraging students to ask and answer questions like, “how do you think that made them feel?” or “how do you think we could help in this situation?”. These questions can be asked about characters in books, watching a show or movie, or about people or events happening within the classroom community. Remember, in order for students to show empathy to others they first need to be in touch with their own feelings. Offer students frequent opportunities to discuss, reflect, and think about their own experiences and emotions as a regular classroom practice. For older students, you may wish to use journaling or role play to supplement these reflections.



Want to learn more about supporting curiosity through an SEL approach? Check out the following helpful resources:


Did you know this is the seventh post in a series on intellectual curiosity? If you missed one of our past blog posts check them out for more resources and tips:


Curious to learn more? Let us know what you want to see on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook using @CapstonePub and #PebbleGo and  #PGCuriosity. Be sure to tag the authors of this blog post too! 

Dr. Amanda Sullivan - Twitter @AASully, Instragram: @keikisullivan

Dr. Amanda Strawhacker - Twitter @ALStrawhacker, Instagram: @ALStrawhacker

Together: Twitter @theDrsAmanda