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Integrating Social-Emotional Learning Isn’t Easy. Here’s How It’s Done.

By Learning Is Social & Emotional Contributor — September 06, 2018 4 min read
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By David Adams

“Social-emotional learning has helped me to realize that even though bad things happen to me...to always keep my head up, make good decisions, and take charge for the things that happen in my life.”

Oscar Liz, Junior, Urban Assembly School for Collaborative Healthcare

Oscar’s thoughts represent what we want for all of our young people: the ability to solve problems, make good decisions and effectively relate to each other and the world around them. But how do we get to this place? What tools can schools use?

For the last three years, the Urban Assembly has partnered with Fordham University’s School of Social Service to work with a diverse group of schools in NYC and LA to answer exactly those questions. More specifically: What are the key activities that all schools need to consider in order to create a sustainable, integrated approach to Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) that has a measurable impact on student outcomes?

First, what do we mean by “integrating” social-emotional learning? SEL integration is achieved when students and teachers can transfer the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they’ve learned through direct instruction to practical environments such as home, community, and the workplace. The more varied the contexts in which students develop and practice their social-emotional competencies, the easier it will be for them to generalize the approaches they’ve been taught. The goal of SEL integration is to design learning environments that maximize the opportunities for students to develop and practice social-emotional skills in as many different contexts as possible.

After supporting SEL implementation in district and charter schools, small and large schools, challenging schools and high-flyers, we have codified our learning into the Urban Assembly Resilient Scholars Program (UARSP). Below is some of what we have learned so far about what central offices and school leaders can do to support high-quality SEL in their organizations.

Integration of social-emotional learning works best when central offices:

Understand what their district schools are already doing around SEL before introducing a new approach. When central offices take time to consider how new programs interact with schools’ current approaches, school leaders are better able to integrate these ideas into coherent practices.


  • You’ll know this is happening when school leaders can demonstrate:

    • How SEL skills are currently developed through existing district initiatives including instruction, behavior supports, social-emotional supports, and extracurricular activities.
    • How much time schools spend teaching social-emotional skills vs. reinforcing social-emotional competencies.


  • We see this approach:

    • At the Urban Assembly network in New York City, where UA schools complete an “SEL Scan” to analyze how their approaches to academics, leadership, and college & career readiness programming support staff and students’ social-emotional development.
    • At the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, where the central office sponsors workshops and trainings highlighting how SEL concepts weave into a pre-existing focus on restorative justice practices.

Integration of social-emotional learning works best when school leaders:

Create opportunities for teachers to receive feedback around instruction and self-development around social-emotional learning. When school leaders can articulate a vision for SEL practice, identify or create tools that allow teachers to understand how well they are doing against that standard, and provide opportunities for teachers to develop skills toward that standard, students and teachers alike will benefit.


  • You’ll know this is happening when:

    • School staff can articulate the school’s vision around social-emotional learning and name specific ways they have improved around instruction, integration, or self-development in the past three months.

  • We see this approach:

    • In New Brunswick (NJ) Public Schools, where the district sets aside a specified amount of staff PD time to support the continuous refinement and development of its approach to social-emotional learning.
    • In The Jeffrey M. Rapport School for Career Development (NYC DOE), where time is reserved during PD and grade team meetings every month to model SEL supports for teachers.
    • At the Urban Assembly School for Collaborative Healthcare in NYC, where instructional leads conduct weekly walkthroughs and report on school-wide trends to help teachers develop their SEL skills.

Social-emotional development is a key anchor of student success in school and in life. As central offices get smarter about the integration of SEL practices, they’ll better guide school leaders around implementation systems, so that leaders can support teachers in creating schools that will continue to produce students like Oscar: hard-working, resilient, and able to form positive relationships in the workplace and in the world.

David is the Director of Social-Emotional Learning at The Urban Assembly. He previously served as the Social-Emotional Learning Coordinator for District 75 where he shaped the District’s approach to social-emotional learning for students with severe cognitive and behavioral challenges.

The opinions expressed in Learning Is Social & Emotional are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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