The Value of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at Camp and Beyond

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) skills are paramount to the success of students and adults in today’s society. LAJF and CRS understand the importance of SEL in the development of successful leadership skills, which is why SEL is a core element of the Camp Rising Sun curriculum. Camp Rising Sun has for decades promoted this type of learning even before it was en vogue in the educational community. School Psychologist Intern, Ruby Lainez (‘10, ‘11) explains the importance of SEL in adolescent development and explores how SEL is found in the Rising Sun leadership program.

What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” SEL skills develop throughout our lifetime and are essential for children, teens and adults to become successful participants in today’s society. CASEL highlights five key components of SEL:

  1. Self-Awareness: ability to identify one’s strengths and weaknesses

  2. Self-Management: self-control, stress management, and ability to motivate the self to achieve personal goals

  3. Social Awareness: ability to understand that others come from diverse backgrounds and may hold different perspectives from our own

  4. Relationship Skills: ability to effectively community and listen to others

  5. Responsible Decision-Making: ability to make decisions that are based on ethical standards, safety, and social norms

SEL skills are pivotal to students’ abilities to empathize with others and communicate effectively to solve conflicts and disagreements. Students also develop skills necessary to resist social pressure and work effectively in teams of diverse individuals. SEL is currently used in many educational settings to help students grow not only academically, but mentally as well.

Decades of research affirm the significant positive impact of SEL programs. A meta-analysis of 213 studies found that SEL benefits all children, of all backgrounds, especially in the areas of  social and emotional skills, attitudes toward self and others, positive social behaviors, conduct problems, emotional distress, and academic performance (Drulak et. al., 2011). Students who participated in SEL programs also displayed an increase in their academic achievements and  executive cognitive functioning. These skills are required when it comes to planning, organizing and having inhibitory control. The National Commision of Social, Emotional and Academic Development also indicates that although SEL has a benefit for all individuals, they also found that there is a disproportionate benefit to those who come from low socio-economic classes. When students are surrounded by caring adults, that is when they can thrive.

SEL in Public Schools

In schools, SEL skills are taught differently depending on the district/area, and the needs and developmental levels of the students. Many schools now incorporate SEL directly into their classroom curricula. Over the past 30 years, CRS alumnus (‘79, ‘80, ‘87) and LAJF Program Committee member, Dr. Gus Haracopos, has worked with students ages 4-18 years old in a variety of residential, therapeutic, and mainstream school settings where SEL is utilized. The implementation of SEL has shifted throughout the years, and Gus has observed that the most effective programs are always carefully created for each group of students’ specific needs and developmental levels.  

SEL is crucial in the age of adolescence. Adolescents are facing many changes in their bodies, including hormonal imbalances that impact their social and emotional skills. Through SEL, students in their adolescent years are expected to understand their emotions and have the skills available to communicate and socialize effectively with others. Students are also expected to work effectively in groups and understand how their decisions may impact themselves and others around them. Gus commented on the importance of SEL for adolescents.

Social-emotional understanding, skills, and engagement are important for all of us, at any age. If you consider the people you look up to and admire, chances are it’s for more than their external status or wealth or concrete accomplishments, and chances are it’s not because of their SAT scores or the prestige of their college. Most likely, you admire people who are self-aware and aware of the people around them; who manage their own emotions and impulses even during trying times; who know how to engage with and relate to people; and who make responsible decisions that take others into account. These social-emotional skills are learned throughout life, with the teenage years being prime time — teenagers are super-motivated to reflect inwardly and to communicate out to the world, and they can learn so much as they follow this motivation. Guidance from adults whom they trust, and who respect their many strengths, can be invaluable as they shape the skills they’ll use in relationships of all kinds.
— According to Gus
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SEL at Camp Rising Sun

LAJF and CRS understand the importance of SEL, especially in the adolescent years, which is why SEL is a core element of the Camp Rising Sun curriculum. Through our programming, campers are put in many situations where they must make their own decisions, some of which may impact the Camp community as a whole. Students are challenged to think through the consequences of their actions, particularly of how their decisions will impact others. Additionally, campers are frequently placed in situations that require complex conversation and dialogue among diverse multinational and multicultural groups of peers. Many times, campers disagree on ideas and beliefs, and they must learn to effectively communicate and express their ideas while simultaneously understanding those of others.

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Throughout the Rising Sun program, campers are provided with direct guidance from highly-qualified staff. Our diverse team of counselors model positive behavior and mentor camper by providing feedback for growth after each new experience. Counselors guide the campers through thoughtful questioning in order to push the campers to their best thinking and decision making as they take on new leadership responsibilities that will affect themselves and their community.

There are many activities throughout the program that target each of the five components of SEL. One example of such activity is an overnight reflective exercise, referred to as “Vigils.” Under the supervision of counselors, campers are given an opportunity to tend to a personal campfire and write a reflective letter to oneself, which they will receive by mail on their twenty-first birthday. This activity helps campers reflect back on their experiences at Camp Rising Sun and reflect on the lessons they wish to take with them into the future. Vigils help target self-awareness in a way that is unique to each camper.

Another activity that stimulates SEL is projects time. Through daily project time, campers are given the opportunity to self-manage a group of peers through a collaborative group project from start to finish. Projects are designed to encourage campers to give back to their micro community through a project that betters the campsite. In some ways, projects are a microcosm of the ways campers may become servant leaders in their communities back home. Through projects, campers must plan and execute a project, typically some sort of construction or beautification project around the campus. In previous years, campers have built lean-tos, bridges, and saunas. Projects target the area of Self-Management through learning how to manage stress and complete projects on a tight timeline as well as motivating a team to complete the goals they have set.

Daily evening programs, which are designed to develop mutual understanding as well as intellectual and artistic growth, also offer multiple opportunities for SEL. Evening programs may be planned by campers or counselors, and often inspire in depth discussions about topics such as diversity, politics, or identity. Many campers share their experiences in a supportive environment, and as a result, campers learn that not everyone shares the same opinions. Evening programs focus heavily on Social Awareness and Relationship Skills while promoting Responsible Decision Making among future world leaders.

Gus has been to Camp as part of the Visit Team since 2005. We asked him how he has seen SEL implemented at camp. Gus’ response is as follows, “The way leadership is understood and taught at Camp fits so well with the whole SEL movement. At Camp leadership is about individual qualities like vision and drive, but also about social abilities —like communicating one’s vision to others; listening to and integrating the ideas of everyone on the team; understanding where other people are at and providing what they need to be engaged or stay motivated throughout a long project; and reflecting on the way one’s decisions, style, tone, etc.. impact the whole community. For teenagers especially, reflection is a powerful tool, and I see this as a central focus for Camp. Staff model asking reflective questions instead of giving answers, and they encourage campers to think deeply and honestly about strengths and about areas for growth, without imposing adult judgments. This creates a perfect space for a teenager to look inside and to build his or her own understanding of how to be his or her best self both as an individual and as a member of a community."

Throughout the Rising Sun program, campers are put in hands-on situations where they must lead their peers. This might include leading a day at Camp, leading an off-site wilderness trip, or leading a workshop or evening program discussion. Taking on a leadership position at Camp places campers in experiential learning situations that strengthen the SEL components of Responsible Decision Making and Relationship Skills, among others. Each leader must be aware that every decision they make will impact the whole Camp Rising Sun community, and therefore, they are prompted to think about the best decision for all individuals. They also learn how to problem solve collaboratively and effectively communicate with others. Although specific Camp activities may highlight certain aspects of SEL more directly, it is important to understand that all five components are used in all activities throughout the day.

For more information about the Camp Rising Sun curriculum, please email us at If you are interested in planning a custom SEL experience for your school or student group during the academic year, please read about our Programs for Schools and Student Groups or email

Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The Impact of Enhancing Students’ Social and Emotional Learning: A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Universal Interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.